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date: 23 March 2017

Domestic Role Contestation and Foreign Policy

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Scholarship on domestic role contestation arose out of critiques of two frequent assumptions about the impact of national role conceptions (NRCs) on a state’s foreign policy: the assumption of elite consensus and of elite-public agreement on one or several NRCs. These critiques have been occasionally articulated since the entry of role theory into international relations literature, but were systematized during a new wave of research on roles that started in the 2010s.

The domestic role contestation approach uses research and middle-range theorizing in foreign policy analysis (FPA) to hypothesize that roles connect to foreign policy behavior via the domestic political process and to identify the key actors that require investigation. As a result, scholars must demonstrate how relevant elites and a variety of public actors relate to NRCs in a country. The degree of consensus along two dimensions—commonly defined as “horizontal” and “vertical” for the intra-elite and the elite-public nexus, respectively—can explain what roles are enacted or blocked. Empirical findings, although tentative, have corroborated the relevance of these arguments. The public can constrain elites from enacting unpopular roles or can alter the institutional balance between elites that hold different NRCs (via elections, for instance). Elites with significant institutional power—particularly in the executive—can often overcome impediments to enact preferred roles, although this ability often hinges on the lack of divisions in ruling institutions.

The literature on domestic role contestation has a number of limitations. First, “contestation” and “conflict” are sometimes used interchangeably, which generates confusion because the latter notion has its own separate meaning in the literature. Second, empirical studies are both infrequent and limited primarily to the global North. The small volume of data complicates the articulation of any strong claims about, for instance, scope conditions for public opinion influence on NRCs. Furthermore, geographic limitations make it difficult to make such claims as universal as possible. Finally, the literature is yet to provide a framework for incorporating the involvement of relevant external actors (commonly known as “alters”) in the domestic contestation process. The impediments here are partly practical—an eye to detailed domestic processes and external involvement can create an unwieldy narrative—but the effort to conceptualize this dimension is important in light of role theory’s major focus on the interaction between ego and alter.