In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Political Learning and Socialization

  • Introduction
  • Lessons of History
  • Analogies, Heuristics and Cognitive Limitations
  • Learning in Rivalries and Recurring Crises
  • Critiques
  • Political Learning and Socialization as Mechanisms of Diffusion

International Relations Political Learning and Socialization
Cameron Thies
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 February 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 March 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199743292-0142


Political Learning and Political Socialization are two concepts in international relations and foreign policy that attempt to get at the cognitive and social dynamics present in the international system. Both concepts require interplay across multiple levels of analysis and a focus on agency inherent in different types of actors. Both have involved the importation of theory from other disciplines, including psychology, sociology, social psychology, and others. Yet, as with all theoretical imports, scholars of international relations have adapted them to their subject matter, albeit imperfectly at times. This article provides a general overview of past and current developments in the application of political learning and political socialization to international affairs.

Political Learning

Those who study foreign affairs have long had an interest in whether leaders learn from their own or others’ past actions. The development of literature on political learning has been fragmented across a variety of disciplinary, theoretical, and methodological cleavages. Just exactly who learns, what the content of that learning might be, and how to observe it vary quite widely in the literature depending on the goals of the scholar. Political learning has been a slippery concept, yet one that interests those who study both foreign policy and international relations. It has been used by diplomatic historians, political psychologists, game theorists, complexity theorists, and, in more recent efforts, to understand some of the basic mechanisms that help to explain international outcomes. Given the sustained but relatively disconnected development of work on political learning in international relations, the field has benefited from a number of articles and book chapters that survey the state of the literature. Jarosz and Nye 1993 represents a more traditional take on learning in foreign policy and security studies. Tetlock 1991, Breslauer 1991, and Haas 1991 demonstrate the many advances in identifying and understanding political learning in a more systematic manner within the context of the United States and Soviet Union’s relationship. Levy 1994 notes that political learning is often difficult to distinguish from adjacent concepts, such as reputation, socialization, adaptation, and evolution. Knopf 2003 surveys a wide sweep of the development of political learning over the last decade or more.

  • Breslauer, George W. “What Have We Learned about Learning?” In Learning in US and Soviet Foreign Policy. Edited by George W. Breslauer and Philip E. Tetlock, 825–856. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991.

    General overview of the conclusions about learning and foreign policy derived from this excellent edited collection.

  • Haas, Ernst B. “Collective Learning: Some Theoretical Speculations.” In Learning in US and Soviet Foreign Policy. Edited by George W. Breslauer and Philip E. Tetlock, 62–99. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991.

    A careful review of theories about learning and hypotheses about how they apply to the US and Soviet cases.

  • Jarosz, William W., and Joseph S. Nye Jr. “The Shadow of the Past: Learning from History in National Security Decision Making.” In Behavior, Society, and International Conflict. Vol. 3. Edited by Philip E. Tetlock, Jo L. Husbands, Robert Jervis, Paul C. Stern, and Charles Tilly, 126–189. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

    Overview of the lessons of history literature used by more traditional security or foreign policy types.

  • Knopf, Jeffrey W. “The Importance of International Learning.” Review of International Studies 29 (2003): 185–207.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0260210503001852

    A more recent review that takes stock of advances in theory and application in the last ten years.

  • Levy, Jack S. “Learning and Foreign Policy: Sweeping a Conceptual Minefield.” International Organization 48 (1994): 279–312.

    DOI: 10.1017/S0020818300028198

    A more systematic investigation of the cognitive and behavioral approaches to learning at multiple levels of analysis.

  • Tetlock, Philip E. “Learning in US and Soviet Foreign Policy: In Search of an Elusive Concept.” In Learning in US and Soviet Foreign Policy. Edited by George W. Breslauer and Philip E. Tetlock, 20–61. Boulder, CO: Westview, 1991.

    A good overview of the learning literature applied to foreign policy analysis.

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