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date: 21 October 2017

Summary and Keywords

The concept of role contestation has emerged within the recent renaissance of role theory in foreign policy analysis, which has taken hold among international relations scholars on both sides of the Atlantic. Role contestation is a novel theoretical perspective on the process of role location that complements the more established concepts of role strain, role competition, and role conflict identified earlier by the role theory literature in the subfield of Foreign Policy Analysis. It refers to the process that occurs within states as their decision units debate and decide what role to select in relations with another state in the regional or global international system. The process of horizontal role contestation occurs among elites inside the government while the process of vertical role contestation occurs between elites and interest groups outside the government. These role contestation processes can also extend to interactions before and after a foreign policy decision.

Role contestation processes are part of a larger process of role location that refers to various stages of evolution and transition in the enactment of role and counter-role between Ego and Alter as states construct role conceptions, exchange cues, and adapt to structural role demands in their respective decision making environments. The focus will be limited to the analysis of horizontal role contestation as a causal mechanism that describes and explains how the foreign policy decision making process among elites leads to foreign policy decisions. Digraph models represent the process of debate among elites as they deliberate over the selection of ends and means prior to making a foreign policy decision. Game theory models represent how the decision is likely to be carried out as a strategy of role enactment.

Illustrative applications of this two-stage modeling strategy from recent research into Britain’s appeasement decisions in the late 1930s reveal two patterns: bilateral role contestation between Prime Minister Chamberlain and Foreign Secretary Eden in March 1938 over the appropriate enactment of a Partner role toward Italy and multilateral role contestation among members of the British Cabinet over the enactment of a Partner vs. Rival role toward Germany during the Sudeten crisis in September 1938. The outcome in the first case was a victory for Chamberlain in the wake of Eden’s resignation; however, in the second case the Cabinet majority altered the prime minister’s initial appeasement tactics in favor of deterrence tactics later in the crisis. This shift foreshadowed a subsequent British role reversal from Partner to Rival toward Germany in 1939.

Keywords: role theory, role contestation, game theory, digraph models, British appeasement

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