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Roles and Realities: When and Why Gatekeepers Fail to Change Foreign Policy


  • Author's note: An earlier version of this study was presented at the ISA annual meeting in Montreal, Canada, in 2011. I am grateful to Cameron Thies for organizing the panel, which was a follow-up to the role theory, the role theory workshop the previous year. I thank Paul Kowert for his insightful comments and the other panelists for their helpful suggestions. The anonymous reviewers provided useful feedback as well. The study has benefitted from the input of all these colleagues. As usual, any remaining errors are mine.


The adoption of international norms by a state depends on the active support of decision makers in key gatekeeping positions. Yet, political change does not inevitably follow the initiatives of norm entrepreneurs. The literature on norm dynamics has largely focused on successful norm change. This focus on cases that support the notion that norms matter constitutes selection on the dependent variable. To more fully grasp the role and limits of gatekeepers, it is important to also investigate cases where political resistance prevented the domestic adoption of international norms. This study uses an illustrative case study in which circumstances appeared ripe for a new policy direction but where change failed to materialize. The study concludes that gatekeepers matter, but also that norm change crucially, depends not only on gatekeepers’ ability to frame norms in terms that resonate domestically but also on their ability to build coalitions with other relevant political actors.