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date: 25 May 2017

Advocacy Coalitions in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

The advocacy coalition framework (ACF) was developed to explain policy processes where contentious coalitions of actors seek to translate competing belief systems into public policy. Advocacy coalitions may include interest groups, members of the media, scientists and academics, and government officials that share beliefs about a public issue and coordinate their behavior. These advocacy coalitions engage in various strategies using resources to influence policy change or stasis. As part of this process, advocacy coalition members may learn within and/or across coalitions.

This framework is one of the most prominent and widely applied approaches to explain public policy. While it has been applied hundreds of times, in over 50 different countries, the vast majority of ACF applications have sought to explain domestic policy processes. A reason for the paucity of applications to foreign policy is that some ACF assumptions may not seem congruent to foreign policy issues. For example, the ACF uses a policy subsystem as the unit of analysis that may include a territorial dimension. Yet, the purpose of the territorial dimension is to limit the scope of the study. Therefore, this dimension can be substituted for a government body that has the authority or potential authority to make and implement foreign policy. In addition, the ACF assumes a central role for technical and scientific information in the policy process. Such information makes learning across coalitions more conducive, but the ACF can and should also be applied to normative issues, such as those more common among foreign policy research.

This article introduces the ACF; provides an overview of the framework, including assumptions, key concepts and theories, and transferability of the ACF to foreign policy analysis; and discusses four exemplary applications. In addition, it proposes future research that scholars should explore as part of the nexus of the ACF and foreign policy analysis. In the final analysis, the authors suggest the ACF can and should be applied to foreign policy analysis to better understand the development of advocacy coalitions and how they influence changes and stasis in foreign policy.

Keywords: policy process, subsystem, coalition, policy change, learning, belief system


Since its inception in the 1980s, the advocacy coalition framework (ACF) has established itself as one of the leading frameworks of the policy process in terms of total applications (Weible, Sabatier, & McQueen, 2009; Pierce, Peterson, Jones, Garrard, & Vu, 2017) and development (Schlager, 2007; Cairney & Heikkila, 2014). Since its creation (Sabatier, 1988; Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1993), the ACF has also undergone revisions based on insights from past applications and criticisms. These include revisions for European applications (Sabatier, 1998), including adding the degree of consensus necessary for policy change that was further developed by Sabatier and Weible (2007). In response to criticisms by Schlager (1995), Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith (1999) addressed the rationale for coordination to mitigate collective action problems among policy actors in an advocacy coalition. In response to criticisms by Mintrom and Vergari (1996), Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith (1999) also revised the hypothesis about events external to a policy subsystem as necessary but insufficient for policy change. Sabatier and Weible (2007) explicitly identified events internal to a subsystem and negotiation as two pathways to policy change, identified various resources of advocacy coalitions, and elaborated on policy brokers and coalition opportunity structures. Jenkins-Smith, Nohrstedt, Weible, and Sabatier (2014) further developed the assumptions, including their rationale, as well as revising the hypotheses.1 Overall, the ACF has a vibrant research agenda and community, such that new empirical findings and questions lead to revisions of the framework. This article discusses a new challenge for the ACF to address—foreign policy.

While the ACF continues to evolve in response to new challenges and empirical findings, at its heart it seeks to understand the policy process. In the genesis of the framework in 1988, Paul Sabatier established the research questions that drive the ACF, asking, “How is one to understand the incredibly complex process of policy change over periods of one or several decades? What are the principal causal factors?” (Sabatier, 1988, p. 130). These questions about the mechanisms for and causes of policy change over time are the paramount focus of ACF research, and it also can be used to understand foreign policy analysis.

ACF Overview

The ACF was developed in part as a response to perceived weaknesses in extant policy process frameworks, particularly the policy sciences or stages heuristic (Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1999). The ACF was a departure from traditional political science theories addressing the policy process because it integrated bottom-up and top-down explanations of policy change; encouraged a long-term perspective of a decade or more to analyze policy processes; expanded the definition of policy actors to include researchers, scientists, and media, among others; and adopted a model of the individual that was boundedly and instrumentally rational (Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1999). As a framework, the ACF identifies multiple assumptions, concepts, and theories that have testable hypotheses (Jenkins-Smith, Hank, Nohrstedt, Weible, & Sabatier, 2014).


  1. 1. The primary unit of analysis is the policy subsystem, delineated by a policy issue, the actors attempting to influence an issue (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014), and a territorial scope and/or authority or potential authority to make public policy.

  2. 2. Any person consistently attempting to influence the subsystem is considered a relevant policy actor. This includes legislators, government agencies, and interest groups, as well as business or nonprofit actors, journalists, academics, and members of the judiciary, among others (Heclo, 1978).

  3. 3. Actors within a subsystem are grouped into advocacy coalitions united by shared beliefs about the problem and proposed solution. The logic in grouping by belief rather than alternative member attributes, such as organizational affiliation, is that it simplifies membership orientation and allows stability over a decade or more (Sabatier & Brasher, 1993).

  4. 4. The ACF predicts that humans behave in accordance with certain psychological patterns, positing that individuals are boundedly rational or limited in their capability to process cognitive stimuli (Simon, 1957). They therefore employ a hierarchical belief system to simplify, sort, and use the unremitting stream of information that is daily life (Converse, 1964). The ACF suggests a three-tiered belief system with broader beliefs constraining more specific beliefs (Peffley & Hurwitz, 1985). These broader, or deep core beliefs, are the normative, axiomatic values resistant to change. Because they are not issue-specific, deep core beliefs can be observed and applied across multiple subsystems. At the middle level, policy core beliefs shape one’s understanding of the problem and policy solutions. Policy core beliefs deal with views of a policy problem and solutions including normative positions and empirical assessments. Such beliefs are specific to the subsystem, may have topical and territorial dimensions, and represent the glue that binds the advocacy coalition. Individuals develop these beliefs as a result of socialization, making them relatively stable over time (Festinger, 1957). At the most superficial level, secondary beliefs are the instrumental means of achieving a desired policy outcome. They may be specific to a particular coalition or subset of actors within a coalition, or may be shared across coalitions (Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1999). In addition, based on prospect theory, the ACF assumes that people remember losses more than gains (Quattrone & Tversky, 1988). This negative bias makes individuals susceptible to a “devil shift” (Sabatier, Hunter, & McLaughlin, 1987, p. 450.) whereby they overestimate both the power and the malice of opponents. This may lead to demonization of opponents and prolonged conflict between coalitions.

  5. 5. Policies are projections of the goals, values, and practices of coalitions and their members (Lasswell & Kaplan, 1950). Public policies, therefore, contain both cause and effect in their design. This may help to explain polarization and determination between coalitions with competing belief systems.

  6. 6. Belief systems of policy actors are heuristics that act to filter scientific and technical information influencing perceptions about the causes, magnitude, facets, and probable impacts of various problems and solutions (Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1999). Empirical information plays an important role in analyzing policy alternatives, such as cost-benefit analysis.

  7. 7. Finally, because the policy process is in a constant state of movement (Lindblom, 1968), researchers should adopt a long-term perspective. A period of a decade or more may be necessary to capture whether a policy was a success or a failure and to appreciate the various strategies that actors engage in through the lengthy policy process (Mazmanian & Sabatier, 1980). This perspective will give the most robust insight into the entire policy process, from inception to evaluation.

Key Concepts

In addition to the assumptions, almost all ACF studies share two concepts: the policy subsystem and advocacy coalitions. Advocacy coalitions are both a key concept and a theory of the ACF, as they are a necessary concept in almost all ACF studies, and there are testable hypotheses about them.

Policy Subsystem. The unit of analysis in the ACF is the policy subsystem, defined by Sabatier and Jenkins-Smith (1999, p. 119) as

those actors from a variety of public and private organizations who are actively concerned with a policy problem or issue, such as air pollution control, and who regularly seek to influence public policy in that domain.

Supplementing this definition, Sabatier and Weible (2007, p. 192) argue that a subsystem is characterized by the scope of a functional/substantive domain and a territorial domain (Zafonte & Sabatier, 1998). Therefore, identifying a subsystem will depend upon identifying the following elements: (a) the policy problem or issue, (b) the scope of actors seeking to influence a functional or substantive domain, and (c) a territorial domain or some authority or potential authority for policymaking (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014).

Advocacy Coalitions. The ACF aggregates multiple actors in a policy subsystem into advocacy coalitions (Sabatier & Weible 2007). Sabatier (1993, p. 25) stated that an advocacy coalition includes

people from a variety of positions (elected and agency officials, interest group leaders, researchers, etc.) who share a particular belief system—that is, a set of basic values, causal assumptions, and problem perceptions—and who show a nontrivial degree of coordinated activity over time.

An advocacy coalition can be identified based on the policy core beliefs of its members. Sabatier (1993) argues that policy actors possess a three-tiered, hierarchical model of beliefs and are motivated to translate these beliefs into policy. These belief systems form a key assumption of the ACF (namely, ACF assumption 4) and are characterized by varying levels of abstractness. The most abstract and least transformative beliefs are deep core beliefs, which span multiple subsystems. In comparison, policy core beliefs are relatively more transformative; they are applied directly to the policy issue and span the subsystem. These beliefs are resistant to change and act as the glue of advocacy coalitions (Sabatier, 1998). Individuals are motivated to convert both deep and policy core beliefs into policies (Sabatier, 1993). Finally, secondary beliefs are the most tangible and transformative beliefs; they apply to subcomponents of the subsystem and tend to be instrumental in nature (Sabatier, 1993).

Coordination and policy core beliefs are the two constructs of an advocacy coalition (Sabatier, 1993). Schlager (1995) argued that most ACF research assumes that finding policy participants with similar policy core beliefs automatically leads to coordination, thus ignoring threats to collective action. Jenkins-Smith et al. (2014) identified three rationales for how policy actors can overcome threats to collective action, based on Zafonte and Sabatier (1998) and Sabatier and Weible (2007). These rationales are

  1. 1. Shared beliefs among allies reduce transaction costs for coordination.

  2. 2. Policy actors within a coalition will vary in their behavior from weaker coordination (sharing information) to stronger forms of coordination (developing and implementing strategies).

  3. 3. Policy actors who share beliefs often experience a devil shift that leads them to exaggerate the costs of inaction and the need to respond.

While coordination should be included in the data gathering and analysis about advocacy coalitions, at a minimum, these rationales for overcoming threats to collective action should be identified by applications.

In addition to beliefs, a coalition can be distinguished by its resources. A coalition’s resource base moderates its influence on the policy subsystem and may include formal legal authority, public opinion, information, mobilizable troops, financial resources, and leadership (Sabatier & Weible, 2007). Nohrstedt (2011) found that formal legal authority may be the most important resource to influence the policy process.

Within a coalition, actors may be either principal or auxiliary (Sabatier & Weible, 2007) and vary in their level of coordination and activity. The level of coordination and cohesion within an advocacy coalition may differ depending on whether and to what extent members collaborate in pursuit of economic interests or ideological beliefs. Jenkins-Smith and St. Clair (1993) found that self-interest is more important for coordination among material groups compared to purposive coalitions. Nohrstedt (2005) found that policy actors may behave strategically to maximize interests (particularly votes) and sacrifice political beliefs. Leach and Sabatier (2005) and Weible (2005) also analyzed this issue of interests and beliefs, stating that beliefs are a better predictor for coordination among actors in an advocacy coalition than economic interests. Weible, Heikkila, and Pierce (2017) found that among policy actors, shared position was regarded as more important than resources for collaboration in high-intensity conflicts, but Calanni, Siddiki, Weible, and Leach (2015) found that resources were more important than shared position for collaboration among policy actors in low-intensity conflicts. Therefore, both resources and beliefs play an important role in the level of coordination and cohesion among policy actors within advocacy coalitions.

Theory of Advocacy Coalitions

There are three theories within the ACF (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014). They concern advocacy coalitions, policy-oriented learning, and policy change. Advocacy coalitions are made up of actors who are united by policy core beliefs and seek to translate those beliefs into policy. These actors strategically coordinate their actions to influence the policy process. In forming belief-based alliances, actors and coalitions may become combative (Pierce & Weible, 2016).

There are several hypotheses about advocacy coalitions (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014):

  1. 1. With major controversies within a policy subsystem when policy core beliefs are in dispute, the lineup of allies and opponents tends to be rather stable over a decade or so.

  2. 2. Actors within an advocacy coalition will show substantial consensus on issues pertaining to the policy core, although less so on secondary aspects.

  3. 3. An actor (or coalition) will give up secondary aspects of his/her (its) belief system before acknowledging weaknesses in the policy core.

  4. 4. Within a coalition, administrative agencies will usually advocate more moderate positions than their interest group allies.

  5. 5. Actors within purposive groups are more constrained in their expression of beliefs and policy positions than are actors from material groups.

An additional hypothesis that is often tested by ACF scholars is the belief homophily hypothesis, which posits that coalitions form based on common policy core beliefs. Multiple studies of the ACF have confirmed this hypothesis (Weible, 2005; Matti & Sandstrom, 2011; Ingold, 2011; Henry, 2011), and some studies have found additional factors, such as resources (Weible, 2005; Matti & Sandstrom, 2011), interests (Nohrstedt, 2011), and trust (Henry, Lubell, & McCoy, 2011). In addition, Henry, Lubell, and McCoy (2011) found that perceiving a common opponent may be a greater factor influencing coalition formation than shared beliefs about a policy solution.

Theory of Policy-Oriented Learning

Policy-oriented learning is defined as “enduring alternations of thought or behavioral intentions that result from experience and which are concerned with the attainment or revision of the precepts of the belief system of individuals or collectives” (Jenkins-Smith & Sabatier, 1993, p. 42). In other words, learning reflects lasting changes in beliefs as a result of experienced stimuli. Actors and coalitions alter their beliefs through learning. These altered beliefs may concern problem perception and causality, viable alternatives, or strategies for influence (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014). In studies of policy-oriented learning, researchers are particularly concerned with how and to what extent the makeup of belief systems changes among individuals and coalitions (i.e., secondary, policy core, or deep core beliefs); the spread of learning across competing coalitions; and the role of policy brokers and professional forums in facilitating learning among coalition opponents (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014).

The ACF outlines five hypotheses about the conditions that facilitate policy-oriented learning between coalitions. These hypotheses are based on the assumption that coalitions will tend not to change their policy core beliefs, and therefore only empirical evidence is likely to lead to such changes (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014):

  1. 1. Policy-oriented learning across belief systems is most likely when there is an intermediate level of informed conflict between the two coalitions. This requires that (a) each has the technical resources to engage in debate, and (b) the conflict is between secondary aspects of one belief system and core elements of the other or, alternatively, between important secondary aspects of the two belief systems.

  2. 2. Policy-oriented learning across belief systems is most likely when a forum exists that is (a) prestigious enough to force professionals from different coalitions to participate, and (b) dominated by professional norms.

  3. 3. Problems for which accepted quantitative data and theory exist are more conducive to policy-oriented learning across belief systems than those in which data and theory are generally qualitative, quite subjective, or altogether lacking.

  4. 4. Problems involving natural systems are more conducive to policy-oriented learning across belief systems than those involving purely social or political systems because in the former, many of the critical variables are not themselves active strategists, and because controlled experimentation is more feasible.

  5. 5. Even when the accumulation of technical information does not change the views of the opposing coalition, it can have important impacts on policy—at least in the short run—by altering the views of policy brokers.

Theory of Policy Change

A key goal of the ACF is identifying the causes and nature of policy change. Depending on the level of belief in question (i.e., deep core, policy core, or secondary), policy change can range in scale from minor to major. Within the ACF, policies are reflections of their underlying hierarchical beliefs (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014). Thus, major policy changes are the result of an alteration in policy core beliefs (a change in the normative or empirical components of the policy), while minor policy changes reflect an alteration in secondary beliefs (a change in the instrumental decisions or informational processes).

There are five pathways to policy change, which may or may not interact with each other during the policy process. Policy change may occur as a result of (a) a superior jurisdiction’s decision to change policy, (b) events that are either external or internal (c) to the policy subsystem, (d) coalition negotiations, or (e) policy-oriented learning between and among coalitions (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014).

In the ACF, policy change may involve a top-down or bottom-up process or show components of both. The superior jurisdiction pathway acknowledges both the vertical and horizontal orientation of subsystems relative to each other. Within federal governments, subsystems that do not operate at the national level may experience policy change through either vertical or horizontal implementation of superior jurisdiction. Also, the actions of horizontal subsystems, such as the judiciary, may cause policy change within other subsystems. Furthermore, the actual implementation of policy depends on the authority and legitimacy of the enacting agencies. Therefore, the policy core attributes of a government program in a specific jurisdiction will not be revised significantly, so long as the subsystem advocacy coalition that instated the program remains in power within the jurisdiction—except when the change is imposed by a hierarchically superior jurisdiction (Sabatier, 1993).

After superior jurisdiction, the other four pathways to policy change are bottom-up. However, the external event pathway, like superior jurisdiction, works outside the parameters of the policy subsystem. External events may include an economic crisis, a natural disaster, regime change, or a policy change from another subsystem. However, it must be noted that such external events do not directly cause policy change, but they may provide an opportunity for a coalition to strategically and opportunistically act to influence the policy process. Intervening factors, such as a change in the distribution of coalition resources, the appearance or disappearance of a policy venue, or a change in the amount or direction of public attention, may also be necessary for an external event to be associated with a policy change (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014). Thus, during a dynamic situation instigated by an external change, a coalition might employ a number of strategies, such as reframing narratives or attracting new actors, to instigate a policy change (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014).

The impact of changes to relatively stable parameters and external events on a subsystem are mediated through coalition opportunity structures (Sabatier & Weible, 2007). These structures are a response to criticisms that the ACF fit poorly with European corporatist regimes (e.g., Parsons, 1995; Kübler, 2001) and borrow directly from the European literature on this issue (Kriesi, Koopmans, Duyendak, & Giugni, 1995; McAdam, McCarthy, & Zald, 1996). The two main categories based on Lijphart (1999) are the degree of consensus needed for a major policy change and the degree of openness of the political system. The ACF proposes that the likelihood that an advocacy coalition could take advantage of an external event to influence policy change ranges from high, in pluralist political systems, to low, in authoritarian regimes (Sabatier & Weible, 2007). This concept remains underdeveloped (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014) and poorly specified within the ACF (Ingold & Varone, 2012), and its very utility is questioned (Nohrstedt, 2010).

In contrast to events external to the policy subsystem leading to policy change, events may occur internal to a policy subsystem, such as a policy failure or fiasco. Internal events occur inside the limits of a policy subsystem and are often under the agency of policy actors. When an event occurs within a subsystem, advocacy coalitions compete to frame the incident in a way that favors their unique position. To achieve this, they may engage in dialogue around the causes, severity, and implications of a problem (Sabatier & Weible, 2007). While coalitions seeking policy change may stand to benefit from internal events, their success depends upon how well they are able to exploit resources and opportunities.

The fourth pathway to policy change is negotiation. Negotiation typically occurs between contentious coalitions. Sabatier and Weible (2007, pp. 205–206) outlined nine possible scenarios that are likely to result in negotiation. Among these, a hurting stalemate is notable, which occurs when the status quo is perceived to be unacceptable and no alternatives for action exist (Weible & Nohrstedt, 2012, p. 132). The ACF also identifies a policy broker, a policy actor with the potential to help negotiate agreements between coalitions and whose principal concern is reducing conflict and coming to a reasonable solution (Ingold, 2011).

The fifth and final pathway to policy change is policy-oriented learning. This pathway can take place either among or between coalitions. Learning leads to the revision of a coalition’s beliefs, strategies, or both. It may also precipitate policy change (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014).

Combined, these four bottom-up pathways provide the opportunity for policy change. It is hypothesized that significant perturbations external to the subsystem, a significant perturbation internal to the subsystem, policy-oriented learning, negotiated agreement, or some combination thereof are necessary, but not sufficient, sources of change in the policy core attributes of a governmental program (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014).

Applicability of the ACF to Foreign Policy Analysis

The ACF can be utilized to address foreign policy issues because it already shares with foreign policy analysis a focus on actor belief systems (Snyder, Bruck, & Sapin, 1954; George, 1969; Axelrod, 1976; Holsti, 1977; Hudson, 2005). While the vast majority of the hundreds of ACF applications have focused on domestic policy process, and most frequently environmental and energy issues (Weible et al., 2009, Pierce et al., 2017), there have been past applications of the ACF that explicitly analyzed foreign policy (Haar, 2010; Hirschi & Widmer, 2010; Pierce, 2011; Schröer, 2014). These past applications demonstrate the utility of the ACF to understand foreign policy processes. For example, the ACF has been applied to understand coalition stability in relation to U.S. foreign policy and the creation of Israel (Pierce, 2011), policy-oriented learning by Germany during the most recent war in Afghanistan (Schröer, 2014), and the change and stasis of Swiss foreign policy toward South Africa and Iraq (Hirschi & Widmer, 2010). These and other applications demonstrate that the ACF can be applied to understand advocacy coalitions, policy learning, and policy change in relation to foreign policy.

Foreign policy could expand its analytical capacity by borrowing from the theories, assumptions, and approaches that the ACF has to offer. Extant foreign policy literature already focuses on how groups seek to influence policy (Holsti, 1989). Such studies aptly go beyond politicians and bureaucrats and tend to focus on epistemic communities (Haas, 1992), ethnicity (Smith, 2000; Ambrosio, 2002; Rubenzer, 2008), business and labor organizations (Lipset, 1986), or religious affiliation (Mearsheimer & Walt, 2007) as the rationale for the formation of coalitions. As an alternative, the ACF proposes that the beliefs of actors serve as a rationale for their formation.

Currently, traditional foreign policy analysis tends to occupy the domain of international relations (IR), remaining outside the policy process (Litfin, 2000). But according to Goldstein (1988), traditional IR approaches have been found to be limited in explaining foreign policy due to their tendency to favor societal and institutional forces while mitigating the role of ideas or beliefs. While institutional constraints are important to the policymaking process, an actor-centric approach to foreign policy analysis represents a promising alternative. According to Friman (1993), a policy process theory that emphasizes beliefs bringing together policy actors may be relevant to the foreign policy process. The ACF, with its assumption that shared beliefs bind policy actors together (Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1999), offers a pathway to incorporating the role of ideas and beliefs in understanding foreign policy processes.

One possible reason explaining the historical deficit in applications of the ACF to foreign policy is that some of the framework’s key assumptions may appear to pose obstacles. Three potential obstacles include territorial dimension of a policy subsystem, focus on scientific and technical information, and policy-oriented learning.

The unit of analysis for ACF research is the policy subsystem, which is characterized by (a) the policy problem or issue, (b) the scope of actors seeking to influence a functional or substantive domain, and (c) a territorial domain or some authority or potential authority for policymaking (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014). This third component, territorial domain, is intended to delineate the scope of inquiry (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014), but it raises obstacles to foreign policy applications because a clear territorial scope is not always identifiable (e.g., Farquharson, 2003; Richardson, 1996). However, it is important to note that territorial scope is a legacy of the ACF’s origins in the environmental and energy sectors (Sabatier, 1993). Litfin (2000) argued that a single territorial dimension is not necessary for ACF applications. An alternative method for delineating the scope of inquiry is to focus on a government body that has the authority or potential authority to make and implement foreign policy, such as a department of state, foreign ministry, or executive office (e.g., see Pierce, 2011). This method is a viable alternative for limiting the scope of inquiry, given that the ACF prescribes that subsystems will include some authority or potential authority (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014).

Another potential issue with foreign policy applications of the ACF stems from its focus on technical and scientific information as part of the policy process. This may raise questions about the external validity of applying the framework to more normative issues. Sabatier (1998, pp. 122–123) addressed this issue explicitly:

Several people have wondered whether the ACF applies to policy domains—such as abortion, gun control, human rights, gay rights, school prayer, gender politics—in which technical issues are dominated by normative and identity concerns. In my view, it should work very well in these areas. Clearly, these subsystems seem to be characterized by well-defined coalitions driven by belief-driven conflict.

Sabatier (1998) thus suggests that future research should be conducted to test the applicability of the framework to normative policies, often the domain of foreign policy. The inclusion of technical and scientific information as an ACF assumption would raise awareness of the important role that quantitative data and analysis can play in terms of policy-oriented learning and the empirical components of belief systems (Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1999). It is hypothesized that policy-oriented learning is more likely to occur when such information is available, but it is not a necessary component of the policy process.

Although policy-oriented learning hypotheses are most conducive around natural resource systems with quantitative data and experiments (Sabatier & Jenkins-Smith, 1999), at least two of the hypotheses can be transferred to the study of foreign policy. The first hypothesis describes how learning is more likely to lead to changes in instrumental, or secondary, beliefs (rather than policy core beliefs) within and between coalitions. This could be tested in terms of changes in the strategies and secondary beliefs of foreign policy actors, coalitions, or both. The second hypothesis about the utility of professional forums in facilitating policy change can be applied readily to study policy-oriented learning via the United Nations, European Union, or other international forums that may serve as venues for foreign policy actors.

Past Examples of Foreign Policy Applications

Four recent exemplary applications demonstrate the feasibility of ACF application to foreign policy. These applications were described in Haar (2010), Hirschi and Widmer (2010), Pierce (2011), and Schröer (2014). The studies have different topics of inquiry, theoretical foci, and methodologies. Haar (2010) examined U.S. foreign policy change under the George W. Bush administration in its decision to go to war with Iraq after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 (9/11). Schröer (2014) examined changes in German foreign policy around its involvement in the war in Afghanistan following 9/11. Hirschi and Widmer (2010) examined Swiss foreign policy toward Iraq during the Gulf War in 1990 and 1991 and compared it to Swiss foreign policy toward South Africa during apartheid. Pierce (2011) studied coalition stability and changes in beliefs over multiple decades concerning U.S. foreign policy and the determination of sovereignty over Palestine.

In addition to their diverse topics, these articles demonstrate the range of ACF theories that can be applied to understand foreign policy, including policy change (Haar, 2010; Hirschi & Widmer, 2010; Schröer, 2014), policy learning (Schröer, 2014), and advocacy coalitions (Pierce, 2011). Research questions from the ACF (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014) that are applicable to foreign policy analysis include: Under what conditions do actors form and maintain coalitions? What are the characteristics and structure of these coalitions? What factors facilitate learning among and between coalitions? How do coalitions opportunistically utilize pathways such as external events, internal events, negotiation, and learning to influence foreign policy?

In terms of methodology, all four applications employed qualitative methods with varying degrees of data collection and analysis. Haar (2010) and Schröer (2014) examined a single case study using qualitative methods to interpret government documents. Hirschi and Widmer (2010) collected data from documents and also conducted interviews with policy actors in the Swiss Government. They used qualitative comparative case study design to analyze their data. Pierce (2011) also used documents as a source of data, applying content analysis to U.S. congressional hearings to create quantitative data that were statistically analyzed to determine advocacy coalition membership and stability over time. This demonstrates that ACF applications to foreign policy can support a range of methods, including qualitative interpretation, comparative case studies, and statistical analysis.

ACF research at the domestic level uses a wide range of approaches for data collection, but document analysis and interviews are the most common (Pierce et al., 2017). Other forms of data collection used in ACF studies are surveys (e.g., Leach, Weible, Vince, Siddiki, & Calanni, 2014), focus groups (e.g., Wilson, Barakat, Vohra, Ritvo, & Boon, 2008), and participant observation (e.g., Frasha et al., 2014). Overall, the methods of data collection that are probably most applicable to foreign policy are document analysis and interviews. In addition, interpretivist approaches such as those applied by Haar (2010) and Schröer (2014) are common among ACF scholars, particularly Europeans (e.g., Bandelow, 2006, 2008; Hassenteufel, Genieys, & Smyrl, 2008), and should be applied to foreign policy analysis.

Future Research

The ACF encourages novel areas of research and inquiry and allows scholars the flexibility to focus on and develop a specialization in specific aspects of the framework (Weible et al., 2011). Foreign policy research is a new frontier for the ACF, and one ripe for inquiry.

Past criticisms of the ACF are that its pluralistic underpinnings make it uniquely American, and therefore limited in its applicability (Kübler, 2001; Parsons, 1995; Andersson, 1998). However, since 2007, a plurality of applications have been by European scholars using the framework in European contexts (Pierce et al., 2017). This includes past applications analyzing foreign policy processes in European countries, including Germany (Schröer, 2014) and Switzerland (Hirschi & Widmer, 2010).

Weible et al. (2011) argues that by providing common terminology, the ACF establishes a research program that can be applied and tested by scholars in any country. One area for future research is comparing how different political systems influence variation in the policy process (Jenkins-Smith et al., 2014). Because government structures vary internationally, the effect of these differing subsystems is an important question that merits attention (Weible et al., 2011; Jang, Weible, & Park, 2016). This may be applied to the study of foreign policy analysis, such as exploring if parliamentary compared to presidential political systems lead to variation in foreign policy changes, or the number and types of policy actors involved in foreign policy advocacy coalitions.

While resources are recognized as a distinguishing coalition feature and a method for influencing policy change, definitions of resources vary (Weible et al., 2011). In addition, the dynamic between coalition resources, strategies, and beliefs may differ among cases and is an area ready for future research (e.g., Pierce, 2016). Scholars studying foreign policy should explore if certain resources are more influential than others (e.g., Nohrstedt, 2011), and if certain resources and strategies are associated with advocacy coalitions seeking policy change or stasis.

Many questions concerning policy-oriented learning remain unanswered. The relationship between the type and direction of belief change and learning is undefined (Weible et al., 2011). It remains unclear how to classify situations in which a coalition’s learning process has the effect of increasing overall coalition polarization, as might be the case when actors employ motivated reasoning in defense of their beliefs (Weible et al., 2011). Future research applying the ACF to foreign policy analysis should explore different dimensions of policy-oriented learning, such as single- and double-loop learning, and whether such learning dimensions are associated with policy change. While Schröer (2014) discusses the role of learning, the application does not test ACF hypotheses about policy-oriented learning. Such hypothesis testing is an opportunity for future foreign policy research.

Another area for future research is around the pathways to policy change. How do these pathways interact, and which pathways are more frequently associated with policy change and which with policy stasis? At the international level, and dealing with foreign policy issues, do the pathways to policy change differ from when they are used at the domestic level? The study of policy change depends on the timing and sequence of events and actors, which makes it an excellent area for in-depth case studies and the application of process tracing, which are methods that have been utilized elsewhere by foreign policy scholars (e.g., Allison, 1969). An issue that should be explored about policy change is the role of venues (specifically the United Nations and other international forums) and how they facilitate foreign policy change.

Overall, the ACF is a dynamic framework comprised of assumptions, concepts, and theories that include testable hypotheses. The ACF can be readily applied to study foreign policy because of its focus on coalitions and beliefs of policy actors. The future of the ACF depends on the creativity and pioneer spirit of those who apply the framework. Foreign policy is a new frontier for the policy process.


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(1.) For further reading about the intellectual foundations and evolution of the ACF, see Jenkins-Smith et al. (2014).