Le Notes #39: Role theory in International Relations – Holsti’s national role conception

This post summarizes K. J. Holsti’s attempt to systematically construct role theory in International Relations.

In Note #38, I’ve discussed ontological security theory, which extends the argument that states do not only seek physical security, but also security of the “self”. However, an interesting question pops up: How do states create the “self”? In the previous post, I’ve presented two viewpoints. Mitzen puts an emphasis on how other states view the state in question, which means a state’s relations often defines its role. It’s like that popular piece of self-help wisdom, “You are who you hang out with.” On the other hand, Steele argues for a more self-driven approach: the self is defined by the state by reflecting on what it is. To draw an analogy to daily life, this is like what we hear among more liberal circles, “You are you and nobody can change that except you.”

Role theory, which has been developed in social psychology and anthropology, serves as a useful tool to understand how the “self” comes into being. To do this, I go back to the seminal text of the application of role theory in International Relations, K. J. Holsti’s National Role Conception in Foreign Policy [paywall].

National role conception

Holsti observed elements of role-playing in existing IR theories and concepts, particularly in structural realism. Balance-of-power theory, for example, requires actors to play three fundamental “roles” as either a balancer, aggressor, and defender. If the actors do not play by the rules, then chaos ensues as the system collapses. Similarly, during the Cold War, some states were designated roles such as “superpowers”, “satellite states”, “proxies”, and so on.

By now you may be asking, where to these roles come from? The Constructivist canon would certainly argue that they are socially constructed, but by what specifically? Do leaders contribute to the construction of role, or does society create expectations of behaviour? These are all legitimate questions and it still remains a topic of debate that’s too complex to cover in a simple blog post. Suffice it to say there is a general consensus that a “role” is how we balance role expectations (i.e. what we are expected to play within the role) and role performance (i.e. how we perform given our position within the role). But this seems to downplay the agency of the actor in defining their own role, so Holsti argues that actions of governments may also be informed by “policymaker’s own conceptions of their nation’s role in a region or in the international system as a whole” (p. 240). This is what Holsti terms “national role conception”, which is the starting point for role theory analysis in International Relations.

The above flowchart shows Holsti’s theoretical framework of national role conceptions adapted from individual-level role theory.

Notice the bolded arrow from (E) to (A). Here, Holsti suggests a larger influence from policymaker’s national role conception on foreign policy behaviour as opposed to a nation’s status or the “alter” (external) role prescriptions. The latter elements are “potential and intermittent” and as such, are considered to be constant according to Holsti. In other words, Holsti focuses specifically on the domestic sources of national role conception, which is generally understood as how policymakers understand how the state ought to act within the international system. In Holsti’s words:

“A national role conception includes the 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. It is their ‘ image’ of the appropriate orientations or functions of their state toward, or in, the external environment (p. 246).”

Some examples of national roles

From 972 samples of foreign policy statements across many state leaders, Holsti then proceeds to categorize states into 18 national roles. I’ll only highlight a few. Note that Holsti’s list tends to reflect Cold War realities; in today’s world, new roles may be introduced while existing roles may have changed or diminished. This further emphasizes the fluidity of national roles.

Bastion of revolution or liberator. These states often perceive themselves as an ideological revolutionary and put the burden on themselves to support similar movements in the international system. Think of Communist China under Mao Zedong.

Regional leader. These states often think of themselves as having special  leadership responsibilities in relation to regional counterparts. This is usually how scholars tend to describe Indonesia’s “role” in ASEAN.

Regional protector. Similar to leaders, but with less emphasis on leadership and more leaning towards provision of protection within a region of choice.

Anti-imperialist agent. These states view themselves as “agents of struggle” against imperialism. Think of Ho Chi Minh and the Soviet Union.

Developer. These states think of themselves as having a special duty to assist under-developing countries with special reference to a certain set of advantages such action would bring. Kuwait in the 1960s fell into this category due to their significant oil revenue.

Though it might be tempting to assign one single role to neatly define a state, reality is much more complex. National role conceptions differ and fluctuate based on audience and time. If a state is addressing a specific sub-system (e.g. a regional grouping), their iteration of role may be different than when they address other states.

Do states always act based on their national role conception?

If the answer to the above question is “yes”, then we would all be able to forecast state behavior. While national role conceptions do provide a sort of limitation for foreign policy preferences (and especially if these conceptions are entrenched within the domestic political institutions), states may not always act according to their “role”. For us to understand state behavior, we would need clear iterations of national role conception, which may not be the case in marginal states that focus almost specifically on external relations as a means solely to fulfil domestic needs. Another reason may be the existence of a highly ambiguous external environment rife with uncertainty. Policymakers then face a dilemma: they had to respond to these threats rapidly, but adopting new role conceptions would be difficult without support from the public. This leads to an ambiguous, or even lack of, role. In other cases, perhaps the leader of the state can impose their individual will on the political system, thus disrupting domestic sources of national role conception. Finally, Holsti notes when states attempt to adopt two contradictory roles, it stands to reason that we can expect weird state behavior.


When structural theories of IR do not satisfyingly explain state behavior, role theory may provide a more comprehensive explanation. By “borrowing” a theory from a related discipline, Holsti’s article basically laid the groundwork for the application of role theory in International Relations. It also provided methodological guidelines for further research of role theory, which is useful for those who want to apply role theory in future analyses.

2 thoughts on “Le Notes #39: Role theory in International Relations – Holsti’s national role conception

Comments are closed.

Website Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: