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date: 25 April 2017

Foreign Policy Learning

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

Given that mainstream international relations theories failed to adequately explain, let alone predict, the end of the cold war, and consequently, the changed structure of the international system, scholars have searched for better explanations for dramatic changes in world politics. After decades of neglect, scholars have brought back the role of human agency, focusing on transformative leaders like Mikhail Gorbachev, without whom the momentous events of the late 1980s and early 1990s would probably not have taken place when they did. Learning theorists have sought to show how a change in an actor’s beliefs due to experience or observation can lead to changes at other units, such as organizations and within the government, changes that can lead to foreign policy shifts. Learning theory can be seen as a corrective to “structural adjustment models,” which assume that leaders will respond rationally to changes in the international environment. Learning theorists borrow insights from political psychology in an effort to shed light on the personal characteristics, belief structures, and cognitive psychological mechanisms of political actors that can better inform policymaking.

The challenges for the scholar studying foreign policy learning are formidable. There is no consensus on the definition of learning, on what constitutes learning, on how actors learn, when they learn, or on how to assess whether learning has taken place. Learning and foreign policy change, moreover, are not synonymous; one can occur without the other. There are also multiple pathways to learning. A complete explanation of learning must incorporate the individual, the domestic, and the systemic levels of analysis—an unappealing task for the scholar who aims to come up with a parsimonious account.

Although the scholar’s task is a daunting one, the effort invested in investigating learning is worthy for improving our understanding—both theoretically and empirically—of foreign policymaking. Leaders who have undergone complex (or genuine) learning are more likely to be committed to the new policies they undertake. Decision makers whose learning has led them to rethink their positions in a more peace-oriented direction, for example, are more likely to be dedicated to peaceful policies than decision makers whose beliefs have remained the same, but who have signaled a shift in policy for purely instrumental purposes. Decision makers who have undergone learning may then act to affect organizational or governmental change, a tall order given the significant impediments to change they are likely to face, such as bureaucratic politics, organizational culture, and political pressures.