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date: 17 August 2017

Domestic Role Contestation and Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

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 the assumption 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 they were systematized during a new wave of research on roles that started in the 2010s.

The domestic role contestation approach identifies the key domestic actors that hold NRCs and hypothesizes that roles connect to foreign policy behavior via the domestic political process. 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, though tentative, have corroborated the relevance of these arguments. 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. Although less robust due to the absence of significant empirical research, role theory scholarship has also revealed that the public can, at times, constrain elites from enacting unpopular roles.

The literature on domestic role contestation has a number of limitations that can inform future research directions. First, there is still no comprehensive list of domestic actors that hold (and argue about) NRCs. Such a list can outline the diversity of social environments in which countries find themselves, generate insights into how they navigate their presence in each one, and lead to more detailed accounts of how the contestation process unfolds. Second, 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. Third, role contestation scholarship needs stronger and clearer connections to traditional and critical international relations theories, as well as the study of contentious politics. Finally, methodological rigor and diversity should be a priority for the future development of this strand of role theory.

Keywords: role theory, national role conceptions, role contestation, foreign policy analysis, public opinion, domestic opposition

Introduction: How National Role Conceptions are Contested

Holsti’s (1970) article introduced role theory to international relations and foreign policy analysis scholars, who have since built on its descriptive, organizational, and explanatory value (Walker, 1987; see also Thies, 2010). Defined as “policymakers’ own definitions of the general kinds of decisions, commitments, rules, and actions suitable to their state, and of the functions, if any, their state should perform on a continuing basis in the international system or in subordinate regional systems” (Holsti, 1970, p. 246), roles have an impact on how decision makers interpret their country’s place in global affairs and on foreign policy behavior. After Holsti, (1970), most contributions focused on the country as the primary unit of analysis, either assuming that roles were reflections of intra-elite and elite–public consensus (Cantir & Kaarbo, 2012) or overlooking the process by which these roles were selected for enactment (Brummer & Thies, 2014). These assumptions have been challenged by theoretical and empirical scholarship—often using the notion of “domestic role contestation”—which is motivated by questions about the presence and selection of roles, as well as the consequences of domestic clashes about what role(s) a country should play. Work in this area typically uses foreign policy analysis to urge a more careful conceptualization of the impact of the domestic political process on both the selection and enactment of roles.

Role theorists have always been aware of the potential difficulties of assuming role consensus, especially considering the fact that empirical analyses revealed a diverse array of roles in individual countries, some of them seemingly incompatible with each other. Holsti (1970, p. 235) himself struggled with this question and wondered whether “policymakers in many states conceive of their nations as playing several roles simultaneously—including some that are incompatible.” He also constructed a list of incompatible national roles that could guide additional research on the matter (Holsti, 1970, p. 302). In addition, the chapters in Le Prestre (1997) distinguished multiple roles for countries like France, the United Kingdom, and Russia, as did authors like Grossman (2005) in individual case studies. The mere presence of more than one role does not, of course, automatically indicate the existence of any domestic discord. After all, it is possible that different roles are developed for different social environments, without any risk of incompatibility (Holsti, 1970, p. 303).

Proponents of the domestic role contestation approach have argued, however, that role consensus—whether it is assumed when a country vocalizes one or multiple roles—is an empirical question that needs to be investigated. As a result, some have turned to answering how domestic actors position themselves with respect to their country’s role(s), anchored in a number of theoretically minded articles that deploy the major findings of foreign policy analysis as a guide. In an effort to develop “a research agenda for role theory’s future,” Breuning (2011), for instance, touches on elements of contestation and underscores the advantage of insights from prospect theory (especially when it comes to leaders), cultural symbols, and foreign policy change. Cantir and Kaarbo (2012), Kaarbo and Cantir (2013), Brummer and Thies (2014), and the various contributions in a recent volume edited by Cantir and Kaarbo (2016a), summarize FPA knowledge on public opinion, political opposition, coalition politics, small groups, and bureaucratic politics, to name a few, and recommend their use for theory-building purposes in studies of contestation. Research in foreign policy analysis offers decades of knowledge on domestic contestation over policy positions, which informs the examination of role contestation (e.g., Allison, 1971; Ozkececi-Taner, 2005).1

In light of these theoretical bases, contestation studies typically start with listing domestic actors and institutions that can hold or advance national role conceptions. Among elites (or “horizontal contestation” (Cantir & Kaarbo, 2012)),2 scholarship on single countries has found national role conception holders among low-level and high-level individual members of the executive or legislative branches, bureaucratic agencies, and political parties. In short, virtually every actor that foreign policy analysis has deemed relevant to internal debates about foreign policy can hold one or more national role conceptions and has sought to gain access to institutional power to enact it. The work by Brummer and Thies (2014, pp. 8–9) is a good example of this diversity: the authors find that Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) Chancellor Konrad Adenauer held the role of “faithful ally,” which “entailed an unwavering commitment to the integration of the FRG in Western structures, both European and transatlantic.” Other roles were championed by the Social Democratic Party (“recalcitrant ally”), Federal Minister of the Interior Gustav Heinemann (“neutrality”), and the Communist Party of Germany (“Eastern ally”; Brummer & Thies, 2014, pp. 8–9). Wehner and Thies (2014, p. 423) and Wehner (2016) point to Chilean presidents as holders of national role conceptions, but they also find that officials within ministries (like the Ministry of Finances in the case of Wehner & Thies, 2014) have their own views on what roles their country should pursue. Walker et al. (2016) see bureaucratic politics in the United States as a site of contestation: the State Department and the Defense Department pushed distinctive roles within the U.S. cabinet during the George W. Bush and the Barack Obama administrations. Jones (2017) made a similar discovery in China, where the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and the Foreign Ministry promoted their preferred roles in a contentious process. Referring to political parties, Paris’s (2014) analysis of role contestation in Canada draws clear lines between Harper-era Conservatives and Liberals in a battle over the continuity of the liberal internationalist role. Several of the contributions in the Cantir and Kaarbo (2016a) volume—Hagan (2016), Brummer and Thies (2016), Hirata (2016), Ozdamar (2016), and Gaskarth (2016)—establish the centrality of political parties in contestation as well.

Outside decision-making circles, the concern has been primarily with how public opinion reacts to and agrees with various roles (“vertical contestation”; Cantir & Kaarbo, 2016b), although it is theoretically possible that any organized group with an interest in foreign policy can advocate for a national role conception (e.g., media outlets, interest groups).3Paris (2014, p. 302) finds that Canadian public opinion has continued to support a liberal internationalist role despite attempts by the Harper government both to challenge some of the policies associated with that role and “to discredit the idea of liberal internationalism in the minds of Canadians, replacing it with a different narrative about Canada’s role in the world.” Gaskarth (2016) documents the British public’s increasing rejection of the use of force, which is associated with several roles that the United Kingdom has traditionally sought to implement. In other words, public opinion attitudes on foreign policy seem to be informed by national role conceptions,4 which suggests that the general population has its own understanding of the roles a country should enact, and those the country should not.5

The diversity of domestic political actors that can hold roles is one of the most valuable contributions by this strand of research in role theory: domestic political actors believe in and espouse different roles—and different combinations of the same roles—for their country. Past research that focused almost exclusively on the state—and, often, on a small number of leaders—as the unit of analysis obscured quite a bit of internal disagreement. Lowering and refining the level of analysis has allowed scholars to assess more confidently how, and whether, domestic discord reveals the existence of salient debates about role enactment.

The next logical question in the literature—after establishing the variety of “carriers” of national role conceptions–is how such roles are selected for enactment. It turns out that the selection process can be competitive and contentious. This is an unsurprising finding if we take into consideration foreign policy analysis, and it is a finding that speaks to the problematic assumption of consensus in role theory. One of the consistent—and perhaps most prominent—findings thus far is that actors that possess institutional power are more likely to successfully enact their preferred roles, even in a competitive environment that creates difficulties for decision makers (Cantir & Kaarbo, 2016a, p. 177; Brummer & Thies, 2014). For instance, prime ministers (Ozdamar, 2016) and presidents (Hagan, 2016) who have institutional power are capable of advocating for their preferred role conceptions. Conversely, the weakening of institutional power—characterized by divisions within ruling parties, party fragmentation, or coalition politics—makes it more difficult to enact the roles elites prefer because it creates a more competitive environment where veto players may be activated to impede enactment. Such tensions can also make it more difficult for countries to meet expectations by other countries or by the international community (see Gaskarth, 2016; Hirata, 2016). For example, Hagan’s (2016) case study on British and French decisions in 1914, which ultimately culminated in World War I, finds that French President Raymond Poincaré was able to channel his institutional power as head of state to impose his preferred role in spite of major opposition from legislative groups that pushed for a different national role conception. Ozdamar’s (2016) study also points out that the Justice and Development Party’s (AKP) dominance in the Turkish legislature, starting in 2002, allowed the government, especially Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to project his preferred national role conceptions despite the absence of political consensus.

When one looks beyond elites, the dynamics of role contestation—especially selection and enactment—are more difficult to summarize given both a dearth of research on the topic and some contradictory findings in the existing, few empirical studies. It is known, for instance, that public opinion can act as a constraint on role enactment by elites because efforts to follow through on policy informed by an unpopular role may carry with it electoral or political consequences. For example, Gaskarth (2016) argues that British legislators became more hesitant about supporting national role conceptions requiring the use of force after the British public became more resistant to such policies. But we are also aware of the fact that, similar to broader findings in foreign policy analysis, elites often ignore public opinion views on roles (Kaarbo & Cantir, 2016). There are also some indications that media outlets and interest groups are active participants in domestic discussions about a country’s roles (Hirata, 2016, p. 60; Ozdamar, 2016, p. 99), but the mechanisms behind their involvement remain underresearched.

Avenues for Future Research

Since domestic role contestation is a rather new development in role theory, questions remain in conceptualizing the presence and selection of national role conceptions (see also the conclusion in Cantir & Kaarbo, 2016a, which summarizes a number of chapters speaking directly to a framework on role contestation). Although the presence of domestic contestation has already been demonstrated, there is still no exhaustive list of the individuals and domestic groups that hold national role conceptions for their state. The executive-legislative dynamic is becoming clearer; some patterns are likely to be visible in other instances, like, for example, the expectation that a strong executive with legislative support and low opposition will have free rein in the domestic contestation of roles. Less is known about bureaucratic role contestation, although some authors (Keane & Wood, 2015, Walker et al., 2016; Jones, 2017) are beginning to delineate some potentially important lessons (see also Cantir & Kaarbo, 2016b, pp. 15–16). Jones finds, for example, that bureaucratic entities use action channels, which are familiar to bureaucratic politics scholars, in the process of promoting a role, and both Walker et al. (2016) and Jones (2017) find that leaders at the top of the bureaucratic hierarchy are crucial in the role(s) selected as a result of bureaucratic wrangling. There is also little information on the nature of the contestation process between, on the one hand, civil society and transnational groups and, on the other hand, decision makers. For instance, human rights and business lobbying groups can have their own conceptions of what countries like the United States should do: advocating for humanitarian intervention or for the promotion of a regional free market agreement carries with it expectations for what roles a country should play.

One of the main research directions for students of contestation is, then, the revelation of the full scale of diversity of domestic actors that get involved in discussions about national role conceptions. Research in this area should be guided by questions of why categories of domestic actors are carriers of competing national role conceptions in some countries and not in others, and why the national role conceptions of some actors have a more significant impact on policy.6 For example, in an analysis of national role conceptions held by Indian elites, Hansel and Moller (2015, p. 95) stress that their “analysis, so far, does not support the assumption that intra- and inter-role conflicts are organized along party lines.” This finding is puzzling in light of the seeming centrality of political parties to the domestic contestation process in other countries. Hypothetically, the types of domestic actors that get involved in role contestation would most likely depend on the characteristics—institutional, socioeconomic, and so on—of individual countries and their decision-making structure (see also Kaarbo & Cantir, 2016).

Role contestation may be different in decentralized states, especially where some of the administrative units are home to groups that are distinguished from the rest of the country and may have their own interpretation of how central authorities should behave on the international stage. More generally, substate governments in any state may get involved in role debates, adding a territorial layer to the contestation process (see also Kaarbo & Cantir, 2016, p. 184). The literature on paradiplomacy or substate diplomacy has already established that regional and central governments clash on foreign policy (e.g., Cornago, 2010). Roles may inform these disagreements. In the 2014 Scottish referendum for independence, for example, the debate involved contestation over whether Scotland could or would continue to play roles in the EU and NATO (Beasley, Kaarbo, & Solomon-Strauss, 2016). Contestation may also differ in countries that use a more proportional electoral system and therefore give institutional visibility to more political parties than in single-member plurality districts. All of these possibilities require further study and research. Finally, studies of institutions and the manner in which decision makers acquire institutional power to enact roles serve as a foundation for much of the work on role contestation. One future strand of research should concentrate on the dynamics of contestation in political regimes in which institutions are weak and therefore do not supply clear-cut access to decision-making power. Instead, elites in such states may make use of other tools at their disposal to enact their role preferences.7

As a related point, although we have evidence that domestic actors hold national role conceptions, we do not yet know what determines variation in the intensity with which such roles may be held, either at the individual or group level. Thus far, role theorists have identified roles expressed by various elites or by the public and have analyzed the sources and consequences of disputes. This makes it difficult to assess the extent to which some individuals or groups care more passionately than potential rivals about their preferred roles, which would presumably make them less likely to compromise and more committed to enactment. Breuning’s (2016) case study is an example of how the intensity of one’s adherence to a role can be analyzed: her chapter surveys role contestation in Belgium related to the country’s “trading state” role and the provision of development assistance. In the contestation process, Breuning studies Reginald Moreels, a former head of the country branch of Medecins sans Frontieres, as a particularly passionate promoter of a “partner in development role” (2016, p. 74).

A full picture of actors and their relationship to their country’s national role conceptions may also bring to view the content of a role or the nature of the social environment for which it is developed that makes contestation more likely. Are domestic actors, for instance, more prone to disagree about roles that touch on key events or interpretations in a country’s history? Benes and Harnisch (2015, p. 147) have made a valuable contribution here (see also Breuning, 1997, 1998), having found that, in the case of Germany and the Czech Republic, “historical role experiences, which do not ‘dissolve’ easily, are prone to reproduce historical patterns of cooperation and conflict and thus may lead to considerable role conflict as ‘historical animosities’ become self-fulfilling prophecies in current policy making.” More generally, historical experience is embedded in many roles, such as the notion of a “faithful ally” or a “great power,” and since they relate to core elements of a country’s identity, disputes may have higher stakes.8 Furthermore, would roles that relate to more powerful or weaker countries be more prone to contestation? For example, many post-Soviet states have, since independence, intensely debated the utility of a “multivector foreign policy,” which has often sought to balance between Russia and other powerful countries (see Kuzio, 2005 on Ukraine and Hanks, 2009 on Kazakhstan). These authors show that ties with Moscow generate domestic debates, many of which can be tied to role contestation. Finally, would instances of clear rather than vague alter expectations generate more consensus? These are just a few questions that could produce a typology of the various bases for contested roles (see Kaarbo & Cantir, 2016 for a more exhaustive list of questions).

The discovery that institutional power matters in the selection of roles is important but has to be sharpened. Foreign policy analysis could be a useful guide in pinpointing multiple paths that move from listing actors pushing their preferred national role conceptions to their selection and enactment. For example, Cantir and Kaarbo (2012) recommend the study of coalition dynamics and their possible effect on role contestation. Brummer and Thies (2014), in a case study of role contestation in the first few years of the Federal Republic of Germany, find “no evidence that cabinet politics resulting from a coalition government was at play at any point.” In contrast, Koenig (2016, p. 170) learned that intracoalition wrangling about the role Germany should play during the Libya crisis (in 2013) weakened the cabinet’s hand in the contestation process. Additional studies on coalition politics would clarify the conditions under which contestation is activated at certain levels, and the various ways in which leaders get to the selection stage. Similar analyses of every imaginable institutional process in foreign policy decision making would further illuminate selection and enactment. It is also important to look beyond the decision-making process and ask how other domestic actors such as NGOs and interest groups may be able to alter both the selection and enactment of roles.

Studies on the public’s participation in the contestation process are also necessary to determine when and how decision makers react to citizen role conceptions as they are trying to enact their own preferences. More broadly, public–elite connections at all levels of analysis should get more consideration. For instance, how do party leaders respond to their own electorate’s role conceptions, especially if there is the potential for a difference between elite and public opinions on the matter? What types of public pressure or participation are more effective in either shifting elite views or changing their role conceptions?

Alongside the major questions and theoretical frameworks already noted, literature on domestic role contestation covers some themes familiar to role theorists and to foreign policy analysis scholars interested in the impact of ideational factors on behavior. The challenge of establishing a clear distinction between role and identity remains (see Nabers, 2011; McCourt, 2014; Wehner & Thies, 2014; Harnisch, 2016), with most work noting its existence and moving to more specific theoretical discussions and empirical evidence. Studies on domestic role contestation are well placed to contribute to this topic because a better understanding of domestic-level factors—and of the views the actors hold on roles—can expose historical and ideational sources for these roles and uncover ways to clarify the distinction (see also Breuning, 2011; Cantir & Kaarbo, 2016b, p. 4). Furthermore, a careful analysis of the contestation process may also indicate whether and when domestic elites and publics disagree on identity, roles, or both. Following McCourt’s (2012, p. 373) argument that identity is “explicitly individualist in nature,” whereas a role is an “inherently social concept,” it is conceivable that contestation may occur at different ideational levels: agents may agree on a core identity for their state but may disagree on the roles that stem from it. Alternatively, contestation on roles may originate in a basic disagreement about a state’s identity. Careful analysis of the contestation process may offer an empirical basis on which to sharpen this distinction.

In addition, the difference between “role contestation” and “role conflict” remains a conceptual challenge, but the terms are often used interchangeably to address similar questions about how domestic actors deal with clashes about one or more roles. Conceptual clarity is important here but does not seem to have impeded theoretical or empirical progress on domestic actors.

Another theme in the literature, which has already been touched on, asks whether the characteristics of a country can make a difference in the domestic contestation process. Thies (2014) and Kaarbo and Cantir (2016) have noted that most of the studies of roles—and of role contestation—tend to prioritize more or less consolidated democracies in the global North, which makes it difficult to analyze the impact of regime type, geographic location, and colonial experience, to name a few potential variables, on the contestation process. In addition, this limitation makes it difficult to conjecture whether even some of the findings in role contestation travel to a greater universe of cases. Blarel and Van Willigen’s (2016) argument that coalition politics insights from the global North—which, as noted, can be very helpful in untangling patterns of role contestation—may not apply as easily to cases in the global South can only be tested in role theory if more diverse case studies are presented that move beyond the global North. This situation is slowly changing as studies on a variety of Latin American countries (Thies, 2014; Wehner & Thies, 2014; Wehner, 2016), India (Hansel & Moller, 2015), and China (Jones, 2017) become available.

Taking into account role theory’s claim that it can do justice to both agency and structure in analyses of behavior, investigations of domestic role contestation have to do a better job of conceptualizing the involvement of actors from outside of the country (typically defined as “alters”) in the process. Domestic actors do not live in a vacuum that limits their horizon to their sovereign borders. Beasley and Kaarbo (2017), for example, examine the impact that external actors had on role contestation in the 2014 Scottish referendum for independence. In addition, other countries and nonstate actors often get actively involved in the domestic affairs of other states. Future inquiries should take into account significant alters and track their involvement in the day-to-day contestation process. It is also important to be guided by the awareness that domestic political actors now have multiple connections to similar actors outside of the country and that these connections could either generate or influence contestation processes. For instance, if political parties are major carriers of national role conceptions, it would be useful to know how roles are discussed, disseminated, and changed in transnational party networks (like the “party families” in the European Union), and how they then make their way into domestic political debates. Attention to alters also has a natural affinity to some recent work that looks into contestation at multiple levels of analysis. Domestic-level elites may not only disagree among themselves—they may also have to contend with contestations from substate elites (Beasley et al., 2016) or suprastate elites (Koenig, 2016). A better refinement of the multiple levels where contestation can take place is one of the least studied themes in this literature but could produce some fascinating theoretical and empirical contributions.

Finally, role contestation could be better connected to long-standing research in foreign policy analysis on the psychology of agents. At the public level, how individuals understand roles as schemas as part of their political belief systems and how preexisting role conceptions filter information processing could benefit from political psychology work on beliefs, emotions, attitudes and judgment. At the elite level, work on the psychology of leaders’ orientations to the world, to domestic political conflict, and to advisory systems could inform future lessons about how leaders negotiate role contestation processes. Although role theory has been connected to leaders’ “operational code” beliefs (e.g., Schafer & Walker, 2006), less is known about how leader personality, leadership style, individual decision-making patterns, and small-group dynamics interact with national roles and role contestation.

Connections with Other Research Areas

Within international relations, the study of contestation has several connections with both traditional and critical international relations theories.9 Attention to role contestation can facilitate the modeling of the domestic political process for theoretical frameworks that often undertheorize both the agent and the impact of ideational variables (Kaarbo, 2015; Kaarbo & Cantir, 2016, p. 186). One somewhat new connection that carries a lot of potential has to do with the inroads that role theory has made into understanding small-state behavior (Breuning, 2016; Gigleux, 2016). Since the small-state literature speaks directly to major theoretical approaches, especially different varieties of realism, role theorists have the opportunity to contribute to the ongoing challenge of untangling the influence of agency and structure on state behavior (see especially Gigleux, 2016) and to, therefore, directly communicate with realist scholars. Such analyses can also connect with other role theory literature on the socialization of new and aspirant states into international society (Thies, 2013; Beasley & Kaarbo, 2017), which also draws on realist and constructivist theoretical approaches. As McCourt (2011, p. 1620) says, role theory also has connections with the English School, given their shared interest in social context. As far as domestic contestation is concerned, the English School could look at domestic debates on roles as a way to parse out how states respond to their social environment. In addition, contestation would allow this theoretical approach to incorporate consideration of domestic-level variables into their analyses.

Role contestation links quite naturally to variants of liberalism that speak to domestic institutional and public opinion mechanisms (e.g., Owen, 1994; Moravcsik, 1997) and can provide for neoclassical realism a more theoretically developed approach to internal struggles between domestic political actors over states’ ideologies and motives (e.g., Lobell, Ripsman, & Taliaferro, 2009). Attention to the institutional levers used during ideational debates can also fine-tune some constructivist work by highlighting the tools decision makers utilize when they disagree about roles. Role theorists, including those interested in the contestation process, have emphasized the value of studying roles to make up for the excessive preoccupation by some constructivists with structural factors (McCourt, 2011; Wehner & Thies, 2014). A more developed understanding of the dynamics within countries can ground the study of ideational factors in institutional settings that the foreign policy analysis literature has discovered as having an impact on state behavior.

Critical theoretical approaches, although they have not gotten a lot of notice in role theory, also have natural theoretical connections to the study of domestic role contestation. They can be especially useful in explaining or predicting the reasons contestation may emerge and why domestic actors may position themselves differently in the promotion of national role conceptions. Postcolonial approaches, especially those on identity and hybridity, can be mined for explanations regarding the origins of roles and the intensity with which some roles are contested—both domestically and internationally. It is difficult to understand French foreign policy without looking to its colonial-era experience and studying the way in which it relates to that colonial past (Krotz, 2015; see also Breuning, 2016 for some reflections on Belgium’s colonial history). Furthermore, any state that has experienced a period of colonialism will likely develop roles informed by it, and it is possible that domestic actors position themselves differently with respect to, say, the former colonizer. Subaltern studies (e.g., Doron, 2010) can also tell us what domestic groups tend to be marginalized in the role contestation process, and might produce important findings about what actors are considered to be legitimate contributors to role discussions and why.

On a related note, critical Marxist interpretations that analyze the constellation of domestic actors and their relationship to the global capitalist system can also speak to some of the roles that such actors develop. Thies’s (2014) analysis of the national role conceptions supported by former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez sheds light on his opposition to global capitalism as an important dimension of how he thinks about his country’s roles. The gendered dimension of roles—and of the process of role contestation—remains understudied (but see Fazendeiro, 2016), even though feminist analyses of identity confirm the prominence of gendered interpretations of reality and their impact on state behavior. Some roles like “protector” are ripe for gendered analysis, and contestation about who deserves protection or whether such a role should even be enacted is likely to delineate gendered dimensions as well. Finally, Nabers’s (2011) use of discourse theory to reflect on the differences between identity and roles open up an avenue for broader engagement with critical discourse analysis (see Fairclough, 2013). In particular, notions of hegemonic and counterhegemonic discourse may inform our understanding of both how and why certain roles dominate in a society, as well as sources of resistance to them.10

Aside from the more visible connections with comparative politics—especially the study of political parties and ideologies (Kaarbo & Cantir, 2016, p. 188)—the study of domestic role contestation has affinities with comparative politics research on contentious politics (McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly, 2009). Since the public’s political claims “range from decorous collective expressions of support to devastating attacks” (McAdam, Tarrow, & Tilly, 2009, p. 261), it would be useful to explore some of the findings of the various strands of the contentious politics research program to develop a better understanding of the intensity and types of quarrels that can emerge about a country’s national role conceptions. For example, when does violent disagreement about roles become more likely? When are domestic actors more willing to compromise on roles, and are certain actors (like the military) more willing to use force to enforce their own perspective on national role conceptions? More broadly, the relationship between role contestation and the study of political violence is a connection that deserves more scrutiny than it has gotten in the literature thus far.


Studies of national role contestation do not stray from typical methodologies used in role theory more generally. To identify roles, authors use secondary literature and a variety of primary sources such as political party platforms, speeches, and interviews (for an illustration of this diversity, see the chapters in Cantir & Kaarbo, 2016a). Since “role theorists have yet to produce a handbook on methodology for the analysis of NRCs” (Thies, 2014, p. 9), efforts tend to be decentralized and vary in the extent to which the authors self-consciously lay out their methodology. This continues to be a problem because it makes the systematic acquisition of knowledge on contestation more difficult, but it is not insurmountable. Hansel and Moller (2015, p. 82) present a good example of a more rigorous approach: in a study of national role conceptions in India, they present a codebook, discuss intercoder reliability, and select texts directed at multiple audiences to both “minimize the impact of personality traits or situational moods” and “control for tendencies of rhetorical window-dressing.”

Maintaining methodological rigor becomes more difficult when analyzing the public’s national role conceptions. In the absence of surveys that ask questions aimed directly at discerning roles, the few scholars who have explored public opinion (e.g., Gaskarth, 2016) have to rely on phraseology used by polling companies, which is compelling in individual case studies, but makes it more difficult to develop a coherent set of roles the public may agree with. As a result, efforts to develop both a standardized approach to deriving roles from both elite discourse and public opinion polling could generate important advances in the study of domestic role contestation. As a related point, in-depth and structured interviews, as well as focus groups, remain underused in the field but could produce important findings in understanding how the public thinks about roles. Finally, although burdensome in terms of time and resources, ethnographic studies can be extremely informative about role conceptions and role contestation at the micro-level, beyond the inner circles of power. Students of role contestation—and role theory more generally—could also be better served by casting a wider net for the type of text that can be analyzed. Role conceptions may be visible not only in party platforms and speeches, but also in memoirs or even fiction or social media.

Analyses of the process of domestic role contestation rely heavily on case studies and have therefore been able to draw on the increasing volume—and quality—of case study and qualitative methods in general (e.g., Beach & Pedersen, 2013). Brummer and Thies (2014, p. 2) and Jones (2017), for example, use their research as a plausibility probe (Eckstein, 1975), while Kaarbo and Cantir (2013) use a process-tracing analysis. Quantitative approaches tend to be rarer, although Walker et al. (2016) have demonstrated their utility for studying contestation dynamics. Interpretive methodological approaches (Wehner & Thies, 2014; Wehner, 2015; Fazendeiro, 2016) have emerged more recently as well. Methodological reflection is becoming more common in role theory—and in role contestation.

One little-discussed advantage of the domestic role contestation literature is the diversity of non-English language sources: Dutch (Breuning, 1995, 2016); Spanish (Wehner & Thies, 2014); Turkish (Ozadamar, 2016; Aras & Gorener, 2010); Russian (Chafetz et al., 1996), and Chinese (Jones, 2017), just to name a few. The presence of such a globally minded scholarly effort is an advantage to theory-building efforts as more data from more countries become available. It also offers new and established scholars opportunities to make original contributions based on their regional expertise while remaining connected to a set of theoretical propositions.


The study of domestic role contestation is a relatively recent addition to role theory and foreign policy analysis. Rooted in both domestic institutional processes and the impact of ideational factors on state behavior, scholarship on this topic has revealed important lessons about how elites and publics negotiate their country’s regional or global presence. Studies of contestation have produced findings that have remained robust across various cases, but a considerable amount of work remains to be done. Areas open for exploration include identifying all actors that participate in domestic role debates, tracking their impact on selection and enactment, and establishing more solid connections to theoretical and methodological developments in the discipline. Despite some lingering challenges, a basis for future research has solidified in the last few years, with a number of clear directions for scholars who, like Holsti (1970), continue to believe in the usefulness of the notion of “role” in unearthing novel discoveries about international relations.


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(1.) Although foreign policy analysis scholarship considers the importance of domestic disagreements on foreign policy, it has in the past been limited in conceptualizing the ideational sources of such disagreements (see Cantir & Kaarbo, 2012, 2016b, on more detailed arguments about why foreign policy analysis can benefit from incorporating roles in analyses).

(2.) In an earlier article, Cantir and Kaarbo (2012) proposed using shortcuts like “horizontal contestation” for intra-elite disagreements and “vertical contestation” for elite–public disagreements. Although the expressions do not encompass all possible sites of contestation (as will be noted later), they have been useful in structuring the argument about the connection between role theory and foreign policy analysis.

(3.) Such studies are rare, however (see Cantir & Kaarbo, 2016b, pp. 7, 22).

(4.) For a related point that focuses on culture, see Hudson (1999).

(5.) This is not to say that public opinion cannot be divided or polarized about national role conceptions, which can add another dimension to the contestation process. Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for bringing up this issue.

(6.) Thanks are extended to an anonymous reviewer for drawing attention to this point.

(7.) For a recent discussion of weak institutions, see Selcuk (2016).

(8.) Some roles may also solidify their presence given a process of path dependence. On this issue, see Frank (2011). Thanks to an anonymous reviewer for bringing attention to this point.

(9.) The following paragraphs reflect on some novel connections that have not yet made inroads in the role contestation literature. Therefore, theoretical ground that has already been covered by other authors is overlooked. On the connections between role theory and constructivism, see McCourt (2011), Wendt (1999), and Breuning (2011). On connections with realist perspectives, see Thies (2013).

(10.) Thanks are extended to an anonymous reviewer for this suggestion.