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date: 24 October 2017

Veto Player Approaches in Foreign Policy Analysis

Summary and Keywords

The main contribution of veto player approaches in Comparative Politics has been to the study of policy stability and change. Specifically, the argument is that the possibility and conditions for policy change in a given polity and issue area depend on the configuration of veto players and veto points. Most notably, veto player approaches have introduced a general conceptual tool kit that has facilitated the comparative analysis of the dynamics and obstacles of policy change across (democratic and non-democratic) regime types and public policy areas. However, in Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA), references to veto players and veto points tend to be hardly systematic and are mainly used to highlight domestic constraints on preference formation, decision-making, or responses to international crises. Hence, the theoretical and empirical potential of veto player approaches for FPA has not yet been systematically explored. Against this background, the article makes the case that “taking veto players seriously” has a lot to offer to the study of foreign policy. While there are differences between applying veto player approaches in public policy and in FPA (e.g., with respect to the more informal process of foreign policy decision-making or the larger policy discretion of the agenda setter in foreign policy), those differences must not be overdone. Indeed, they point to certain shifts in emphasis and specific methodological challenges for veto player studies in foreign policy, but do not call into question the basic explanatory logic of veto player approaches or their transferability from one field to the other. What is more, the article shows that multiple links between veto player approaches and FPA theories can be established. Generally speaking, veto player approaches have immense potential in reinvigorating comparative foreign policy analysis. More specifically, they can be linked up to FPA works on the role of parliaments, coalitions, or leadership styles as well as on those discussing change, effectiveness, or fiascos in foreign policy.

Keywords: veto players, veto points, comparative politics, comparative foreign policy analysis, foreign policy change, preferences, institutions, coalitions, parliaments


Veto player approaches are among the most prominent and widely used approaches in comparative public policy.1 In particular, since George Tsebelis’s (1995, 2002) highly influential works, they have generated a broad range of scholarship on a wide array of public policies (Ganghof, 2003). In contrast, veto player approaches have so far gained far less traction in the field of Foreign Policy Analysis (FPA). This is somewhat surprising, not least because the agency-centered perspective of veto player studies speaks directly to what is probably the defining characteristic of FPA, namely, its emphasis on “human decision makers acting singly and in groups” (Hudson, 2005, p. 2). This article argues that while veto player analyses of foreign policy will likely have to overcome particular challenges, veto player approaches do indeed hold significant promise for FPA.

The remainder of this article proceeds as follows: The next section outlines the core tenets of the veto player approach. Then, the article discusses the transferability of the approach to the field of foreign policy and gives examples of how it has been applied in this realm. The subsequent section shows how veto player approaches can be linked up to FPA theories. The article concludes with suggestions for further research.

Veto Player Approaches in Public Policy

The main objective of veto player approaches is to explain and predict the potential for policy change across different political systems and issue areas. The key argument of scholarship in this tradition is that policy stability increases and the capacity of political systems to implement policy change decreases with the number of veto players, the heterogeneity of their preferences, and the ability and incentives of veto players to employ their veto power (Tsebelis, 1995, pp. 293–301). Veto players are defined as “individual or collective actors whose agreement is necessary for a change of the status quo” (Tsebelis, 2002, p. 19). The configuration of veto players is specific to particular policy areas and a relatively stable feature of political systems. If changes in the identity or preferences of veto players do occur, however, this is expected to facilitate policy change, in particular in policy areas with only one or a few veto players (Tsebelis, 1995, p. 313). While veto player approaches are agnostic as to the desirability of policy stability or change, Tsebelis (2000) has hypothesized that veto player configurations will have broader implications for government and regime survival. Specifically, if such configurations lead to excessive policy stability and immobility, making governments or regimes unresponsive to changing domestic demands or international developments, this might result in government or regime instability.

The rise of veto player analyses is part and parcel of new institutionalist theorizing in Comparative Politics (Hall & Taylor, 1996; Immergut, 1998). Veto player approaches have in common that they understand policy change or stability as the result of the interplay between institutional incentives and constraints on one hand and actor preferences and strategies on the other. At the same time, they may lean more toward either the historical or the rational choice incarnations of the new institutionalism. As for the former, veto player analyses may focus on the historical development of veto player configurations, their path dependency, and impact on actor preferences. In contrast, scholarship starting out from a rational choice institutionalist perspective treats the preferences of veto players as exogenously given and is interested primarily in their strategic interaction under existing institutional constraints. While Tsebelis’s seminal works are a particularly clear example of the latter type of analysis that has had a profound impact on the overall direction of travel of veto player approaches, there is nothing to suggest that veto player analyses are not compatible with both historical institutionalist and rational choice institutionalist perspectives (Kaiser, 1997, pp. 434–435). In fact, the difference between these two varieties of veto player analyses is down, first and foremost, to differences in the particular research focus and interest.

A related distinction in veto player approaches is that between the concepts of “veto players” and “veto points.” While the former denotes agents who have and (potentially) exercise veto power, the latter refers to institutional opportunities that invest agents with veto power (Immergut, 1992, pp. 395–398).2 While the two concepts have co-evolved over time, the rational choice institutionalist perspective on “veto players” has been developed in part as a critique of the “veto points” literature for failing to take actor preferences into account and for being silent on when actors actually use their veto power at particular veto points (Jahn, 2011). It is once more indicative of the influence of Tsebelis’s contributions on the field that “veto players” has by a distance become the dominant concept in research exploring the role of veto power for policy stability and change. Still, there are voices who prefer the older concept of “veto points” and who criticize what they see as the implicit assumption in the concept of “veto players” that actors will always and mechanically use their veto power (Kaiser, 1997, p. 437). Also, the concept of “veto points” directs attention to actors, such as interest groups, who are not themselves veto players but who can use veto points to put pressure on actors who are (Ganghof & Schulze, 2015).

It should be noted, moreover, that the two concepts are not mutually exclusive but rather complementary to each other. In fact, new institutionalist perspectives would precisely emphasize the interplay between the agency-centered concept of “veto players” and the more structure-centered concept of “veto points.” Veto players can only exercise veto power at particular veto points in the policy process. Whether or not they do so is an empirical question that depends, above all, on their preferences and priorities. Veto points, in turn, require agents who choose to take advantage of the institutional opportunity to exercise veto power. They do, however, define at which stage of the policy process and in which sequence veto players are able to employ veto power and thus shape their strategies and preferences. “Veto player approaches” will thus implicitly or explicitly have to consider both veto players and veto points.

The greatest promise of veto player approaches arguably lies in their scope for comparative analysis. They provide a unified vocabulary and analytical framework that transcend well-known typologies of political regime types, such as the distinctions between parliamentary and presidential democracies, majoritarian and consensual forms of democracy, or between democratic and authoritarian regimes (Tsebelis, 2002, pp. 67–90). The tool kit of veto player approaches can be employed in all political systems and facilitates comparisons of policy stability and change both across the divides of existing classifications and within regime types. Not least, this has enabled veto player analyses to uncover similarities between the capacities of different regime types for policy change as well as differences within the same regime type. For example, presidential democracies tend to feature more veto players with larger ideological distance between them than parliamentary systems (Tsebelis & Ha, 2014, p. 335) and should thus display greater policy stability. Also, veto player approaches have enriched theories of coalition formation in parliamentary democracies. Specifically, Tsebelis and Ha (2014) have shown that the ideological distance between potential coalition partners and the centrality of the government formateur matter less in the coalition formation game when governmental veto players enjoy strong agenda-setting powers in the policy-making process. Conversely, if the agenda-setting powers of governments are low, coalitions will likely be more centrist and have less ideological distance between their partners.

The potential of veto player approaches for comparative analyses of public policy change and stability has already been explored in numerous empirical studies (for overviews, see Ganghof, 2003; Hallerberg, 2011). Methodologically, these works range from small-n qualitative studies to highly formalized large-n quantitative analyses, mainly at the rational choice institutionalist end of the spectrum. It is fair to say, however, that quantitative studies have come to dominate the field, especially since the publication of Tsebelis’s works. Also, the overwhelming majority of empirical applications of veto player arguments has focused on established parliamentary democracies of the Global North while relatively little attention has been put on non-democratic regimes or on developing countries of the Global South.

On the qualitative side of the divide, the classic example of a comparative case study approach remains Ellen Immergut’s (1992) work on health care policy in France, Switzerland, and Sweden. She finds that a larger number of veto points empowers interest groups and makes health care reforms more difficult to implement. Correspondingly, Giuliano Bonoli’s (2000) study of pension reforms in Britain, Switzerland, and France suggests that fewer veto points facilitate government plans for reform. In his work on economic reforms in Germany in the 1980s and 1990s, Reimut Zohlnhöfer (2003) also finds support for veto player approaches but suggests they need to be mindful that veto players may or may not have strategic electoral or party political incentives to actually block policy change. In a later contribution, Zohlnhöfer (2009) argues that economic policy change comes about either when the veto player constellation changes or in response to external shocks. Steffen Ganghof (2006), moreover, compares income tax reforms in seven OECD countries and is able to show, among other things, that constitutional courts were a relevant veto player in some countries, in particular Germany, but not in others, for example, Australia. Among the few qualitative studies that go beyond the Global North is Andrew MacIntyre’s (2001) work on the policy responses to the 1997 East Asian financial crisis in Thailand, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia. His main argument is that a wide distribution of veto authority increases policy rigidity whereas centralized veto authority may encourage excessive policy volatility, both of which pose policy risks for investors. Along similar lines, Stephan Haggard (2000) argues that the existence of multiple veto players hampered effective policy responses to the financial crisis.

Turning to the quantitative side of the methodological divide, scholarship has produced an even more impressive array of applications of veto player approaches in large-n comparative designs that tend to cluster around four themes. These studies either theoretically assume the preferences of veto players or seek to measure them, using, for example, expert survey or party manifesto data (Ganghof, 2003, pp. 5–9). First, there is a significant body of veto player scholarship on government spending and budget deficits. For example, studies have suggested that an increase in the number of veto players in government, that is, multiparty cabinets, reduces the likelihood of budgetary changes from the status quo (Franzese, 2002) and the volatility of government revenue and expenditure (Henisz, 2004), leads to higher government expenditure (Bräuninger, 2005), hinders budget consolidation (Wagschal & Wenzelburger, 2012) and results in higher deficits (Volkerink & De Haan, 2001). Greater heterogeneity in the preferences of government parties has also been shown to make budget changes less likely (Tsebelis & Chang, 2004). Research on welfare expenditure, moreover, has found that an increase in the number of veto players with diverse preferences reduces the capacity of governments to increase welfare spending in response to the pressures of globalization (Ha, 2008). Overall, more veto points reduce welfare spending (Huber, Ragin, & Stephens, 1993), and a larger number of veto players goes hand in hand with higher income inequality (Crepaz, 2002).

A second research theme that emerges from quantitative veto player studies relates to the politics of taxation. In particular, the number of veto players has been said to be negatively related to the responsiveness of tax policy to external incentives and pressures (Hallerberg & Basinger, 1998; for a critique, see Ganghof, 1999). The likelihood of tax reform decreases as the number of veto players increases (Wagschal, 2005). Similarly, governments judge the scope for tax reforms in competitor countries in terms of these countries’ veto player constellations (Basinger & Hallerberg, 2004). Overall, the level of taxation and other levies tends to be lower in countries with more veto players (Zohlnhöfer & Dümig, 2011, p. 109).

Third, veto player approaches have been applied to labor market policy. Most notably, Tsebelis (1999) found that legislative outputs in this field decrease and that policy stability increases when the ideological distance between veto players gets bigger. Others have used veto player approaches, for example, to explain labor market reforms in 24 European Union countries (Avdagic, 2013) and to explore the determinants for the ratification of International Labour Organisation conventions in 17 OECD countries (Boockmann, 2006).

The fourth thematic focus of quantitative veto player research, finally, has been to explore broader institutional effects of different veto player constellations. The point of departure for this line of inquiry is again the work of Tsebelis who has argued that veto player constellations that give rise to high policy stability also lead to relatively large policy discretion of bureaucracies and courts (Tsebelis, 2002, pp. 222–247). Along these lines, a growing range of scholarship has developed similar arguments for the independence of central banks (see Hallerberg, 2011, pp. 36–38). The general thrust here is that an increase in the number of veto players increases the independence and discretion of central banks in setting monetary policy because central bank decisions become more difficult to override (Bernhard, 1998; Moser, 1999). For the same reason, central banks are more successful in achieving low inflation targets when there are more veto players (Keefer & Stasavage, 2003). In turn, the benefits from delegating authority over monetary policy to independent central banks in terms of policy credibility and consistency and thus the incentives for governments to delegate such authority in the first place have been argued to be greater if there are more veto players who restrict the ability of governments to reverse delegation decisions (Gilardi, 2011). Also, a high number of veto players has been shown to lock in existing levels, both high and low, of central bank independence and inflation (Treisman, 2000).

If anything, this by no means exhaustive overview of empirical veto player analyses demonstrates that existing qualitative and quantitative comparative research on a range of public policies gives at least qualified support for the basic explanatory logic of veto player approaches. While the set-up of this wide range of works in different methodological traditions is obviously quite diverse, they still, in different shapes and forms, follow a similar tripartite analytical framework. First, veto player studies identify the relevant veto players and veto points. Second, they make inferences about the preferences of veto players and how they relate to each other. Finally, veto player analyses involve a discussion about the ability and incentives of veto players to actually use their veto power. Taken together, these three aspects make up the veto player constellation that constitutes the critical independent variable in veto player approaches to explain patterns of policy stability and change.

The starting point of veto player analysis thus is to identify and count veto players and veto points. These can vary across political systems, policy areas, and time. Also, there might be political contestation about the policy process and decision-making rules and thus about the institutional opportunities to block policy proposals and the distribution of veto power. For example, fast-track legislation may precisely serve as a political instrument to reduce the number of veto points and veto players and to restrict the ability of veto players to amend policy proposals (Conant, 2012, pp. 12–15). Other things equal, a larger number of veto players and points will never decrease, but usually increase policy stability.

To begin with, it is useful to distinguish between institutional and partisan veto players (Tsebelis, 2002, pp. 19–20). Institutional veto players can be read off a country’s constitutional and legal framework and are individual or collective actors, for example, parliaments or presidents, who have to approve policy proposals de jure. In contrast, partisan veto players, for example, political parties, are defined by politics, not law, and their support is required to implement policy change de facto. In cases in which the position of a collective institutional veto player is determined by one or more (collective) partisan veto players, the institutional veto player is substituted by the partisan veto players (Tsebelis, 2000, p. 447). For example, if a parliament as an institutional veto player decides on a policy proposal by a simple majority and if this majority consists of a stable coalition between two parties, then the parties, not the parliament, are counted as (partisan) veto players. If the preferences of a veto player are a subset of the preferences of other veto players, that veto player is absorbed by the other veto players. Such a veto player is not being counted, because including it would not affect the degree of policy stability or change (Tsebelis, 2002, pp. 26–30).

It is important to note, moreover, that the list of potential veto players goes beyond (upper and lower chambers of) parliaments, presidents, and political parties that were originally at the focus of Tsebelis’s work. Rather, depending on the constitutional and political context, the analysis might need to include a range of additional institutional or partisan veto players, for example courts, central banks, government departments, the military, particular interest groups, or the median voter (see Tsebelis, 1995, pp. 306–308). What is critical, however, is that actors who are merely influential in policy making, but who do not have the potential, de jure or de facto, to block policy change, are not considered as veto players. Otherwise, veto player approaches risk losing much of their distinctiveness and analytical purchase.

In parallel to counting the relevant veto players, the first step in applying veto player approaches also involves identifying the veto points in policy making. This requires an understanding of the policy process in a particular policy field across the three branches of government and the broader electoral arena (see Ganghof & Schulze, 2015; Immergut, 1992, pp. 395–398). What the study of veto points contributes to the analysis, in particular, is data about how often, at which stages, and in what sequence different veto players have the opportunity to block policy change. This affects not only expectations about the potential for policy change and the degree of policy stability, but also the relative significance of different veto players and the ability of other actors to influence veto players. Closely related, the analysis needs to identify which veto player is the agenda setter and can make policy proposals to other veto players (Tsebelis, 2002, pp. 33–37). That veto player enjoys significant first-mover advantages to shape policy outcomes according to its preferences, most notably if there are few or no other veto players and veto points.

Once the veto players and veto points have been spelled out, the second step is to specify the preferences of veto players. The larger the policy distance between veto players is and the less congruent their preferences are, the higher the level of policy stability and the smaller the scope for policy change should be (Tsebelis, 1995, pp. 308–311). Also, the advantages of the agenda setter are expected to become less significant, the less centrally located its preferences are relative to the preferences of the other veto players (Tsebelis, 2002, pp. 34–35). Specifically, the impact of the partisan hue of governments on policy outputs will be moderated by the number of veto players and their ideological distance to the government (Zohlnhöfer, 2003, pp. 125–128).

Broadly speaking, veto player analyses can be distinguished as to whether they theoretically assume, most notably in the case of quantitative studies, or empirically measure the preferences of veto players (Ganghof, 2003, pp. 5–9). As regards the former, it is critical that the theoretical frameworks from which preferences are being derived and how these preferences are attributed are clearly spelled out. Otherwise, the risk is that preferences are “retrofitted” so that they confirm veto player arguments. As for measuring the preferences of veto players, in turn, scholars can employ the whole array of tried and tested methodological tools and data sources in public policy, such as expert, elite and public opinion surveys, the content analysis of speeches, party manifestos, policy documents, and media reporting or the study of past behavior, including, for example, court rulings and legislative voting patterns. At the same time, veto player studies have to grapple with the familiar range of problems that usually befall the measurement of policy preferences. Chief among these problems are the danger of circular reasoning if preferences are deduced from observed behavior and how to distinguish between strategic adaptations of behavior and changes of underlying preferences, for example, in response to external shocks or as a result of policy learning (see the contribution by Guy Ziv, “Foreign Policy Learning”).

The third step in veto player analyses, finally, has to acknowledge that not all veto players, given their preferences, will be equally able and willing to block policy change all of the time. Strong veto players will be more likely to use their veto power than weak veto players (see Ganghof, 2003, p. 19). In his original contributions to the literature on veto player approaches, Tsebelis (1995, pp. 311–313) had already hypothesized that policy stability will increase the more cohesive collective veto players are, that is, the smaller the policy differences between the individual members of that veto player are. In other words, more cohesive veto players will be able to form majorities to veto a broader range of policy proposals and are thus stronger than less cohesive veto players.

However, focusing solely on the cohesion of veto players has been criticized for failing to fully grasp the variance in the likelihood that veto power will indeed be employed in a particular decision context. While veto players are conceptualized as policy seekers, they are still embedded in a competitive political environment and will be affected by vote- and office-seeking incentives as well as by party system dynamics. Most notably, veto players can be distinguished with regard to their strategic political orientation. While cooperative veto players are expected not to block policy proposals they prefer to the status quo, competitive veto players may have extra strategic incentives to veto such proposals, for example, in order to frustrate and undermine the government (Wagschal, 1999; Zohlnhöfer, 2009, pp. 99–100). Competitive veto players should thus lead to higher policy stability than cooperative veto players. Centripetal dynamics of party competition in highly polarized party systems can thus be expected, other things equal, to reduce the scope for policy change. As a case in point, opposition parties, insofar as they have the institutional power to do so, can be seen as competitive veto players that might be driven to block government proposals or to demand disproportionate policy concessions because they expect to suffer political costs from supporting the government. To the contrary, coalition parties are more likely to be cooperative veto players that have a political incentive to support government proposals even if, in narrow policy terms, they prefer the status quo over the proposed change (Ganghof, 2003, p. 19).

In addition, other things being equal, veto players should be particularly likely to veto policy proposals on issues that are highly salient to them. On low-salience issues, in contrast, they should be less prepared to spend political capital in employing their veto power and more willing to trade their support for concessions on issues they consider more salient (Oppermann, 2008, pp. 181–185). Finally, the configuration of veto points and in particular the sequence in which veto players have to decide whether to use their veto power should also impact on their willingness to block policy change. For example, veto players that come last in that sequence, after all other veto players have already approved a policy change, might find blocking that change particularly costly.

Transferability and Applications of Veto Player Approaches to Foreign Policy Analysis

The increase in economic and political interdependence between states has blurred the lines between the realms of domestic and foreign policy. Those developments are particularly pronounced in geographical regions of the world where integration processes have unfolded, with arguably the most prominent case being the European Union (EU) where it is nowadays all but impossible to identify a still “purely domestic” policy area, that is, a policy area that has not been influenced at least to some degree by European law and policy making (e.g., Featherstone & Radaelli, 2003). In structural terms, states have responded to this internationalization of domestic issues with “a horizontal decentralization of their foreign relations” (Hill, 2016, p. 96). That is, foreign policy decision-making responsibilities and ultimately also competencies have been diffused across the state bureaucracy, usually at the expense of the foreign ministry. In response, formerly “domestic” ministries have created foreign policy units to cope with their new tasks and duties. Ultimately, the sharing of decision-making competencies together with the proliferation of administrative units dealing with foreign affairs have rendered the making of foreign policy much more similar to domestic policy making. This includes an increase in the number of possible veto points and veto players, which, in turn, represents the opening for introducing veto player approaches to the analysis of foreign policy.

Applying veto player approaches to the analysis of foreign policy requires the same three analytical steps as in public policy. Veto players and veto points are to be identified, the foreign policy preferences of veto players have to be established, and inferences must be drawn about the ability and incentives of veto players to actually use their veto power. Still, on each of these steps certain peculiarities in studying foreign policy need to be taken into account. This section discusses some such differences that might give rise to particular challenges in applying veto player approaches to foreign policy and also provides examples of the veto player approach’s application against foreign policy issues. While there exists a limited number of works in that regard, these works are surprisingly few and far between. The full potential of veto player approaches in FPA has yet to be tapped.

As for the first part of the veto player analytical framework, an important difference between public policy and foreign policy is that the latter relies much less on formal legislative acts than the former. While public policy typically proceeds through bills and laws, a large part of what constitutes foreign policy does not. Although legislatures often have to ratify international treaties and agreements, approve budgets for foreign policy, and vote on high-profile decisions, for example, military interventions, a broad range of foreign policy behavior takes place without any such legislative involvement, but consists of executive acts, diplomatic démarches, bi- and multilateral negotiations, participation in international organizations, government responses to international crises or speeches, and state visits of government members. The implication for veto player studies, however, is not that there are no veto points or veto players in foreign policy. Rather, the implication is that these veto points and veto players tend to be more ill-defined and less formal. Specifically, the balance between institutional and partisan veto players in foreign policy will likely be tilted more toward partisan veto players than in public policy. Given the extent of executive control over foreign policy making, moreover, veto player analyses of foreign policy should pay particular attention to veto points and veto players inside governments. Overall, the task of identifying and counting veto players and points in foreign policy will likely be less straightforward and clear-cut than it sometimes is in public policy.

This also applies to the second step in veto player analyses, the specification of veto player preferences. For one thing, domestic actors can be expected to have on average better defined, more precise, and more clearly spelled out preferences that are easier to pin down on public policy than on foreign policy. For example, the foreign policy preferences of political parties and general publics will often be quite vague and unspecific. What is more, foreign policy preferences tend to sit uneasily with the traditional left–right schema for mapping the public policy positions of actors, such as political parties, in the domestic political space. Existing quantitative datasets on the left–right positioning of domestic actors, for example, the Chapel Hill expert surveys, should thus be less useful for veto player studies in foreign policy than in public policy.

Moving on to the third part of the analytical framework, there are arguments to suggest that veto players, all else being equal, will be more reluctant to use their veto power in foreign policy than in public policy. For one thing, this is because foreign policy is for the most part less salient in the domestic arena than public policies, such as economic policy or health policy. For another, veto players have to reckon with significant political costs if they are seen to obstruct government foreign policy for narrow partisan and strategic political reasons. As the old adage that “politics stops at the water’s edge” would suggest, there tends to be a premium in foreign policy on supporting governments in their pursuit of “the national interest” and a disincentive to political contestation in this field. Competitive veto players should be less common in foreign policy than in public policy. Overall, the policy discretion of the agenda setter in foreign policy will therefore likely be larger than in public policy.

At the same time, however, the differences between applying veto player approaches in public policy and in FPA must not be overdone. They point to certain shifts in emphasis and specific methodological challenges for veto player studies in foreign policy, but do not call into question the basic explanatory logic of veto player approaches or their transferability from one field to the other. This claim is illustrated by the following examples of works that all used veto player approaches to explain foreign policy issues.

Starting with quantitative large-n studies, Mansfield, Milner, and Pevehouse (2007) have used veto player arguments to explain the propensity of countries to join preferential trade arrangements. Specifically, their study has incorporated veto players into a two-level model of international trade cooperation to explore the domestic political obstacles to trade agreements across 194 countries from 1950 to 1999. The main finding is that larger numbers of veto players within a country significantly decrease the likelihood of that country signing up to a preferential trade arrangement. Increasing the number of veto players thus makes international cooperation on trade issues more difficult to achieve. This corroborates the expectation of veto player approaches that the scope for policy change in a political system is inversely related to the number of veto players. In a later study, the same authors show that while democracies are more likely overall to enter regional integration agreements than autocracies, they become less likely to do so when the number of veto players who might be affected by such agreements increase. This effect becomes more pronounced the more in-depth the proposed form of integration is. The higher the number of veto players in democracies is, the more shallow regional integration agreements between them will likely be (Mansfield et al., 2008). More broadly, Barbara Koremenos (2016) has linked veto player arguments to the design of international agreements and has argued, for example, that agreements to create international organizations that are marked by a high asymmetry of power among their members will more likely invest these members with veto powers than in the case of international organizations that display more symmetrical power relations.

Along similar lines, Yu Wang and Shuai Jin (2013) have shown that larger numbers of veto players reduce the volume of foreign aid a country provides. The presence of multiple veto players also increases the opportunities of interest groups to block plans for such aid. These findings are derived from a comparative analysis of 27 OECD countries between 1977 and 2006 and offer further support for key claims of veto player approaches.

Another example of a quantitative veto player analysis in foreign policy is Seung-Whan Choi and Yiagadeesen Samy’s (2008) study on the ability of developing democratic countries to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). This work contributes to the debate about whether or not democratic regimes are better able to secure FDI than non-democracies. In particular, it probes an argument that is drawn from veto player approaches that multiple veto players with diverse policy preferences produce policy stability and credibility, which, in turn, should reassure foreign investors and lead to increased inflows of FDI. The study finds that the lock-in effects created by veto players may indeed have a positive effect on FDI, but that the impact of democratic regime type on FDI inflows more generally is unclear.

Moving beyond issues of trade, aid and investment, David E. Cunningham (2006) has investigated the relationship between veto players and civil wars. He finds that the duration of such wars increases as more veto players who have to approve a peace agreement are involved. This is primarily because a larger number of veto players reduces the bargaining range for a negotiated settlement. In the field of human rights, Lupu (2015) has shown that countries with a large number of legislative veto players are less likely to commit to international agreements. However, once a country has signed up to such an agreement, more legislative veto players make it less likely that it will renege on the agreement. Thus, more legislative veto players make international cooperation on human rights less likely but more successful once cooperation has been initiated.

Moreover, veto player studies, including both quantitative and qualitative comparative works, have been particularly instrumental in shedding new light on various aspects of European integration. For example, Michael Stoiber and Paul W. Thurner (2000) have compared and contrasted the veto player constellations of the then 15 EU member states in ratifying European treaties. This mapping exercise provides a starting point to investigate the influence of veto players on national negotiating positions on the European level. More specifically, Finke, König, Proksch, and Tsebelis (2012) have employed veto player perspectives to provide an in-depth analysis of the workings of the 2001–2003 European Convention and the bargaining and ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty.

Starting out from the opposite question of how national policy making adapts to European integration, Markus Haverland’s (2000) qualitative study has employed the concept of veto points to explain national patterns in implementing European directives. Specifically, Haverland has compared the implementation of a particular directive, the European Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive, in Germany, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom. He finds that the quality and pace of implementation depends more on the number of institutional veto points and less on the “goodness of fit” between national policies and European initiatives, which challenges a prominent argument in the Europeanization literature. As a case in point, the United Kingdom was most successful in implementing the Packaging Directive despite the greatest “misfit” between existing national practice and European requirements because the British government was unconstrained by institutional veto points.

Patrick Howell’s (2015) work on EU attempts at coordinating a common European response to the 2008 financial crisis, in turn, relies on hypotheses derived from veto player research as one possible explanation for divergent national responses to these attempts. Focusing on Germany, France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, Howell suggests that veto player arguments feed into a broader theory of domestic institutional constraints on international crisis coordination, which offers a plausible account of the observed variation across the four countries. Thus, it was precisely countries with the most permissive domestic environment that were most supportive of attempts at EU-level coordination.

Beyond European integration, further notable qualitative veto player analyses of foreign policy include Jacques Hymans’s (2011) study on Japan’s nuclear policy. Hymans adopts a historical institutionalist perspective that puts particular emphasis on the development of veto player constellations over time and finds that the nuclear policy arena in Japan is characterized by a rising number of entrenched veto players. In line with standard expectations of veto player approaches, this is seen as a source of policy inertia that makes radical nuclear power departures, including toward a nuclear weapons breakout, highly unlikely.

A final example for how the concept of veto players has informed the analysis of foreign policy is Gerry Alons’s (2007) work on domestic and international sources of foreign policy preferences. The general argument is that, ceteris paribus, international considerations will likely take precedence in preference formation if decision-making power is concentrated in the government whereas domestic calculations will more likely take center stage if multiple veto players constrain the decision-making power of governments. Alons illustrates her theoretical argument through a comparative case study of German and French preference formation in the field of international agricultural policy.

Linking Veto Player Approaches to FPA Theories

As the previous examples of veto player studies in foreign policy already indicate, veto player approaches hold great promise for FPA. This section will flag some areas in which this promise is particularly notable. Much for the same reasons as in public policy, veto player studies have immense potential in reinvigorating comparative foreign policy analysis (Rosenau, [1966]2006) using qualitative, quantitative or mixed-method research strategies. Most notably, veto player approaches provide a systematic framework that travels across different political systems and regime types and that can give guidance to theorizing the restrictiveness of domestic constraints and the weight of different domestic actors in foreign policy decision making (Hermann, 2001). Not least, veto player perspectives should be able to make useful contributions to the growing research agenda about the foreign policy of different types of authoritarian regimes (e.g., Weeks, 2012). More broadly, veto player approaches can be useful in adding to the theoretical rigor of second-image arguments in comparative foreign policy analysis.

For instance, veto player approaches can be linked to the literature on the democratic peace when trying to account for the impact, or lack thereof, of domestic institutions on leaders’ ability to engage in military conflict (see the contribution by Eric Hamilton, “Democratic Domestic Institutions and Foreign Policy”). Following the monadic version of the democratic peace theory (e.g., Rummel, 1995), democracies might be more peaceful than non-democratic regimes since its leaders tend to face a higher number of institutional veto points and veto players (such as parliaments) that prohibit the escalation of a conflict into war. A larger number of institutional veto points and/or veto players might also be one of the reasons why democracies do not wage war against one another (i.e., the dyadic version of the democratic peace argument) (e.g., Doyle, 1986), since decision makers in one democracy trust in the inhibiting, or pacifying, effect of veto players in the other democracy, which prevents the escalation of a bilateral conflict between democracies into war.

One of the possible institutional veto players referred to in the democratic peace literature are parliaments (see also the contribution by Wolfgang Wagner, “Parliaments in Foreign Policy”). Whereas foreign policy has long been conceived as the prerogative of the executive branch, parliaments have increasingly established themselves as influential actors in this realm. This relates not only to the domestic ratification of international treaties (e.g., Putnam, 1988) but also to decision making on the use of force (e.g., Kesgin & Kaarbo, 2010). The latter has been discussed in recent years from a comparative perspective under the label “parliamentary war powers” (e.g., Dieterich, Hummel, & Marschall, 2010; Peters & Wagner, 2011, 2014). This literature has brought to the fore significant variation among the power of parliaments in Western countries to influence; constrain; and at times even inhibit, or veto, governmental action regarding the deployment of armed forces abroad. Veto player approaches can further add to this line of research by adding to our understanding of the likelihood that the institutional power of parliaments is actually employed. In particular, the veto player perspective draws attention to partisan veto players inside parliaments and to different possible strategic orientations of these veto players. Beyond parliaments, veto player studies promise to bring into view the potentially far-reaching role of domestic veto players that are often neglected in FPA, such as, in particular, (constitutional) courts.

However, veto points and veto players can also exist inside governments, which opens up additional links to FPA scholarship. One relates to works on coalition foreign policy making (see the contribution by Sibel Oktay, “Coalition Politics and Foreign Policy”). Kaarbo and Beasley (2008), for instance, found that coalitions tend toward more extreme, high-commitment foreign policies than their single-party counterparts. On the one hand, multiple veto players might result in the diffusion of accountability (Hagan, 1993, p. 27), which has been identified as one pathway toward more extreme coalition foreign policy (Beasley & Kaarbo, 2014). On the other hand, many veto points and restrictive veto player constellations appear to weaken other possible drivers of extremity in coalition foreign policy, such as the hijacking of coalition decision making by junior coalition partners (Oppermann & Brummer, 2014), which would support expectations of more moderate, low-commitment coalition foreign policy. The number of veto points and whether or not all coalition partners qualify as effective veto players, in turn, depends on how the process of foreign policy making in coalitions is organized.

Another link between intra-governmental veto players and FPA scholarship is offered by the extensive works on bureaucratic politics (e.g., Allison & Zelikow, 1999). This literature highlights the pursuit of organizational interests (for instance, regarding turf, personnel, or financial means) by governmental actors typically at the expense of other cabinet members or other branches of government. In so doing, the bureaucratic politics perspective points to one possible source of the preferences of intra-governmental veto players, in the form of bureaucratic/organizational interests (Brummer, 2013).

Moreover, veto player approaches can be linked to FPA scholarship on the first image. For instance, the leadership trait approach (Hermann, 2005) helps by identifying leaders who are more or less likely to challenge constraints, like those introduced by veto players. Combining the actor-oriented focus of the leadership trait approach with the institutionalist perspective of veto player approaches could thus, for example, help explain the emergence of domestic conflict, which is likely to occur when leaders with a high propensity to challenge constraints (e.g., leaders with a high need for power and a strong belief in their ability to control events) seek to overcome political obstacles that were established by institutional veto players. Another link could be established between veto player approaches and the operational code approach (Walker, Schafer, & Young, 2005; see also the contribution by Akan Malici, “Foreign Policy Belief Systems and Operational Code Analysis”), which focuses on the political beliefs of individual decision makers. For instance, if multiple veto points and/or several strong veto players lead to a heavily constrained domestic environment, a leader is likely to have a particularly negative view of the “nature of the political universe” (which refers to one of the “master beliefs” of decision makers), which in turn might urge him or her to pursue a highly confrontational political style or policies.

On a more general level, veto player approaches can be particularly promising for research into foreign policy change. After all, the main raison d’être of veto player approaches in public policy precisely is to explain and predict patterns of policy stability and change. Such approaches should therefore have an obvious appeal as a ready-made theoretical framework to study drivers and obstacles to change in foreign policy as well. For instance, a large number of veto points and of “strong” veto players with a diverse range of foreign policy preferences would be expected to reduce the potential for foreign policy change and rather lead to foreign policy stability and rigidity. Furthermore, veto player perspectives offer themselves to complement and strengthen existing theoretical approaches to the study of foreign policy change. As a case in point, the concept of veto players might be used to formalize and operationalize one of David Welch’s hypotheses according to which “foreign policy change should be less frequent in highly bureaucratic states with democratic regimes than in less bureaucratic states with autocratic regimes” (Welch, 2005, p. 45). Similarly, veto player approaches can usefully be brought to bear on Charles Hermann’s typology of foreign policy change. Hermann (1990, p. 5) distinguishes “four graduated levels of change”: adjustment changes, program changes, problem/goal changes, and international orientation change. At one end of the continuum, adjustment changes are the least consequential since they solely refer to changes in a country’s international efforts or of the recipients/addressees of a country’s foreign policy. At the other end of the continuum, international orientation change marks a fundamental shift in a country’s “entire orientation toward world affairs” (Hermann, 1990, p. 5). Linking up Hermann’s typology with veto player approaches, one could explore, for instance, whether there are systematically different veto player constellations for each of the four types of changes that make the latter’s implementation more, or rather less, likely (e.g., can certain types of changes be decided by the executive alone whereas other types of changes necessarily require the consent of other branches of government?).

Along similar lines, veto player approaches can contribute to scholarship on the “effectiveness” of foreign policy making and the capacity of foreign policy to respond to international crises. In particular, foreign policy making should be more prone to “deadlock” (Hagan et al., 2001) and less geared toward effective crisis response, the more the constellation of veto points and veto players restricts the policy discretion of the agenda setter. Relatedly, the veto player approach can offer a new angle to the FPA literature on foreign policy fiascos (e.g., Janis, 1982). For instance, the absence of veto players or veto points can be seen as a permissive condition for the initiation of policy change, which in turn might trigger unintended effects or outcomes, possibly including fiascos. Conversely, veto players might be the reason why a country is incapable of changing policy, which might lead to inexpedient or belated responses to changes in the external threat environment. Viewed from a different perspective, the absence of veto players and veto points should facilitate the attribution of blame to responsible decision makers, which is part and parcel of the discursive construction of foreign policy fiascos. Complex veto player constellations and multiple veto points, in contrast, tend to diffuse responsibility for foreign policy decisions and might shield decision makers from being held politically accountable.

Another area of research in FPA for which veto player approaches hold obvious promise are two-level game analyses of foreign policy (Putnam, 1988). Specifically, incorporating veto player arguments into the two-level framework is a possible route for addressing the often-made critique that the analysis of domestic win-sets in two-level games is under-theorized. Insights from veto player approaches can also strengthen arguments in the two-level game literature about the prospects for international cooperation and the bargaining power of governments in international negotiations. All else being equal, countries should be less likely to engage in international cooperation if decision making is more constrained by domestic veto points and veto players (see Mansfield et al., 2007). At the same time, such conditions should give governments greater international bargaining power.

To conclude this section, it is worth noting that a closer dialogue between veto player approaches and FPA should not only benefit FPA but also stands to further veto player research in public policy. Three points in particular come to mind. First is the second-image reversed perspective (Gourevitch, 1978), which addresses international influences that emanate from the international political economy or the state system (i.e., the distribution of power among the great powers) on domestic politics, where they can trigger changes in institutions, politics, and policies. Employing such an “outside in” perspective (Lobell, 2006) would focus attention on top-down international impacts on the structure of veto points and veto player constellations. A similar perspective is offered by the “domestication” approach (Harnisch, 2006, 2009). Domestication is defined as “the limitation of executive prerogatives by legislative and judicial actors to clip and tie international delegation of competences to domestic core norms through procedural and normative rules” (Harnisch, 2009, p. 455). By showing how constitutional rules, delegation mechanisms, and actors from outside the executive branch have restrained the ability of governments to transfer sovereignty or at least delegate authority to international bodies, this approach also connects international systemic trends with the probability and direction of domestic contestation and veto playing. Second, concepts and approaches in foreign policy and international politics might help broaden the perspective of veto player approaches to include international veto points and veto players, such as, for example, international regimes and organizations. Finally, the use or non-use of veto power by individual actors, above all presidents, might be the result of idiosyncratic characteristics of those individuals. That is, specific characteristics of leaders, like political beliefs or leadership traits, might render them more or less prone to block policy change (or to initiate policy change, for that matter). If this line of inquiry is pursued, the veto player perspective can be linked up, for instance, with analytical constructs from FPA like the above-mentioned operational code approach (Walker et al., 2005) or leadership trait analysis (Hermann, 2005).


This article has started out from the observation that veto player approaches are among the best-established approaches for the comparative analysis of public policy, while they have so far gained little traction in FPA. Our main contention is that this is unfortunate and that the study of foreign policy has a lot to gain from more systematically taking on board the insights and concepts of veto player analyses in public policy. Specifically, we argue that there is nothing intrinsic to veto player approaches that would preclude their application in the domain of foreign policy. Rather, the same analytical steps of veto player analyses in public policy are equally relevant and applicable in foreign policy. This is not to deny that transferring veto player approaches to the field of foreign policy needs to confront specific methodological challenges and will likely involve certain shifts in focus and emphasis. Still, whether foreign policy decisions can be usefully explained through the lens of veto player approaches is ultimately an empirical question, not a theoretical or methodological one. Moreover, what should make such approaches particularly attractive to scholars in foreign policy is that they can be fruitfully linked up to a range of established theories and concepts in FPA. This holds the prospect of further refining these theories and concepts and of generating novel insights about foreign policy making.

In order to more fully realize the potential of veto player approaches in FPA, arguably the greatest added value would come from more comparative veto player studies of foreign policy. In particular, such studies should cut across regime types and include countries of the Global South (Brummer & Hudson, in press). What would also be promising is to pursue within-country research designs, for example, to trace the development of veto player constellations and veto points over time or to compare the impact of veto players and veto points across foreign policy issues or decision types (e.g., crisis, routine or planning decisions). Methodologically, scholars in FPA should harness one of the particular strengths of veto player approaches that they are amenable to qualitative and quantitative as well as mixed-methods research strategies. Single case studies can be useful, most notably, to establish the causal mechanisms through which veto players and veto points shape foreign policy decision making. In terms of theory development in FPA, a promising route for further research is to integrate insights and concepts from veto player approaches into established approaches in the field. Such efforts can help address theoretical black spots of foreign policy approaches and generate new hypotheses.

Finally, bringing veto player approaches into FPA along the lines suggested in this article should be seen as part of a broader research agenda to strengthen the dialogue between foreign policy and public policy. Given the obvious similarities and overlaps between these fields, it is surprising how little the two talk to each other. The many and varied promises of veto player studies in foreign policy can only hint at the possible benefits of bridging the gap between public policy and foreign policy more generally.


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(1.) We refer to “veto player approaches” as a comprehensive term that comprises a variety of scholarship that explores the impact of veto power and veto opportunities in policy making (see Ganghof, 2003, p. 2). While the works of George Tsebelis (1995, 2002) are probably the most influential and prominent contributions to this scholarship, veto player approaches still stand in a longer and broader research tradition.

(2.) A related concept in veto player approaches is the concept of “veto gates” (Shugart & Haggard, 2001, pp. 70–71). It describes institutional checks on changes to the status quo and is thus very similar to veto points.