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date: 24 September 2017

Path Dependency in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

Path dependence has been employed more frequently in the field of foreign policy analysis, though it is still an emerging framework. The roots of path dependence are traced from the physical sciences and economics to the social sciences, and finally, foreign policy. The basic assumptions of path dependence are summarized, including the role of critical junctures, increased returns, and policy legacies that are produced and reproduced by a variety of causal mechanisms. The preferred methods employed by path dependence scholars are briefly outlined; framework’s applicability to the study of politics is addressed, and the major critiques of path dependence are reviewed. This leads to the general conclusion that despite conceptual and methodological challenges in the area of foreign policy, there is definite “value added” in path-dependent approaches.

Keywords: path dependence, historical institutionalism, foreign policy legacies, political continuity and change, critical junctures, increased returns, positive feedback loops

Overview of Path Dependence

It is difficult for long-time students of politics to deny that decision makers are influenced by the past. Precedent, routine, and institutional structures can guide their actions as powerfully as in-the-moment stimuli or data. “Path dependence” is a theoretical framework that rests on the assumption that choices made in the past influence the menu of options available in the present and future: Once a policy has been adopted and—formally or informally—institutionalized, it becomes very difficult to change or reform. Much as when climbing a tree, to keep moving upwards, decision makers must choose the branches in front of them, rather than leaping across them to get to another.

The concept of path dependence has deep roots in many other disciplines, from the physical sciences to economics. In physics and mathematics, related ideas can be found in chaos theory, whose nonlinear models are characterized by their sensitive dependence on initial conditions. In biology, the concept of contingency describes the irreversible character of natural selection. And in economics, scholars such as W. Brian Arthur (1989) warned early on of the danger of “lock-in” by historical events. One of the most cited examples of economic lock-in is the QWERTY keyboard, whose inherent inefficiencies compared to other layouts have not been enough to overcome the relative costs of switching out almost every keyboard and retraining most of the public once QWERTY became the established industry standard (David, 1985). Interestingly, the QWERTY layout was initially designed to prevent the keys of typewriters from sticking to each other by spacing out the most commonly used letters. This illustrates how powerful lock-in can be, given that the continuation of practices, policies, and institutions may long transcend their original cause. It should be noted that there is some debate in the academic community over the causal variables that have contributed to the staying power of the QWERTY keyboard. While some subscribe to the path-dependent explanation, others argue that this story of market failure does “not withstand rigorous examination of the historical record” and that there is “evidence that continued use of Qwerty is efficient given the current understanding of keyboard design” (Liebowitz & Margolis, 1990).

Political scientists first adopted path dependence to explain institutional change. While the study of institutions had always played a role in political science, it was the “new institutionalism,” which assumed a more autonomous role for institutions in political and social life, that argued that institutions “are political actors in their own right” (March & Olsen, 1984, p. 738). In contrast to theories that assume individual agency and rational choice, the new institutionalism focuses on “institutions, rules of behavior, norms, roles, physical arrangements, buildings, and archives that are relatively invariant in the face of turnover of individuals and relatively resilient to the idiosyncratic preferences and expectations of individuals” (p. 741).

One specific variation of this new institutionalism is “historical institutionalism” (Greif & Laitin, 2004; Pierson, 2004; Thelen, 2003). In fact,

the concept [of path dependence] is particularly associated with historical institutionalism (see Hall & Taylor, 1996; Thelen, 1999; Hay, 2002) and is one of the defining features of that school of thought. Historical institutionalism embraces the idea that individuals act within institutional arrangements, the present structure and functioning of which are understood only partially when not embedded in a historical perspective.

(Kay, 2005, p. 555)

In the field of foreign policy analysis, path dependence is less clearly defined, and few studies specifically employ path-dependent arguments. However, inasmuch as policymakers act within institutional contexts, it stands to reason that they, too, are influenced by previous decisions. March and Olsen (1989) refer to “institutional repertoires” that make change difficult when organizational leaders prefer to draw on preexisting solutions rather than consider new ones. Similarly, North (1990) points out that institutional structures determine outcomes and that change often remains incremental because of the formal and informal constraints institutions place on choice.

A brief overview of path dependence in political science describes how it works, its preferred methods, and its applicability to the study of politics in general and foreign policy in particular and considers both the major critiques of path dependence and the value it can add to our understanding of politics.

How Does Path Dependence Work?

Some academic disciplines have accepted path dependence more readily than others. One of the biggest problems associated with advancing path dependence as a social sciences process, framework, or theory—or even agreeing on which of the three it constitutes—has been the difficulty of proving that social and political processes are in fact path dependent and illustrating the causal mechanisms that drive them. Critics often reduce path dependence to the notion that “history matters” in some vague way, but that does not do justice to the complex assumptions underlying a path-dependent approach.

Some of the pioneers in adapting path dependence into analyses in the social sciences as a rigorous framework for inquiry include Paul Pierson, Theda Scokpol, Ruth Berins Collier and David Collier, and Stephen Krasner. Paul Pierson makes the case that not only is it possible to apply path dependence to the study of politics, but the distinctive characteristics of politics lend themselves to a path-dependent approach. Pierson (2000) notes that the notion of path dependence generally rests on a few key claims:

Specific patterns of timing and sequence matter; starting from similar conditions, a wide range of social outcomes may be possible; large consequences may result from relatively “small” or contingent events; particular courses of action, once introduced, can be virtually impossible to reverse; and consequently, political development is often punctuated by critical moments or junctures that shape the basic contours of social life.

(p. 251)

These “critical junctures,” a concept first introduced by Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan (1967), offer one causal explanation for path dependence: in such junctures, so-called antecedent conditions determine a set of choices available to decision makers; the outcomes of these choices then trigger self-reinforcing feedback mechanisms that explain the recurrence of a specific pattern into the future (Collier & Collier, 1991; Pierson, 2000; Skocpol & Pierson, 2002). The longer actors stay on a particular path, the more difficult it becomes to pursue alternative courses of action. Margaret Levi aptly describes this narrowing of options over time using a tree metaphor, “From the same trunk, there are many different branches and smaller branches. Although it is possible to turn around to clamber from one to the other—and essential if the chosen branch dies—the branch on which a climber begins is the one she tends to follow” (Levi, 1997, p. 28). Relatedly, Pierson employs the logic of “increasing return,” arguing that the likelihood of staying on the same path (or branch) results from the fact that the relative benefits of the current choice increase over time, while the costs of switching to a different course of action increase (Pierson, 2000).

Path dependence, then, relies heavily—though not exclusively—on the assumption of critical junctures, antecedent conditions, and increasing returns, requiring a closer look at what these concepts actually mean. Collier and Collier (1991) describe a critical juncture as “a period of significant change, which typically occurs in distinct ways in different countries (or in other units of analysis) and which is hypothesized to produce distinct legacies” (p. 29). It should be noted that while much of the literature agrees on the importance of critical junctures, there appears to be lack of consensus on what types of events fall into that category. In fact, scholars of path dependence admit that critical junctures occur in different ways in different cases, posing a methodological challenge to rigorous analysis across cases. Further complicating the issue is that critical junctures may be the result of “external shocks” (such as wars or economic crises, for instance) or of internal events (such as political upheavals or slowly unfolding social movements), and that such junctures can produce relatively quick responses or policy changes that unfold over a number of years. Collier and Collier (1991) offer a methodological approach that is intended to make the study of critical junctures more rigorous:

The concept of critical juncture contains the three components: the claim that a significant change occurred within each case, the claim that this change took place in distinct ways in different cases, and the explanatory hypothesis about its consequences. If the explanatory hypothesis proves to be false—that is, if the hypothesized critical juncture did not produce the legacy—then one would assert that it was not, in fact, a critical juncture.

(p. 30)

In addition, careful analysis of path dependence requires an awareness of antecedent conditions, a sort of baseline against which claims of critical junctures and legacies are assessed. These antecedents are not merely the descriptive context for the processes we seek to explain; rather, precede critical junctures and help influence the choices made during the juncture, affecting the legacies produced in their own right (Collier & Collier 1991; Slater & Simmons, 2010). Collier and Collier consider it useful in this regard to utilize Athur Stinchcombe’s comparison of the “constant causes” and “historical causes” of social and political outcomes. “Constant causes” are those antecedent conditions that operate year after year, with relative continuity. By contrast, “historical causes” operate during a critical juncture to produce given legacies (Stinchcombe, 1968).

It should be noted that path dependence cannot be reduced to critical junctures alone. Much of the earlier literature focuses on such junctures, in some form or another, as being important for the origins of paths, which is why they merit particular attention here. However, the logic of path dependence itself does not depend on critical junctures and can, in fact, be completely separated from them. In its most general sense, path dependence simply refers to mechanisms that encourage the reproduction of an initial choice—or constraints on future choices that allow only incremental change—as a result of causal mechanisms that were set in motion by that original choice. These causal mechanisms include increasing returns, positive and negative feedback, self-reinforcement, lock-in, cognitive constraints, and the “rules of the game,” among others. Table 1 presents a rudimentary overview of potential causal mechanisms in path dependence, though it should be noted that the literature is somewhat divided with regard to explaining the actual causal processes that create path-dependent outcomes.

Table 1. Causal Mechanisms in Path Dependence

Causal Mechanism

Logic of Stabilizing Continuity

Rules of the Game

Laws and constitutions, organization practices, power structures, and organization culture influence resource allocation and can lead to institutional inertia.

Cognitive Constraints

Image, schemata, historical analogies, and other cognitive biases constrain policy options and lead to psychological reinforcement of existing institutions.

Increasing Returns

Rational actors consider set-up and fixed costs. Initial choices are perpetuated by learning effects, coordination effects, and adaptive expectations that increase returns over time.


Interaction effects may create complementary processes and institutions that help sustain the initial choice.

Positive or Negative Feedback

The number of actors choosing an option increases the benefits (positive feedback) for continuing or penalties (negative feedback) for abandoning the initial option.


Once positive/negative feedback reaches a sufficient mass, it can lead to increased rigidity or lock-in of the original option.

The logic of “increasing returns”—borrowed from economics—suggests that actors will continue to move in the same direction because of the relative benefits of the adopted policies compared to potential alternatives (Pierson, 2000, p. 252). This path-dependent inertia at least partly rests on the assumption that policymakers are rational actors. The incentives that create dependence on a specific path are generated from the greater returns they provide. Breaking from an existing path is not ideal, because “the costs of making alternate choices are prohibitive, thus, restricting decision makers’ future options” (Bittick, 2008, p. 376).

Pierson (2000) notes that increasing returns are more likely in some circumstances than others. He draws on Brian Arthur’s (1994) work on technology and its social context, which suggests that four specific features generate increasing returns: (a) large set-up or fixed costs, which provide an incentive to identify and stick with a single option due to the cost of switching; (b) learning effects, referring to individuals becoming more effective at operating complex systems with repetition, as well as repetition spurring further innovations, which further incentivizes the original choice; (c) coordination effects, which occur when an individual’s benefits from an activity increase as others adopt the same option; and (d) adaptive expectations, which imply a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy, as individuals adapt their actions in response to their expectations of future aggregate use patterns. While Pierson acknowledges that simply exporting theoretical concepts like these from economics to politics may be problematic, he also argues that four unique aspects of political life make it particularly conducive to increasing returns processes: (a) the central role of collective action, (b) the high density of institutions, (c) the possibilities for using political authority, and (d) its intrinsic complexity and opacity (Pierson, 2000, p. 257). For an elaboration of these characteristics, see the section “How Applicable Is Path Dependence to Foreign Policy Analysis?”

The story of the QWERTY keyboard continuing to be the industry standard despite its inefficiencies provides an economic example of increased returns at work. In domestic politics, so-called pay-as-you-go pension systems appear to follow the logic of increased returns: Once these systems are adopted, proposals to shift away from them face the dilemma of “double payment,” that is, the need for “current workers to continue funding the previous generation’s retirement while simultaneously saving for their own” (Pierson, 2001, p. 313). In the realm of foreign policy analysis, the U.S. military’s difficulty in changing its doctrine and its resistance to operational innovation appear to fit the increased returns logic (Posen, 1986; Wilson, 1991). As Jacques Gansler (2001) observed about the military and the defense industry: “With the support of Congress, these sectors continue to buy the ships, airplanes, tanks, and other weapons of the 20th century, rather than shifting to the weapons required for the 21st century” (pp. 47–48). It should be noted that neither Posen nor Gansler makes an explicit path-dependent increased returns argument. For interesting analyses of path-dependent foreign policy, see Erik Olson’s (2016) work on path dependence in Iran’s military doctrine, Christopher Paul’s (2008) work on “legacy chains” in U.S. presidential war powers, or chapter 6 of Hugh Segal’s (2016) assessment of the role of path dependence for the future of Canada’s foreign policy.

Other frequently cited causal mechanisms appear to be related to the increased returns argument. In fact, it is unclear from the literature whether processes such as positive and negative feedback, self-reinforcement, and lock-in are independent causal mechanisms that contribute to path-dependent behaviors or whether they are what generate increasing returns. (See the section “Critique of Path Dependence” for more on conceptual and methodological clarity.) This is not to say that these mechanisms are unimportant or lack explanatory power. Indeed, they all address why path-dependent behavior occurs.

Self-reinforcement refers to the development of “a set of forces or complementary institutions” that encourage the initial choice to be sustained (Page, 2006, p. 88). Positive feedback is similar to increasing returns in that it provides an incentive for people to continue making the same choice, but specifically focuses on benefits for actors who have already made or will make that choice in the future. Page notes that feedback can also be negative; that is, it can consist of a form of penalties for not continuing to make the initial choice. Finally, lock-in “means that one choice or action becomes better than any other one because a sufficient number of people have already made that choice” (p. 88). For an example of lock-in in foreign policy decision making, please refer to the brief summary of David Cavanna’s book on U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan in the “Path Dependence in Foreign Policy Analysis” section of this article.

Another approach to explaining the causal processes underlying path dependence focuses on what Skocpol and Pierson (2002) call the “institutional rules of the game.” These might include laws and constitutions, organizational practices such as standard operating procedures, or power structures. These “rules” are especially important in a political context, because of the prevalence of institutions and the importance of the distribution of power in the political process. Thelen (1999), among others, points out that organization routines influence which resources are allocated to whom, as well as structure incentives and constraints for political actors. And Pierson (2000) adds that actors “may use political authority to generate changes in the rules of the game (both formal institutions and various public policies) designed to enhance their power” (p. 259).

One can think of the process of gerrymandering in the United States as one example of the rules of the game and how they are subject to political authority. Another example is the development of antimilitarism in Germany following World War II, a phenomenon well documented by Thomas U. Berger (1998) and Thomas Banchoff (1999), among others. The German “rules of the game” were changed significantly by the institutionalization of antimilitarist foreign policy; this was brought about by the inclusion of clauses in the German Grundgesetz (Basic Law) prohibiting the use of military force except in self-defense and by the introduction of mandatory military service for all male adults, as a way to prevent the hijacking of the military by extremist elements.

The rules of the game also bring to mind organizational theories of decision making, such as Graham Allison’s “organizational process model.” This model assumes that the existing governmental bureaucracy and division of labor along organizational lines constrain available choices and significantly affect the final outcome, in part due to the difficulty of mobilizing action within large organizations (thus advantaging preexisting processes and plans) and due to the likelihood of satisficing as a result of limited time and resources (Allison, 1971; Simon, 1982).

The ubiquity of formal and informal institutions in political life lends weight to arguments for the influence of path dependence on the rules of the game. Institutions are necessary to produce political outcomes but very costly to put into place. Once established, institutions thus reinforce the reproduction of legacies since already existing institutional patterns represent so-called sunk costs and are thus less expensive and more readily available than creating new ones (Krasner 1989; Pierson, 2000; Stinchcombe, 1968).

Yet another type of causal mechanism that can explain path dependence focuses less on formal institutions and more on informal cultural and psychological processes that help reinforce choices once made. Skocpol and Pierson (2002) refer to “citizens’ basic ways of thinking about the political world (p. 700),” which is reminiscent of the concept of “political culture.” Cognitive psychology suggests that decision makers are heavily biased by existing schemata, perception and misperception, and so-called availability heuristics (most notably, perhaps, historical analogies). Collectively, these constraints—which naturally interact with formal institutions—severely limit policymakers’ options in any given situation, thus contributing to the self-reinforcing processes.

To be fair, not everyone differentiates between institutions, on the one hand, and political or psychological processes, on the other. Some scholars in the field are more inclined to differentiate between formal and informal institutions instead: Douglass C. North (1993) defines institutions as “humanly devised constraints that structure human interaction. They are made up of formal constraints (rules, laws, constitutions), informal constraints (norms of behavior, conventions, and self-imposed codes of conduct), and their enforcement characteristics.” Other scholars of historical institutionalism and path dependence also classify cultural and psychological constraints as informal institutions (Hall & Taylor, 1996; Streeck & Thelen, 2005).

Regardless of how one chooses to categorize these causal factors, it seems reasonable to treat cultural and psychological processes as being distinct from, yet often interacting with, formal institutions. Returning to the example of antimilitarism in post–World War II Germany helps illustrate this. Besides the legal framework that was created, the “lessons of history” were also perpetuated in the German media, through the education system, and in the public and political discourse surrounding Germany’s responsibility for World War II and the resulting antimilitarist foreign policy preferences (Leithner, 2009). The psychological concepts of collective guilt and collective memory further reinforced this antimilitarism, well beyond the generation that had experienced World War II firsthand (cf. Halbwachs, 1992).

A second example of how psychological constraints on foreign policy decision making can reinforce path-dependent outcomes is the use of historical analogies in political reasoning. Citing the importance of human information processing for understanding behavior, such scholars as Yuen Foong Khong argue that new events are not analyzed in their own right, but rather tend to be assimilated into preexisting “knowledge structures,” such as schemata, scripts, and analogies (Jervis, 1976; Khong, 1992; Nisbett & Ross, 1980). In his book Analogies at War, Khong (1992) traces how U.S. foreign policymakers faced with the decision of whether or not to intervene militarily in Vietnam were significantly influenced by the “Munich” and “Korean” analogies and their lessons that appeasement does not work. Khong argues that “historical analogies, once invoked, influence the actual selection of policy options” (p. 9), thus effectively constraining the policymaking process. Furthermore, analogies are typically not selected based on how well they fit the current situation, but rather act as mental shortcuts in which the most readily available analogy that appears to superficially fit the problem at hand tends to be invoked and determines the path policymakers take. Once invoked, even contradictory evidence concerning the appropriateness of the analogy does not usually change the chosen course of action, something psychologists describe as the “perseverance” or “consistency” effect (Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Jervis, 1976; Khong, 1992, p. 39).

Finally, one can think of path dependence not only in terms of causal mechanisms, but also in terms of the different theoretical underpinnings of path-dependent arguments that can serve to categorize different causal mechanisms. Mahoney (2000b) summarizes four possibilities of institutional reproduction, as follows: (a) Utilitarian explanations suggest that institutions are reproduced through the rational cost-benefit assessment of actors. Change occurs as a result of increased competition and through learning processes. Even inefficient institutions might be reproduced, if the costs of transformation outweigh their benefits. (b) Functional explanations argue that reproduction occurs because institutions serve a function in the overall system. This function causes “the expansion of the institution, which enhances the institution’s ability to perform the useful function, which leads to further institutional expansion and eventually institutional consolidation” (pp. 517–525). Again, inefficient institutions might prevail as a result of the contingent initial selection process. (c) Power explanations often assume rationality of actors, but recognize that actors with different levels of power and resources will often have conflicting interests regarding institutional reproduction. An elite that has sufficient power and benefits from the existing arrangement can dominate even a majority that might favor change (also see Pierson, 2000). (d) Legitimation explanations do not assume any type of rationality, but rather focus on actors’ subjective beliefs about what is appropriate. Thus, institutions are reproduced because actors view them as legitimate and voluntary perpetuate them.

Methods Employed

Given that path dependence in political science has been closely connected to the field of historical institutionalism, it is perhaps not surprising that the prevalent methods employed in path-dependent analyses frequently mirror those of comparative historical research. Generally speaking, scholars have to employ methods that allow them to trace and evaluate processes over long periods of time. Typically, these processes involve a large number of variables, and since even small deviations in antecedent conditions can cause countries and actors to react differently to even the same critical junctures, scholars often find that in-depth historical case studies or small-N comparisons are particularly suited to their inquiry. Because of the causal complexity of studies of path dependence, they often rely on “the ‘thick’ analysis that is typical of case studies, in order to operationalize the possibility that more than one path has been taken, to account for the contingency of any causal story, to examine the closure of some causal paths over time, and to highlight the constraints in the selected path” (Maggetti, Gilardi, & Radaelli, 2013, p. 111).

Examples of such case study approaches include Barrington Moore’s (1966) study on dictatorships and democracies, Lipset and Rokkan’s (1967) work on party systems and voter alignments, Theda Skocpol’s (1979) book on states and social revolutions, Collier and Collier’s (1991) research on democratization, and Pierson’s (1996) analysis of European Union integration.

Additional methods favored by scholars of path dependence that should be briefly noted here include systematic process tracing, counterfactual analysis, and analytical narratives.

Systematic process tracing has been advanced as a way to enable rigorous causal inferences even in small-N case study designs (Hall, 1996). Process tracing follows the basic steps of the scientific method: theory formation, predictions, observations, analysis, and theory testing. More specifically, process tracing relies on careful analysis of trajectories of change and causation, which requires both adequate description of the phenomena observed and careful attention to sequences of independent, dependent, and intervening variables (Collier, 2011; Mahoney, 2010). To make causal inferences, process tracing typically employs one or more of four empirical tests: straw in the wind, hoop, smoking gun, and doubly decisive. The tests are classified based on whether or not passing them is a necessary or sufficient condition, or both necessary and sufficient, for accepting the inference. Collier (2011) notes:

If a given hypothesis passes a straw-in-the-wind test, it only slightly weakens rival hypotheses; with hoop tests it somewhat weakens them; with smoking-gun tests it substantially weakens them; and with doubly decisive tests passing eliminates them—of course, with the usual caveat that the definitive elimination of a hypothesis is often hard to achieve in social science.

(p. 825)

One of the inevitable challenges of historical analysis is in the difficulty of testing causal arguments due to the inability to perform controlled experiments that can isolate independent and dependent variables (Tetlock & Belkin, 1996, p. 6). To address this concern, some scholars of path dependence have begun proposing the use of counterfactual analysis as a way to make causal arguments in even small-N studies more rigorous (Maggetti, Gilardi, & Radaelli, 2013; Pierson, 2000; Tetlock & Belkin, 1996). As the potential causes of the phenomena studied are so numerous and interrelated, researchers “must ultimately justify claims that a given cause produced a given effect by evoking counterfactual arguments about what would have happened in some hypothetical world in which the postulated cause took on some value different from the one it assumed in the actual world” (Tetlock & Belkin, 1996, p. 6). For an interesting discussion of the theoretical issues with the practical application of counterfactual analysis in the context of political science, see James Fearon’s (1991) article “Counterfactuals and Hypothesis Testing in Political Science.”

Yet another approach that seeks to facilitate causal inference in the study of historical processes is the use of analytical narratives, which attempts to combine historical and comparative research with rational choice models. Margaret Levi (2004) describes analytical narratives as follows:

The approach requires, first, extracting from the narratives the key actors, their goals, and their preferences and the effective rules that influence actors’ behaviors. Second, it means elaborating the strategic interactions that produce an equilibrium that constrains some actions and facilitates others. The emphasis is on identifying the reasons for the shift from an institutional equilibrium at one point in time to a different institutional equilibrium at a different point in time. By making the assumptions and reasoning clear and explicit, it is then possible to pose a challenge that might produce new insights and competitive interpretations of the data.

(p. 202)

Levi emphasizes that a successful analysis must also entail comparative static results—that is, the comparison of two different equilibrium states, both before and after the observed change. Levi considers such comparative statics the basis for hypotheses about what could have taken place under different conditions.

While the use of analytic narratives does not appear to be widespread among scholars of path dependence, some consider them “a useful tool for assessing causality in situations where temporal sequencing, particular events, and path dependence must be taken into account” (Mahoney, 1999, p. 1164).

Path Dependence in Foreign Policy Analysis?

As noted, the framework of path dependence initially developed in the physical sciences and in economics before it was adopted by the social sciences. Critics of path dependence have questioned its applicability in the context of political science in general, and foreign policy in particular, a question that is undoubtedly driven by the paradigm of behavioralism in political science research. After all, path dependence (and historical institutionalism, in general) does not fit the behavioralist focus on direct observation of political behavior and the preference for statistical analysis of raw data as opposed to more interpretive approaches in explaining political phenomena.

Another reason for the lack of path-dependent approaches to foreign policy could be the result of the assumption that actors are rational, which is found in much of the mainstream foreign policy literature. Although the rational choice model has been challenged on multiple fronts, it still dominates much of the field, making a path-dependent approach perhaps more challenging to defend.

Finally, it would be unfair to claim that there are no path-dependent foreign policy studies. Indeed, there has been a lot of truly inspiring work that at least tangentially seems to take a path-dependent approach without actually calling it that. Instead, readers are more likely to come across foreign policy studies that make reference to historical institutionalism or cognitive approaches that appear at least somewhat related to path dependence.

Paul Pierson is the scholar who is most often quoted in the defense of the general application of the path-dependent approach in political science. In “Increasing Returns, Path Dependence, and the Study of Politics,” Pierson (2000) makes a convincing case that the characteristics of politics not only make a path-dependent approach possible, but particularly lend themselves to such an endeavor. He cites four prominent aspects of politics in that regard: (a) The central role of collective action, which means that the consequences of one actor’s actions are highly dependent on the actions of others and that there is no linear relationship between effort and effect. According to Pierson, this makes politics conducive to positive feedback and increasing returns because actors constantly have to adjust their behavior in light of how they expect others to act. Pierson cites Lipset and Rokkan’s (1967) work on the development of political parties, which—once they were created—were reproduced through time regardless of their functionality. (b) The high density of institutions, which are typically created in an effort to coordinate actors in the pursuit of public goods. Once established, these institutions constrain political behavior later on. The fact that institutions are so ubiquitous and costly to create explains their staying power and the lack of alternatives. (c) The possibilities for using political authority to enhance asymmetries of power by changing the rules of the game makes the employment of power self-reinforcing over time. (d) Politics is an intrinsically complex and opaque environment in which actors pursue a range of goals and political performance is difficult to observe and measure. Even if we believe a system is not performing well, it is challenging at best to pinpoint the exact cause for the inefficiencies, which makes political systems particularly susceptible to path dependence (Pierson, 2000, p. 257).

Additional aspects of politics that lend credence to path-dependent arguments include the absence of efficiency-enhancing mechanisms of competition and learning (which can act as corrective measures to path-dependent behaviors), the relatively short time horizons of political actors, who do not typically have to consider long-term consequences of their actions, and the inherent status quo bias of political institutions (Pierson, 2000; see also the section, “How Does Path Dependence Work?” in this article).

While there is an intuitive sense within the field that path dependence can add value to our understanding of many political processes and institutions, it is less clear whether it can help inform foreign policy analysis. In fact, “path dependency has been used within political science almost exclusively within a broad institutionalist framework” (Kay, 2005, p. 555), particularly as one of the defining features of historical institutionalism (Hall & Taylor, 1996; Kay, 2005; Thelen, 1999). There has been very little research within the area of foreign policy analysis that uses the terms “path dependence,” “critical junctures,” or “increasing returns.” At the same time, the notion that history is an important explanatory factor in contemporary foreign policy decisions does figure prominently in the literature, as evidenced by the examples provided here of the United States’ intervention in Vietnam and Germany’s antimilitarist foreign policy after World War II.

Conceptually, what makes the application of path dependence to policy analysis difficult is that institutions are characterized as such based on their “collective acceptance as rules and constraints to govern behavior,” whereas policy is always about choice (Kay, 2005, p. 556). Thus far, most path-dependent arguments with regard to foreign policy analysis have typically assumed that since policies are created by individuals working within formal and informal institutions, it is permissible to draw analogies between the effects of path dependence on institutions and on policies (Kay, 2005). However, some argue that in order to systematically analyze the impact of path dependence on policymaking, the original assumptions about self-reinforcing mechanisms have to be adapted to the policy realm (Torfing, 2009).

Despite these challenges, there are important older and recent studies in foreign policy and in international relations more generally that employ a path-dependent approach, though it is occasionally loosely defined. For instance, one can argue that much of the cognitive foreign policy literature has a real affinity for path-dependent assumptions. Robert Jervis’s (1976) seminal Perception and Misperception in International Politics comes to mind in this context. Particularly relevant is chapter 6, in which he addresses how decision makers learn from history. Jervis argues that especially traumatic experiences shape a country’s identity and politics as a result of having become incorporated into the collective consciousness, which can constrain foreign policy thinking for several generations. Wars in particular serve to dominate future choices as “the only thing as important for a nation as its revolution is its last major war” (Jervis, 1976, p. 266). Once adopted, these “lessons of history can become institutionalized in textbooks, rules, and even language itself” (p. 267). Jervis’s argument fits rather well with the logic of “self-reinforcement,” that is, complementary forces or institutions that sustain the original choice.

Other examples include much of the literature focusing on images and schemata. Kenneth Boulding first introduced the concept of “image,” defining it as the cognitive, affective, and evaluative structures of decision makers and so-called behavior units (Boulding, 1956, 1959). Such images are said to be crucial for understanding foreign policy decision making, as they serve as a mental constraint on individual or organizational actors; this is because images are typically attached to a specific set of choices available to actors, and once an image is activated, it becomes difficult to deviate from this set. Since Boulding, a multitude of international relations scholars have further developed the literature on images in foreign policy analysis, of which the so-called enemy image has proven to be particularly influential (see Cottam, 1977; Herrmann & Fischerkeller, 1995; Holsti, 1967; Kelman, 1965; Shimko, 1991; White, 1968). The general assumption is that foreign policy decision makers rely heavily on stereotypical images of the enemy, which they then associate with specified strategic behaviors. Thus, relying on (enemy) images serves as a cognitive constraint that can lead to path-dependent policy choices. Or, as Holsti (1967) put it, “Enemies are those who are defined as such, and if one acts upon that interpretation, it is more than likely that the original definition will be confirmed” (p. 16), even if evidence points to the contrary. A prominent example of this can be seen in the tenure U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles. Holsti argues that Dulles readily accepted information that confirmed his inherent distrust of the Soviet Union and required overwhelming evidence to be convinced that Soviet behavior did not fit with his enemy image (p. 86).

The literature on cognitive foreign policy is far too vast to properly summarize here, but readers might also be interested in the role of belief systems and schemata (Fiske & Linville, 1980; George, 1969; Larson, 1994; Rathbun, 2007; Fiske & Taylor, 1991; Tversky & Kahneman, 1974); operational code (George, 1969; Leites, 1951), historical analogies (Khong, 1992; Levy, 1994; Vertzberger, 1990), and prospect theory (Kahneman & Tversy, 1979, 2000). For additional information about cognition and foreign policy, please refer to “Cognitive Approaches to Foreign Policy Analysis” entry by Aaron Rapport in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics.

More mainstream works in foreign policy and international relations that employ path-dependent arguments tend to focus on institutionalist explanatory factors. For instance, Jupille, Mattli, and Snidal (2013) take a rationalist-historical institutionalist approach to global commerce, arguing that the development of the international trade regime (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade [GATT] and the World Trade Organization [WTO]) “is the best-known case of institutional choice and development in the post-war era” (p. 12). As such, they claim that GATT was “an almost inadvertent by-product of the failed negotiations to CREATE an International Trade Organization” (p. 12), which the authors believe suggests that the pre-existing institutional landscape played a significant role in GATT’s creation. Similarly, the emergence of the WTO cannot be understood without understanding the institutional context of GATT. Jupille, Mattli, and Snidal analyze the emergence of the international trade regime by focusing on institutional context, critical junctures, and actors’ preferences. They maintain that

in some cases, the actors clearly are aware that a better outcome is available but are unable to move there; in other cases, the actors take a puzzlingly long time to embrace Pareto-improving CHANGE or CREATION, acting only when enormous insufficiency of the institutional status quo swamps lingering fears and uncertainties surrounding departure from it.

(Jupille, Mattli, & Snidal, 2013, p. 12)

The authors’ illustration of the difficulty of large-scale rational institutional design echoes earlier works by Douglas North. North (2005), Understanding the Process of Economic Change, is based on the premise that the quality of its political and social institutions determines a country’s economic performance. Once these institutions are established, they constrain future economic change, creating a path-dependent outcome. According to North, “much of rational choice is not so much individual cogitation as the embeddedness of the thought process in the larger social and institutional context” (p. 25).

Another noteworthy study of international political economy that employs a historical institutionalist approach is that of Farrell and Newman (2010), “Making Global Markets: Historical Institutionalism in International Political Economy.” The authors argue that states’ domestic regulatory systems help set the rules of international economic governance through the mechanisms of policy feedback and relative sequencing. According to Farrell and Newman (2010):

Historical institutionalism not only provides the basis for arguments about where actors’ preferences come from, but also about how domestic institutions are likely to shape the international interactions in which states (and other actors) seek to realize their preferences in informal or semi-informal bargains between domestic regulators or in other forums … Most particularly, domestic institutions are likely to have important sequencing effects on international outcomes.

(p. 621)

In addition, classical policy feedback loops help explain the interconnectedness of state institutions and social preferences that is the result of “mutually re-enforcing interactions between bureaucrats and the social groups who are the main beneficiaries of their policies,” possibly even leading to the creation of so-called organizational cultures that further contribute to path-dependent outcomes (Farrell & Newman, 2010, p. 619).

Studies by Pierson (1996) and Fioretos (2011) suggest that European integration also constitutes a great example of path-dependent institutional development. Pierson (1996) argues that even though national governments initially retained most of their sovereignty within the developing European institutions, over time, their decisions created a lock-in as a result of increasingly change-resistant institutions and incremental growth of vested interests in the continuation of these institutions from member-states. This path-dependent process was aided by the fact that the national governments may have prioritized short-term results (such as electoral victories) over the long-term loss of sovereignty. Additionally, European integration has frequently had unintended consequences that created greater path dependency and that may not have been foreseeable in the beginning. Finally, each subsequent administration in a member states is restricted by decisions made by its predecessors regarding European integration. Fioretos (2011) also acknowledges the role of path-dependent behaviors in creating European institutions that do not conform to rationalist expectations. He proposes a behavioral-institutionalist approach that suggests that the framing of societal interests largely influences whether economic institutions are reformed or maintained. National actors attempt to influence multilateral arrangements to their advantage, sometimes successfully and sometimes unsuccessfully, yet their own interests are influenced by multilateral arrangements.

For further reading on historical institutionalism in international relations we recommend Historical Institutionalism and International Relations: Explaining Institutional Development in World Politics edited by Thomas Rixen, Lora Ann Viola, and Michael Zürn (2016). The book provides a great introduction to historical institutionalism and its applicability to international relations, particularly in explaining stability and change. Empirical research included in the volume covers a wide range of topics including European Union competition policy, the global politics of financial reform after 2008, as well as development and reforms of various international institutions such as the World Health Organization, the League of Nations, and the United Nations Security Council. Additionally, The Oxford Handbook of Historical Institutionalism, edited by Orfeo Fioretos, Tulia G. Falleti, and Adam Sheingate (2016) offers perhaps the most comprehensive content on historical-institutionalist approaches in American, European, and comparative politics as well as international relations.

Finally, two path-dependent works that perhaps fit more squarely within the literature of foreign policy analysis are Thomas Cavanna’s (2015) book Hubris, Self-Interest, and America’s Failed War in Afghanistan and Bryan Mabee’s (2011) article “Historical Institutionalism and Foreign Policy Analysis: The Origins of the National Security Council Revisited.”

Cavanna’s book asks the question of why despite seemingly adequate resources, the war effort in Afghanistan produced at best only mixed results. One of the central claims of the book is that after Osama bin Laden’s escape from Afghanistan to Pakistan the U.S.-led coalition “found itself locked in a strategic overreach”—largely as a result of the bureaucratic and rhetorical momentum of the war on terror—which subsequently triggered chain reactions that began “the campaign’s seemingly inexorable downward spiral since 2001” (Cavanna, 2015, p. xv). This overreach quickly became self-sustaining after “the Bush administration’s early mistakes took their toll … and as the critical contradictions at the very heart of the campaign increased with the extension of the latter’s duration, scale, and cost, the U.S. leaders lost their strategic flexibility, since they could neither achieve nor renounce their overambitious objectives” (p. xv).

Mabee’s article analyzes the development of the National Security Council (NSC) in the United States, arguing that World War II and its aftermath constituted a critical juncture for the creation of the NSC, which was primarily meant to facilitate civil-military coordination. Employing the logic of path dependence, Mabee (2011) argues that once the NSC was created at this critical juncture, “positive feedback mechanisms enabled its longevity, especially through the combination of increased presidential power over foreign policy and the increased actual use of the NSC as a coordinating body” (p. 29).

Critique of Path Dependence

Despite its undeniable intuitive appeal, a number of important criticisms of path dependence need to be addressed before it can be considered a rigorous framework for understanding politics. The challenges path dependence faces are both conceptual and methodological in nature.

Conceptual Challenges

Probably the biggest challenge path dependence faces is the lack of conceptual clarity that results from concept stretching. Comparativist Giovanni Sartori (1970) was one of the first to raise the problem of how well concepts “travel” beyond their original applications (p. 56). He argued that political scientists had begun engaging in what he called “conceptual stretching,” that is, broadening the meaning of existing concepts to allow for a wider range of application (p. 57). Even though Sartori was primarily referring to scholars of comparative politics who applyied Western concepts to non-Western cases, his notion of concept stretching easily applies to integrating economic or technological concepts into a social sciences context, as well. Paul Pierson and other scholars of path dependence recognize this, “The fuzziness that has marked the use of this concept in social science suggests that the greater range offered by looser definitions has come at a high price in analytical clarity” (Pierson, 2004, p. 21). When reviewing the literature, it becomes clear that path dependence is used to mean anything from the vague idea that history matters to more specific ideas dealing with concrete institutional constraints (lock-in), which can be formal or informal in nature (Beyer, 2010; Rixen & Viola, 2015).

To avoid conceptual stretching, scholars need to focus on the precise mechanisms that allow history (i.e., critical junctures) to influence present and future decisions (Collier & Collier, 1991; Pierson, 2004, pp. 20–21; Thelen, 1999, p. 391), instead of invoking path dependence as though it alone were explanation enough. To make a path-dependent claim, scholars have to be able to show that other alternatives were available to decision makers and to explain how increasing returns or positive feedback loops generated continuity as opposed to change (Sorensen, 2015, p. 22). More work also needs to be devoted to a gaining a clearer understanding of how to recognize critical junctures and legacies, and of how to differentiate between endogenous and exogenous causes in evaluating so-called historical paths. Rixen and Viola make a compelling argument with regard to the difficult relationship between endogenous and exogenous explanations of institutions and policy outcomes. On the one hand scholars of path dependence claim that path dependence is the result of self-reinforcing mechanisms or positive feedback loops and increasing returns (i.e., endogenous variables); on the other hand, the very notion of endogenous feedback loops makes path change virtually impossible. Rixen and Viola (2015) point out that some attempts at dealing with this dilemma, such as Greener’s (2005) proposition to include “decreasing returns” as an attribute of path dependence, can easily lead to charges of conceptual stretching (Rixen & Viola, 2015, p. 307).

A second—and related—conceptual challenge for path dependence scholars is the already noted critique that path dependence is overly static, that is, that is cannot account for change. As Pierson (2000) puts it, “To many, the significance of path dependence is belied by the evident dynamism of social life” (p. 265). Or to put it another way:

If institutions socialize actors and thus endogenize preferences, for example, then it is difficult to explain why these actors would suddenly prefer a new set of institutions. Or, if increasing returns reinforce a particular institutional set-up, it is not clear how one can explain a switch from one particular path to another.

(Immergut, 2006, p. 243)

This is a fairly common criticism of historical explanations in general, including historical institutionalism and path dependence, and is likely the result of a view of history that is too deterministic in that it assumes that once a choice is made, future decisions become automatic (Hay, 2002; Thelen, 1999). To use the tree metaphor again, this criticism assumes that once a branch is chosen, it has to be followed all the way to the top. The challenge for path dependence scholars is to explain when and how policies become locked in, and when and how they can change. Path dependence suggests that critical junctures (or “punctuated equilibria”) represent what essentially amounts to open windows of possibility (Kingdon, 1995), which then increasingly close as actors go down a particular road. However, the understanding of these concepts remains somewhat incomplete, because it is still not known why the switch from stability to instability occurs (Hall & Taylor, 1996, p. 942; Immergut, 2006, p. 243).

The main counterarguments to the claim that path dependence cannot account for change focuses on the notion of incremental, constrained, or “bounded” change. According to Pierson (2000), “Path dependent analyses need not imply that a particular alternative is permanently locked in following the move onto a self-reinforcing path … Change continues, but it is bounded change—until something erodes or swamps the mechanisms of reproduction that generate continuity” (p. 265). Pierson refers to work by Thelen and Mahoney suggesting that by identifying the precise mechanisms of reproduction, one can also gain insights into the processes that generate future changing points, for example, “exogenous shocks” (Mahoney, 2000b; Thelen, 1999). Other explanations focus on the possibility that policy legacies do not determine current policy, but rather constrain it; that is, change can occur, but only within a particular set of change options (Capoccia & Kelemen, 2007, p. 368; Kay, 2005, p. 566).

This, of course, begs the question of how we can identify the range of options within these constrained paths and how bounded and incremental change occurs. Mahoney and Thelen (2010) point out the importance of power relations in both creating legacies and changing them: Those advantaged by a particular institution will continue to mobilize support or change the rules of the game to protect their positions (8). This is reminiscent of Pierson’s argument concerning the use of political authority and power asymmetries outlined above. Consequently, should a shift in the balance of power occur, this might explain change even without a new critical juncture.

A second argument put forth by Mahoney and Thelen (2010) allows for incremental change through the interpretation and enforcement of rules; the vaguer the original “rule,” the more open it likely is to reinterpretation—and thus incremental change. An example of this that comes to mind is the reinterpretation of the German Basic Law concerning the use of the German military in cases beyond self-defense. Between 1949 and 1994, the law was interpreted to mean that the deployment of German troops for any reason other than self-defense and deterrence—including during peacekeeping missions—was unconstitutional. In 1994, the German Constitutional Court reinterpreted the law to allow for a wider, though not completely unrestricted, use of the military, opening the door to peacekeeping operations and so-called out of area missions that transcended Germany’s NATO obligations (Leithner, 2009).

Pierson and Skocpol (2002) remind us that some changes are not sudden, but evolve over long periods of time and remain unseen until they are well beyond the original critical juncture or legacy that caused them. They provide the example of changes in pension systems whose effects on public spending are not fully apparent until half a century or longer. Alternatively, the concept of “threshold effects” may explain slow-moving change, because “many social processes may have little significance until they attain a critical mass, which may then trigger major change.” And finally, change may be the result of a causal chain with several links, which could also account for observed incremental changes (pp. 9–10).

Although the concepts of bounded and incremental change make a certain amount of sense, and the advice to consider long-term processes when analyzing change is certainly reasonable, the literature as a whole still struggles to carefully delineate the difference between such endogenous changes and other, exogenous factors. The precise mechanisms of self-reinforcement and positive feedback could also benefit from more conceptual sharpening and from empirical work to test assumptions derived from them. For instance, while much of the literature refers to “positive” feedback loops, Mahoney (2000b) rightly asks whether “negative” feedback loops could also contribute to path-dependent behavior. Such negative feedback is defined as effects that raise the relative cost of maintaining the status quo, whereas positive feedback increases the relative benefit of the status quo over time. But if both are self-reinforcing mechanisms, this poses serious challenges for scholars’ ability to test path-dependent assumptions and might create tautological conditions that seriously undermine the entire path-dependent framework unless conditions under which we might expect positive versus negative feedback to play a role are further defined.

More work is needed to further explore continuity and change within a path-dependent framework, as well as to devise rigorous research designs that allow for the empirical testing of complex path-dependent hypotheses (Pierson, 2000, p. 265).

Methodological Challenges

As noted, most path dependence studies thus far appear to have employed a case-study design. This preference seems to be the logical result of the nature of path-dependent assumptions; there, have, nonetheless, been methodological challenges, usually from behavioralists and statistical methodologists, that have led to questions about the testability and validity of path dependence (see King, Keohane, & Verba, 1994). The main criticisms have focused on the lack of large-N comparisons and the fact that scholars of path dependence typically find themselves unable to randomly select cases, which introduces the very real possibility of selection bias and selecting on the dependent variable. There is much more to be said about the scope of the quantitative versus qualitative research debate; see, for example, the excellent defense of small-N research in Mahoney (2000b). Here, suffice it to say that comparative historical research can and does produce causal explanations (as opposed to engaging in thick description alone); it engages a wide variety of approaches to make causal inferences (Mahoney & Rueschemeyer, 2003), and if done properly it can produce systematic comparisons that aid the purposes of theory testing (Geddes, 2003).

It should also be noted, however, that there are those who maintain that the purpose of comparative historical research is not to produce generalizable theories and that systematic tests of arguments do not capture the richness of historical events (Bridges, 2000; Evans & Stephens, 1988).

Other methodological criticisms focus primarily on the difficulty of operationalizing (and thus testing) important concepts in path dependence, such as critical junctures, self-reinforcing mechanisms, and “constant” versus “historical” causes. Collier and Collier (1991) have noted this themselves in their work on critical junctures, “Because it is essential to the concept of a critical juncture that it occurs in different ways in different cases, issues of establishing analytic equivalence, that are standard problems in comparative-historical research, are abundantly present in thus type of analysis” (p. 31). Others have gone even further to argue that unique events by definition cannot support causal inferences (Gerring, 2001; Goldthorpe, 1997).

As a result, it is very difficult empirically test path-dependent hypotheses. “The observation that change has been limited over a period of time is not sufficient to infer a path-dependent process: an unconstrained but stable series of choices would be consistent with this observation” (Kay, 2005, p. 554).

Value Added of Path Dependence?

Perhaps it is because of these conceptual difficulties that critics question the value added of path dependence. According to Jos C. N. Raadschelder (1998), path dependence is not a useful concept for explaining social change because it is only after the fact that we become aware of stages or paths of development: “‘Path dependency’ refers to a string of related events: causality in retrospect” (p. 576). To be fair, path dependence has come a long way in the almost two decades since then. As Mahoney and Rueschemeier (2003) point out, “Scholars are now in the mist of exciting research on temporal processes and path dependence, conceptual formation and measurement, and strategies of causal inference ranging from historical narrative and process tracing to Boolean algebra and fuzzy-set analysis” (p. 6). At the same time, Kay’s (2005) observation applies here: “Theoretical work often accumulates more quickly than evidence form robust empirical testing. The danger for path dependence is that it becomes a concept in search of a case” (p. 569). Instead, he argues for the assembly of a taxonomy of different means for understanding temporality, an effort that may well be on its way (cf. Rixen & Viola, 2015).

While one’s judgment of path dependence likely depends largely on one’s ontological and epistemological proclivities, scholars of path dependence have got a point when they claim that the value added lies in path dependence’s interest in “big questions,” its focus on longitudinal studies, and its attractiveness as an alternative to behavioralist and rationalist approaches and functional understandings of outcomes (which suffer their own conceptual and methodological challenges). If conceptual and methodological obstacles remain, it should not cause political scientists to throw the baby out with the bath water, so to speak. Or in the words of Paul Pierson (2000):

Since the rise of behaviorism, many political scientists have had lofty aspiration about developing a science of politics, rooted in parsimony and generalization and capable of great predictive power. Despite modest achievements over four decades, these aspirations remain. Setbacks are shrugged off with calls for more time or more sustained application of the proper methods.

(p. 266)

If path dependence has failed to produce acceptable results by the standards of behavioral science, perhaps we ought to extend its scholars the same courtesy of more time.


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