Le’ Notes #40: Role contestation in foreign policy

This post covers the idea of role contestation in foreign policy analysis.

In Note #39, I covered the basis of role theory as described by Holsti in his seminal work on national role conception. Since 1970, role theory has been refined many times over by IR scholars. However, the subject of this post is not a comprehensive review of the development of role theory. Instead, I’ll be explaining an influential dynamic in role theory: role contestation.

For starters, let us revisit Holsti’s definition of national role conception, or NRC for short,

…policymaker’s own conceptions of their nation’s role in a region or in the international system as a whole.

(Holsti, 1970, p. 240, emphasis added)

Within Holsti’s framework, the policymakers are considered key actors in the creation of an NRC. Policymakers occupy the “middle ground” between the state and system; they perceive systemic influences, while also balancing domestic expectations. The creation of an NRC, theoretically, should be a reflection of this.

However, this may not always be the case. Within the literature of foreign policy analysis, unanimous agreement on NRCs are quite rare. Evidence points to the other direction: in many cases, NRCs are often contested and debated by state institutions. Therefore, it would be mistaken to take “roles” for granted. Like any concept under the Constructivist canon, “roles” are constructed. This process of construction is not always a smooth path, and this is where role contestation enters.

Kaarbo and Cantir (2016) highlight two main areas of contestation, which they conveniently label “vertical” and “horizontal” contestation.

Vertical contestation occurs between the political elite and the masses (the so-called “elite-mass nexus”). This area incorporates existing arguments for the influence of the masses in the creation of foreign policy through active political activity, such as the “civil society” argument and the public opinion argument (which has been used to explain US withdrawal from Vietnam (see Lunch and Sperlich, 1979). The idea is normal citizens, though perhaps lacking in factual information regarding foreign policy, have a supposed set of “core values” which reflect their NRC preferences. Should politicians act against the public’s NRC preferences, the public could (theoretically) protest using democratic means.

Horizontal contestation, on the other hand, occurs within the political elite. This area incorporates elitist arguments of foreign policy, such as the bureaucratic politics argument (see Allison’s Essence of Decision, covering the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis) and coalitional government (see, for example, Kaarbo, 1996) The idea here is that domestic institutions do not always share the same idea of a state’s NRC. Instead, a state’s role is determined by contestations among the foreign policy elite.

To understand this, let us visit a particular case study which illustrates the general principles of role contestation. In using NRCs as a tool to explain Japan’s security policy preferences, Hirata (2008) finds some interesting findings which shows hints of role contestation within the Japanese parliament.

Within the parliament, Hirata identified four broad “camps” when it came to the issue of Japan’s perceived international role. Normalists advocate for a more increased international security role (this would cover both military and non-military roles) and economic profile, followed by more flexibility for Japan to use force as a tool of foreign policy. In essence, normalists want Japan to become a “normal” country. Nationalists share the normalist view of an increased security role and flexibility (though their orientation is mostly military in nature), however, they also advocate a strong nationalistic agenda which accentuates a distinct “Japanese” identity. This suggests nationalists would not be too keen on Japan taking a liberal stance on issues like immigration. On the other side, pacifists prefer to stick to Japan’s policy of pacifism and see nothing to gain from having an increased security profile, and even more so, flexibility to use force. They are the conservatives in this sense, as they cling on to the status quo of Article 9. Mercantilists share the pacifists’ disdain of an increased security profile, however, argue Japan should pursue a more economic-oriented international role.

Knowing these camps within Parliament, you may have an idea on how representatives of these camps may interact with one another in a meeting discussing an important foreign policy issue, such as Abe’s proposal to reinterpret Article 9 in 2014. The most powerful camp would then—theoretically—have a larger influence on which role Japan decides to play. In this case, Hirata argues normalists are winning the debate, hence they have more power over which role Japan will eventually take.


As far as role theory is concerned, role contestation provides an additional layer of explanation when concerned with discussions of what motivates changes in role conception. Much like how individual roles change over time, a state’s perceived role may also change as they interact with the international environment.

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