Role conflict in recent wars: Danish and Dutch debates over Iraq and Afghanistan

AuthorJuliet Kaarbo,Cristian Cantir
Date01 December 2013
Published date01 December 2013
Subject MatterArticles
Cooperation and Conflict
48(4) 465 –483
© The Author(s) 2013
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DOI: 10.1177/0010836713482815
Role conflict in recent
wars: Danish and Dutch
debates over Iraq and
Juliet Kaarbo and Cristian Cantir
Despite renewed interest in role theory and its promise to relate to agent–structure relationships,
research in this area has underdeveloped notions of ‘agency’ and an incomplete understanding
of the interaction between ‘agency’ and ‘structure’. This problem can be attributed, in part, to
the fact that the theory frequently overlooks the centrality of domestic political agents in the
process of role conflict. An analysis of Danish decision-making over the country’s involvement in
Iraq and of Dutch decision-making over its involvement in Afghanistan illustrates the theoretical
and empirical advantages of examining role conflicts with a focus on domestic politics. We
conclude that studying role conflict as embedded in domestic political processes is important in
the development of role theory in international relations research.
Afghanistan, Denmark, foreign policy analysis, Iraq, role theory, the Netherlands
In the lead-up to the Iraq War, Danish politicians were divided on their country’s partici-
pation in the conflict. Prime Minister Rasmussen argued that Denmark should play its
role as a faithful ally to the United States. Opposition party leaders, on the other hand,
stressed the ‘good international citizen’ role and the importance of helping to maintain
international unity. They opposed the intervention without a more direct United Nations
(UN) mandate. This conflict over what Denmark should do had real consequences for
Danish foreign policy and alliance politics, and constrained Prime Minister Rasmussen
from committing troops at the outset of the war, despite the ruling cabinet’s preference
to do so.
Corresponding author:
Juliet Kaarbo, Politics and International Relations, School of Social and Political Science, University of
Edinburgh, 15a George Square, Edinburgh EH8 9LD, UK.
482815CAC48410.1177/0010836713482815Cooperation and ConflictKaarbo and Cantir
466 Cooperation and Conflict 48(4)
In 2006, Dutch politicians engaged in a similar debate over North Atlantic Treaty
Organization (NATO) requests for troops to southern Afghanistan. The Prime Minister,
Defence Minister and Foreign Minister supported the expansion, arguing that it was a
Dutch obligation to the NATO alliance. A small coalition partner, however, stalled the
decision-making process by threatening to withdraw from and bring down the cabinet.
This party and the Labour party (in opposition) framed their position as supporting a
more ‘European’ role for the Netherlands. The international community, in the form of
NATO, the UN and Afghani officials, articulated the role it expected the Netherlands to
play. This external pressure eventually worked, as the public and, critically, Labour came
to endorse the troop deployment.
These cases illustrate how roles played by states on the international stage are con-
tested by domestic political agents and how these domestic conflicts interact with exter-
nal expectations. In both the Netherlands and Denmark, role conflicts were evident and
influenced by domestic processes, involving particular political actors and their institu-
tional contexts. In the Dutch case, domestically contested roles became the target of the
international community as world leaders influenced the internal debate so that the
Netherlands would conform to external expectations. This article uses these empirical
cases to make the theoretical point that domestic role conflict and the way in which inter-
nal conflicts relate to outsiders’ expectations are important in the development of role
theory in international relations research.
Throughout this article, Harnisch’s definition of roles is adopted, namely as ‘social
positions…that are constituted by ego and alter expectations regarding the purpose of an
actor in an organized group’ (2011: 8). Role conflict is defined in this article as a disa-
greement between two roles towards the same situation and between role expectations
from outside the country and role conceptions inside the country towards the same issue.
Role enactment is the behaviour of the actor according to the demands of the role (Walker,
Role theory and international relations
Role theory originates in sociological research, particularly symbolical interactionism
(Harnisch, 2011). Its core argument is that members of a society perform a variety of
roles, which are commonly defined as a set of norms meant to guide behaviour
(Harnisch et al., 2011; Holsti, 1970; Walker, 1987).1 This starting point has yielded a
number of theoretical and empirical questions and has led to research on actors’ self-
definition of their roles, the external (or structural) origin of roles, the processes of
interaction between agents and structures during role enactments (i.e. behaviour), the
number of roles possessed by an actor, and role conflict within elements of a role or
between different roles.
This sociological approach and its accompanying research questions were borrowed
by international relations scholars to argue that states, like individuals,2 have a number
of roles they perform during interactions with other states (and non-state actors).3 Since
Holsti’s (1970) first attempt at theoretical integration of role theory into the study of
international relations, scholars have hailed the value of role theory in bridging the gap
between agency and structure (Aggestam, 2006; Breuning, 1995, 2011; Thies and

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