The Contested Selection of National Role Conceptions


  • We thank Juliet Kaarbo, Ryan Beasley, the participants of the ISA Catalytic Research Workshop on “Bridging the Gap between Role Theory and ‘Role Practice’ in Foreign Policy” (ISA Annual Convention 2013) organized by Paul Kowert and Stephen Walker, as well as the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this article.


One of the shortcomings of foreign policy role theory is its tendency to black-box the state. Role theorists often assume a national role conception, without paying too much attention to the domestic political processes regarding how a role is selected to represent the state out of a number of potential competing roles. We develop a model of role contestation and role selection that draws on existing knowledge of foreign policy creation resulting from competition between governing elites and opposition, multi-party coalitions, cabinet dynamics, and bureaucratic politics. We incorporate expectations from role theory to explain how conflict over role selection may be resolved. The model is examined in light of several cases in immediate post-war Germany. We find that government and opposition dynamics are the primary sources of contestation over NRCs in our cases, some evidence for bureaucratic politics, and little evidence that coalition politics was at play. Finally, there were few instances in which role conflict resolution mechanisms were used.