Le’ Notes #41: Foreign policy as a socialization act

This post covers some basic ideas of foreign policy as a socialization act under the framework of the socialization game.

In Note #40, the construction of a role is dependent on the level of contestation within its domestic setting. However, another body of literature on role theory suggests this may not be the case. State roles are defined by their interactions with the “alter” or environment. This interaction is a cognitive process, an active act of “learning” and then situating oneself within a specific social structure. This process is known as role location, or the act of locating a specific role.

On socialization

If you have taken an introductory class in sociology (where role theory originates), you would be familiar with the concept of socialization. Simply put, to understand our part in society, we “socialize”. The term here refers to the act of learning about our social structures—understanding what is appropriate and what is not; how power flows; how social constructs work. It does not just stop at us learning about the structures, it also covers the act of “locating” yourself within the social structure. Are you part of the lower socio-economic class? The middle class? The upper class? Each social stratification has its own “structure” which you are expected to follow in order to be considered as “belonging” into the structure.

Now, who enforces and perpetuates these structures? They are either enforced socially, namely through unspoken rules or certain customs, or formally, such as through laws. But for the most part, they are mostly enforced socially. For example, ignoring explicitly written dress codes, while you may be free to dress in any way you like, there are certain social customs which subtly (or overtly!) “punish” you if you don’t dress in a way the structure believes to be appropriate. You wouldn’t show up to a Wall Street board meeting in flip-flops and a barong sleeveless shirt!

These are known as “cues” and “demands” and they play an important part in understanding foreign policy as a socialization act. Cues can be understood as nudging behavior; they subtly point you towards “correct” behavior. Demands, on the other hand, are more overt; think of your parents forcing you to change out of your pajamas for church.

How does this extend to the international level?

What I have covered in that grossly oversimplified summary of socialization mostly applies to the individual level. How can we extend it to the state level and even the system level?

First, we ought to understand that, despite being in a state of anarchy, the international system has its own “structure” which is defined and re-defined by its members—the states. In some pockets of the system, such as within multilateral organizations, this structure is tighter and may be completely different from other pockets. Compare the European Union to ASEAN, for example.

Second, we then would need to assume states are similar to individuals in that they continuously try to “locate” themselves within the international system. Such an assumption would not be completely crazy. Many times, experts and pundits unwittingly use this mode of thinking when they write articles pondering the “role” of the United States (or insert any country here) within a specific structure. Even in traditional Realist literature, particularly in balance of power theory, the state is portrayed as “seeking” roles as either the hegemon or the balancer.

Hillary Clinton’s “America’s Pacific Century” comes to mind, where Clinton contemplates on the role the U.S. can play within an emerging Pacific-oriented structure. In this sense, we can see the U.S. trying to “locate” themselves within this Pacific “structure” and the means by which they do it constitute as socialization efforts.

Finally, we need to shed the Neorealist assumption that all state interactions are a struggle for power. While this may hold true for some instances, it is not the only paradigm of state interactions. In fact, within this assumption, we can find an internal contradiction: if states are always struggling for power, then the only possible outcome would be war, which would spell the destruction of the system. Instead, we would need to view foreign policy as “neutral”, as in, it does not always have to do with power.

How does foreign policy as socialization work?

Since this is not the place to do in-depth case studies, let me just go through two short cases: Japan in the 1950s and modern Indonesia under the first Yudhoyono administration.

Let us visit post-war Japan in the 1950s. After surrendering to the Allies, Japan accepted a “pacifist” role in international affairs. This role was thrusted on them by the Allies, enshrined in Article 9 of the Allied-drafted Constitution. Article 9 would later form the foundation of Japan’s “peaceful” role in international affairs as they modernized. In this we see that after failing to assert their “hegemon” role in the World War (war can be considered an act of socialization), Japan capitulated and accepted the demands from the winner of war. The winner of the war then defined the structure in their terms, while Japan was left with little choice but to adapt itself to what the structure had demanded from them.

The Japan example is rather simplistic, but it does briefly cover the dynamics of socialization. The Indonesian example would explain more, especially the internal factors which contribute to the role seeking process.

After making through a turbulent transition to democracy, it was unsure what role it would play in the post-Cold War and early Global War on Terror setting. Enter Yudhoyono, the first democratically-elected president in 2004. Much of Yudhoyono’s foreign policy platforms essentially relied on the maxim “zero enemies, a million friends”, which has been described as “benign internationalism”. In this sense, we see the Yudhoyono administration “seeking” a more international-oriented role for Indonesia.

He wanted to restore Indonesia’s image on the international stage after being dormant for almost 20 years. To do so, Yudhoyono placed ASEAN as a centerpiece in foreign policy, while also endeavoring for Indonesian membership in other prominent multilateral organizations such as the G20. In promoting democracy, Indonesia created the Bali Democracy Forum in 2008, where Yudhoyono and Kevin Rudd advocated for better implementation of democracy in Asia-Pacific countries.

In addressing the War on Terror structure, there were cues from the dominant power—the U.S.—who wanted Indonesia to play a more active role, especially in countering terrorism. Yudhoyono accepted these cues, especially after Indonesia had been hit by a series of bombings from 2000, and initiated multiple attempts at socializing a peaceful Muslim identity. He stressed the majority Muslim population was peaceful and condemned terrorism.

Because of our experience, Indonesia therefore is a frontline state when it comes to fighting terrorism.  Terrorism is a clear and present danger to our people, and it has been a top priority for our national security policy.

Excerpt of Yudhoyono’s opening speech delivered at the International Seminar on Building International Cooperation against Terrorism, Jakarta, 27 Feb 2006.

All of these could be considered acts of socialization; Yudhoyono was actively trying to locate a more active Indonesian role in the international system and push for a more pro-democracy role.

Indicators of socialization success?

Thies’ socialization game model provides us an explanation of foreign policy as a process of role location through understanding how states socialize their roles. However, when can we tell whether a specific role has been successfully socialized? For the most part, it is not always clear-cut. It is often only obvious long after the fact, as Thies’ case study of Israel’s socialization process shows.

One way of seeing whether a state has successfully located a new role for itself is to observe how regional neighbors and the system respond to the iteration of the new role.

In modern Japan’s case, particularly in regards to its aspirations of a more “active” state in international security, there has been fierce opposition from South Korea and China, while on the other hand, the U.S. seems to welcome the idea of a more active Japan. Such a case is not new. In the 1990 Gulf War, the U.S. had “demanded” Japan to contribute to the war efforts; however, due to strict limitations on troop deployment, Japan was unable to fulfil U.S. demand. In 1992, Koizumi then enacted the Peacekeeping Law, which eased foreign deployment restrictions for peacekeeping operations. The change in foreign policy was well accepted, as it was in line with the norms that the system had set.


By understanding foreign policy as a series of socialization acts, we can better contextualize how states carry out their foreign policies. Furthermore, since socialization does not necessarily accept the pursuit of power as an end goal, it is more value-neutral, hence allowing us to better understand and contextualize why certain states pursue certain foreign policy decisions.

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