Diffusion of innovations theory concerns the process by which innovations are communicated through the members of a social system. Previous research has shed significant light on how public policies diffuse across governments over time, but there is little understanding of why they diffuse. The answer may lie in the motivations of early adopters. When governments are the first to adopt policy innovations, they lack knowledge about the political, economic, and other costs of adopting the policy. Given the potential risks, it is not obvious why a government would want to be the first to adopt a policy innovation. This thesis investigates the question of what explains early adoption of policy innovations. It contributes to the international relations literature on policy diffusion by proposing a theoretical framework for studying early adoption that consists of four motivations: 1) Normative – the government adopts a policy because of a normative position on a particular objective; 2) Reputation – the government seeks to improve its image or garner legitimacy in the international community; 3) Competition – the government seeks to gain a competitive edge on other states in “races to the top”; and 4) Domestic lock-in – the government adopts a policy to “tie the hands” of future national governments.

The thesis has an empirical focus on public policies for regulating corporations on human rights issues: National Action Plans on business and human rights (NAPs). These plans are national governments’ strategies for implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs), a set of global policy norms that provide guidance for states and corporations on addressing the human rights impacts of business. As this field is largely neglected by political scientists, the thesis makes an additional empirical contribution to the burgeoning interdisciplinary literature on business and human rights. The theoretical framework is applied in a two-step, mixed-methods research design that includes a global mapping of NAPs and hypothesis testing. The thesis then presents three sets of comparative case studies: Colombia/Ecuador, United States/Canada, and France/Sweden. In the first four case studies, the theoretical framework is used to compare early adopters and laggards. In the final case study chapter, two early adopters are compared to determine whether there is potential to explain variation within the adopter category.

The findings lead to several conclusions. First, normative commitment can provide a strong motivation for early adoption, and domestic actors are particularly important for shaping a government’s normative preferences. Second, governments with concerns about their international reputations are more likely to be early adopters, especially if reputation gains are linked to a reward. Third, governments act strategically to trigger races to the top, especially when they are more economically powerful. They thus adopt particular styles of regulation early to influence the style of regulation adopted elsewhere. Fourth, the desire to lock a policy in place domestically is an especially powerful motivation for early adoption, although it is not essential. Governments may seek to lock policies in place both in advance of imminent political loss and in the wake of domestic political strife. Finally, interactions between these motivations may give them more explanatory power and may explain the relative stringency of the policy adopted. Reputational concerns and the desire to lock policies in place are especially mutually reinforcing.

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