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date: 20 August 2017

Democratic Domestic Institutions and Foreign Policy

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Scholarship on the relationship between domestic institutions and foreign policy is driven by the simple assumption that a state’s domestic political arrangement can explain important aspects of its foreign policy behavior. Democratic domestic institutions, in particular, are thought to be significant for explaining an important set of outcomes ranging from greater trade to the lack of war between mature democracies—the so-called Democratic Peace.

The study of the impact of democratic domestic institutions on foreign policy has developed along two broad lines. The first and most established approach is rooted in the basic distinction between democracies and non-democracies. In this view, democratic institutions—nearly universal franchise, regular and contested elections, et cetera—constrain leaders in a way that produces distinct democratic foreign policy patterns. Research shows, for example, that democracies cooperate with each other more often (and are also are more likely to uphold their commitments); face greater audience costs and thus make more effective threats; tend not to fight wars with each other (but do fight non-democracies quite frequently); and more often win the wars in which they are involved.

This approach has yielded a tremendous amount of research and insight into democratic foreign policy, but also suffers from several important critiques. One is that democracy tends to be correlated with a host of other variables, making it difficult to specify what exactly it is about democracy that explains certain foreign policy outcomes. A second and related critique is that this approach tends to treat democracy uniformly when in fact there is often great variation in democratic domestic institutions across cases.

In response to these challenges, a second approach has emerged in recent years that focuses on the differences among democracies and seeks to explain how this variation in turn creates variation in foreign policy behavior. Democracies differ in terms of their underlying institutional arrangements in a variety of ways, including whether they have presidential or parliamentary systems, proportional representation or single-member districts, strong or weak states, autonomous or constrained executives, and open or closed institutions to modulate the flow of information between leaders and citizens, among others. Even within a single democratic country, there can be a different set of institutional constraints depending on the given foreign policy instrument a leader seek to employ. Studying these variations and their impact on policy processes and outcomes provides great promise for further understanding the relationship between domestic democratic institutions and foreign policy.