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date: 19 September 2017

Parliaments in Foreign Policy

Summary and Keywords

Parliaments differ enormously in their foreign policy competences. This is best documented in the area of “war powers,” understood as decision-making on the use of force. In other issue areas, such as treaty-making, defense budgets, sanctions, or arms exports, differences across countries are far less researched. The available data, however, suggests that differences in those areas are no smaller than in the area of war powers. What is more, the data also show that parliamentary competences across issue areas within particular countries also differ a lot. Parliaments are not strong or weak across the full spectrum of foreign policy competences. Instead, parliamentary competences are country, as well as issue specific. A general trend toward a parliamentarization or deparliamentarization of foreign affairs is not discernible.

Partly inspired by institutionalist versions of Democratic Peace Theory, numerous studies have examined whether parliamentary powers have any effect on countries’ propensity to use armed force. Case-study research tends to find that variation in parliamentary powers impacts on decision-making on the use of force but also emphasizes that the effects of institutional constraints need to be understood in conjunction with the preferences of the public, parliament, and government. Statistical studies have found some evidence for a “parliamentary peace,” but because of problematic indicators and a lack of controls, doubts remain as to robustness and significance of this effect. In any case, theories of legislative-executive relations in parliamentary systems suggest that open confrontations between parliament and government are exceptional. Instead of an institutional constraint in a system of checks and balances, parliamentary war powers can be understood as an additional reassurance against unpopular decisions to use force.

Most studies of parliaments in foreign affairs are characterized by “methodological nationalism”—that is, the assumption that nation-states are the natural units of analysis. However, parliaments’ activities in foreign affairs are not exhausted by their monitoring and scrutiny of national executives. In addition, there is a long tradition of “parliamentary diplomacy” and engagement in interparliamentary institutions. The most powerful parliamentary actor beyond the nation-state is the European Parliament. Although its formal competences are limited, it has been very effective in using its powers to influence European foreign policy.

Keywords: parliament, legislature, war powers, interparliamentary institution, European Parliament


On August 29, 2013, the British House of Commons voted against a government motion calling for a strong response from the international community to the use of chemical weapons by the Syrian government against insurgents in the suburbs of Damascus, including possible military action. Prime minister David Cameron had been resolved to use military force in response to the use of chemical weapons. Although the vote was not legally required (Strong, 2015), Cameron bowed to the expressed will of the parliamentary majority and refrained from military action (Kaarbo & Kenealy, 2016).1

The 2013 House of Commons vote was a spectacular demonstration of parliamentary power and influence in foreign affairs. In an important question of security policy, parliament prevented the government from executing its preferred policy. The episode also echoes the institutionalist version of the Democratic Peace Theory, according to which domestic actors, such as parliaments, constrain the executive in its use of force.

However, the 2013 House of Commons vote was untypical for parliaments in foreign affairs. More typically, legislatures in parliamentary systems (hereafter, “parliaments”2) exert more limited and subtle influence. The question of whether parliaments influence foreign policy is taken up in the section “Parliaments and Foreign Policy Beyond the Nation-State.” But first, the section “Mapping Parliaments in Foreign Policy” provides an overview of the current factual knowledge about parliamentary competences and practices in foreign policy. Within it, “War Powers” reviews the state of the art on parliaments’ war powers, and “Powers and Activities in Other Areas of Foreign Policy” looks at their competences and activities in other areas of foreign policy. Together, these two sections suggest two conclusions: First, parliamentary powers and activities differ enormously, both between states and between issue areas within a state. Second, there is little evidence of general trends toward parliamentarization or deparliamentarization (see “Parliamentarization or Deparliamentarization?”). Although reforms sometimes occur in waves, the overall picture is one of issue- and country-specific parliamentary powers. Section “Does it Matter? Gauging Parliamentary Influence in Foreign Policy” addresses the notion of a “parliamentary peace”—that is, the idea that parliamentary war powers actually constrain the use of military force by governments. A review of the literature suggests that there is only modest support for a “parliamentary peace.” However, especially in parliamentary systems, parliaments and governments should not be conceived as independent actors in an antagonistic relationship. Rather, parliaments matter on the margins as an additional safeguard against the unpopular use of force. Whereas sections “Introduction” and “Mapping Parliaments in Foreign Policy” follow the “methodological nationalism” that characterizes this field of study, the section “Parliaments and Foreign Policy Beyond the Nation-State” looks into inter-parliamentary institutions and the European Parliament.

Mapping Parliaments in Foreign Policy

Our knowledge of parliaments differs enormously across both issue areas and countries. Parliaments’ “war powers”—that is, their competences and activities in decision-making on the use of force—are by far the best documented and studied field.3 In contrast, parliaments’ involvement in trade, development aid, sanctions, treaty-making or arms exports have received less attention.

With a view to countries, research has by and large been tracing power and has focused on those parliaments that have the biggest impact on international affairs, namely, powerful parliaments in powerful states. As a consequence, the U.S. Congress is by far the best-documented and most intensely studied legislature, and debates about the role of Congress in foreign affairs have often set the tone for studies elsewhere. Among the middle powers, the influential German Bundestag has attracted considerable attention, whereas the less powerful parliaments in France, Italy, and Spain have been studied less. Research on parliaments in small-state foreign policymaking tends to be negligible if a parliament lacks influence (as is the case, for example, in Greece, New Zealand, Portugal, and Ireland). In contrast, the powerful Nordic parliaments’ involvement in foreign affairs has received more attention (see Lüddecke, 2010; Raunio, 2016). The strengthening of the supranational European Parliament in European Union external relations has also been accompanied by a growing body of research.

Taken together, our knowledge of parliaments’ involvement in foreign affairs is patchy and heavily skewed toward the use of force and powerful parliaments in powerful countries. This suggests that research has been driven mostly by scholars of international relations, who treat parliaments as potential factors influencing international politics, not by their colleagues in comparative politics, whose prime interest is in parliament’s role in political systems more broadly.

War Powers

Attention to war powers may not be surprising because early modern parliamentarism emerged in response to the crown’s war-making and state-building efforts. Several parliamentary institutions have themselves gathered data on parliamentary war powers (see Assembly of the Western European Union, 2001; European Parliament, 2007; Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2017). Because such data are based on self-reporting by parliaments, however, they do not always fully reflect developments toward peace-support missions or the “wars of choice” that have replaced territorial defense as the main task of the armed forces in most countries after the end of the Cold War.

In addition, several teams of scholars collected data on war powers in the 2000s and beyond: covering 158 countries, M. Steven Fish and Matthew Kroenig’s Handbook of National Legislatures is without doubt the most comprehensive. Fish and Kroenig carried out an expert survey to find out, among other questions, whether a “legislature's approval is necessary to declare war.” The comprehensive scope, however, limits the comparability of the data. For example, both China and Syria are reported to declare war only after their legislatures’ have approved. In the absence of free and fair elections, however, the significance of such war powers remains unclear. In addition, the focus on declarations of war is unfortunate because they are an instrument of the 19th and early 20th centuries that states no longer use. To be sure, the language of war and its declaration can still be found in numerous constitutions if, as for example in Belgium or the United States, the respective article has not been reworded in more than 150 years. The example of these countries also illustrates that data on declarations of war are misleading. Fish and Kroenig report that both the Belgian parliament and the U.S. Congress must approve any declarations of war. However, both governments in both countries frequently used military force without prior parliamentary approval because no war was declared.

Dieterich, Hummel, and Marschall (2010, 2015) collected data on the actual competences and practices of the parliaments of 25 members of the EU at the time of the 2003 Iraq War. They developed a five-point scale of parliamentary war powers that is based on co-decision-making powers, budgetary powers, and consultation rights. They found that parliaments in more than half the countries had “very strong” or “strong” war powers. This includes the Scandinavian countries, the Baltic states, Germany, and Italy. In contrast, the parliaments in eight countries, including France, Great Britain, Poland, and Spain, had “very weak” or “weak” war powers. Based on in-depth studies of 25 EU member states, the data collected by Dieterich et al. stand out for being very fine-grained and nuanced.

Another comprehensive collection of actual data on war powers is the ParlCon dataset (Wagner, Peters, & Glahn, 2010). The dataset covers 49 countries over the period between the end of the Cold War in 1989 and 2004, and includes all countries whose democratic character is beyond question. In contrast to Dieterich et al., however, ParlCon uses a dichotomous measure of parliamentary control: Parliamentary control is coded to be present if parliament has an ex ante veto power, and to be absent if otherwise.

Based on the various datasets, as well as on numerous in-depth studies of individual parliaments, two main findings are worth highlighting: First, there are enormous differences between countries. Whereas some governments can and do decide on their own when it comes to decisions on the use of force, others face tight constraints by parliament. In addition, there are many variations in-between.

Second, parliamentarians’ resolve (or lack thereof) to monitor and scrutinize the government plays a key role. Adriella Huff (2015) in particular has argued that “attitude,” that is, “the political will to hold government accountable” (p. 406) is more important than formal competences. For example, the Dutch government is only obliged to inform parliament about its decision to send troops abroad, but there is a widely shared understanding that no government would deploy troops without having majority support in parliament. On the other end of the spectrum, French parliamentarians have shown little appetite to obtain an ex ante veto power over military deployments and have acquiesced in numerous exemptions from their right to approve missions after an initial period of three months (Ostermann, 2017). In a similar vein, Böcker (2012) reported high levels of satisfaction among Members of Parliament in Britain and Germany with respect to parliamentary war powers.

Powers and Activities in Other Areas of Foreign Policy

Although the study of the activities of parliaments in foreign policy is heavily skewed toward decisions on the use of force, a growing number of studies have helped by mapping parliamentary competences and activities in other issue areas.

Smith, Huff, and Edwards (2012) found a “great deal of variation among European parliaments regarding their power to influence, amend and scrutinize budgetary proposals and their implementation” in the realm of foreign affairs. Whereas the Danish Folketing has significant powers to change and amend the national budget, the British House of Commons and the Irish Dáil have almost no competences to do so. Bauer (2004), as well as Grebe and Roßner (2014), found similar differences in the realm of arms exports. Sweden has the highly influential export control council, composed of Members of Parliament (MPs), which is consulted by the export control agency. Although the council’s advice is not formally binding, the agency generally follows its recommendations. In contrast, the German Bundestag is only informed about arms exports ex post. Herranz-Surralles (2017) shows that agreements with third countries on energy supply require parliamentary ratification in Austria, Bulgaria, Greece, and Serbia but not in Germany, Hungary, or Italy. What is more, some parliaments are highly engaged in scrutinizing such agreements, whereas others are rather inactive—independent of their formal powers of scrutiny. A survey conducted to inform the Conference of Parliamentary Committees for Union Affairs of Parliaments of the European Union (COSAC) meeting in Riga, in 2015, revealed great differences across EU member state parliaments’ involvement in EU free-trade negotiations (COSAC, 2015). Case studies on the involvement of the French and British parliaments in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations between the EU and the United States found that “while the British parliamentary scrutiny was predominantly ‘evidence-oriented,’ the French was more ‘influence-oriented’” (Jančić, 2017, p. 212). A survey commissioned by the European Parliament of non-European parliaments’ roles in scrutinizing and influencing trade policy also found considerable variation across parliaments. Although the case of Iran shows that “the rather authoritarian style of government does not neutralize the impact of efforts toward scrutinizing and influencing international trade policy by individual parliamentarians,” the study concludes that “parliamentary systems such as the Swiss, Australian and South African Parliaments do clearly outperform the presidential-authoritarian systems in respect to the quality of parliamentary scrutiny” (Maurer, 2005, pp. 12–13). Rozenberg, Chopin, Hoeffler, Irondelle, and Joana (2011) demonstrated that parliaments in the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and Spain use a common instrument very differently. Whereas the latter three, on average, posed fewer than 25 oral questions on defense per year, the House of Commons posed more than 850. Whereas almost all oral questions on defense are posed by the parties of the opposition in the German Bundestag, more than half are posed by parties of the governing coalition in Spain and the United Kingdom.

These studies suggest that the main findings on parliamentary war powers also apply in areas other than war powers. First of all, parliaments’ competences and activities differ enormously in issue areas, such as budgets, trade, arms exports, and energy agreements. Second, the formal authority granted to parliaments often gives an incomplete account because the attitudes of MPs have a high impact on the actual activities of parliament. The review of various issue areas allows for an additional conclusion: parliamentary powers and activities not only differ across countries but also across issue areas within a country. For example, the British House of Commons is weak when it comes to the defense budget but strong when arms exports are concerned. Likewise, the German Bundestag is strong with a view to deployment decisions but rather weak when it comes to energy agreements with third countries.

Parliamentarization or Deparliamentarization?

Whereas a lot of the literature on parliaments in foreign policy is descriptive, some contributions take a special interest in the trends in parliamentary involvement over time, debating whether the influence of parliament has increased (the parliamentarization thesis) or decreased (the deparliamentarization thesis). Of course, this debate blends with the general debate about a (de)parliamentarization of modern democratic politics. The rise of political parties and party discipline and the growing importance of media and of extraparliamentary institutions (such as business associations and trade unions) have long been blamed for a weakening of parliament (Bryce, 1921). More recently, the demand for highly specialized expertise has been identified as a further factor contributing to the rise of new, “post-parliamentary forms of governance” (Andersen & Burns, 1996, p. 249).

In contrast to democratic politics more broadly, which is often compared to idealized processes of autonomous parliamentary deliberation and decision-making, the main reference point for the debate on the (de)parliamentarization of foreign policy is the executive dominance that characterized this particular issue area in the middle of the 20th century.

To be sure, processes of globalization and the pooling and delegating of sovereignty in and to international institutions challenge parliaments in foreign policy, as well as in general. Andrew Moravcsik (1994) and Klaus Dieter Wolf (1999) have identified parliaments as the main losers from the internationalization of politics because international negotiations give executives additional leverage over domestic actors. Foreign affairs is not exempted from this trend: Wagner (2006) demonstrated that the multinational integration of the armed forces tends to undermine parliamentary control of deployment decisions. Koenig-Archibugi (2004) showed that executives are more willing to pool foreign- and security-policy competences with others the more they are constrained domestically by parliaments and other actors.

In addition, and especially in the realm of foreign policy, governments can “securitize” issues, that is, frame them as matters of national survival (Buzan, Wæver, & de Wilde 1998). The logic of securitization suggests that the cumbersome processes of normal policymaking can or even should be disbanded in favor of governmental emergency powers in order to secure the survival of the state and the nation. This echoes a long-standing tradition in political philosophy according to which foreign and security policy require speed, secrecy, and sometimes even deception and is thus incompatible with parliamentary involvement.

At the same time, however, a number of countervailing trends suggest that we may witness a process of parliamentarization of foreign policymaking. First, growing levels of interdependence have led to a widening of the foreign policy agenda, which now also includes environmental politics, immigration, and cooperation in policing and law enforcement. In addition, international trade politics is more and more about “behind the border” issues, such as product regulations, which means that its effects are felt by a growing number of citizens. This widening of the agenda has made foreign policy relevant in elections, which in turn has created incentives for parliamentarians to monitor and scrutinize these developments (Raunio, 2014, p. 551).

Second, higher levels of education and extended media coverage of foreign affairs have made the public better informed and more interested in foreign affairs. This again creates incentives for parliamentarians to be responsive to the electorate’s demands in foreign affairs as well.

Empirically, it is very well documented that the U.S. Congress became more assertive in the 1960s and 1970s, a development that was to a large extent driven by the war in Vietnam (Raunio, 2014). Whether there is a more general trend toward the parliamentarization of foreign and security policy is difficult to ascertain. Lori Damrosh (2002) claimed that there has been a “trend since the Second World War of legislative involvement in decisions to authorise participation” (p. 52) but provided no systematic data. In a comprehensive comparative study of the Danish Folketing, the German Bundestag, and the British House of Commons, Lüddecke (2010) has demonstrated high and often growing levels of activity in foreign affairs, but his study did not cover the decades before the end of the Cold War. Sakaki and Lukner (2017) showed that the Japanese diet gained influence over arms exports during the Cold War period.

Peters and Wagner (2014) found no evidence of a general trend toward the parliamentarization or deparliamentarization of war powers in the period between 1989 and 2003. In the countries they studied, reforms had been made in both directions. Three waves of reforms can be distinguished. First, the former Warsaw Pact countries introduced parliamentary veto powers into the process of democratization in the early 1990s. A plausible explanation is that high degrees of uncertainty about the success of the democratization process create incentives to institutionalize firm restrictions on how future governments can use the armed forces (Peters & Wagner, 2014, pp. 312–313). Second, roughly a decade later, the same countries loosened parliamentary constraints on multilateral deployments in order to meet demands by NATO before joining the alliance. Although growing levels of multinational military integration created frictions with national parliamentary provisos in several member states, the Central and Eastern European states were in a particularly weak position to deny requests from NATO. Third, the 2003 Iraq War triggered reforms in some states whose governments had decided to participate in the intervention despite widespread public opposition, most notably Spain and the United Kingdom (Mello, 2017; Kaarbo & Kenealy, 2017).

In France, Germany, and Spain, recalibrations of legislative–executive relations have been contested on a left–right axis: whereas parties on the left tend to prefer strong parliamentary involvement in foreign affairs, parties on the right tend to grant the executive more discretion (Wagner et al., 2017). Sakaki and Lukner (2017) found a similar left–right cleavage in Japan with regard to deployment decisions and arms exports. This suggests that the ideological orientation of the government impacts on the design of legislative–executive relations in foreign affairs.

Taken together, most of the factors identified to impact on legislative–executive relations are specific to particular countries and the policy choices they made. Reforms are also often confined to particular issues, such as the use of force, arms exports, or trade negotiations. The country- and issue-specific nature of reforms works against any general trend toward parliamentarization or deparliamentarization. Instead, there are issue- and country-specific recalibrations of legislative–executive relations (Raunio & Wagner, 2017).

Does it Matter? Gauging Parliamentary Influence in Foreign Policy

The British House of Common’s 2013 Syria vote, which was mentioned in the opening paragraph of this article, suggests that parliaments can and sometimes do have a strong impact on a country’s foreign policy. The episode would be in line with institutionalist versions of Democratic Peace Theory, according to which executives in democracies (but not in non-democracies) are constrained by domestic systems of checks and balances that slow down decision-making processes and make decisions to use force less likely (Russett, 1993). The institutionalist version of Democratic Peace Theory has inspired a number of studies that focus on differences in conflict behavior among democracies and examine the hypothesis that the more powerful the parliaments, the less belligerent the democracies.

Susan Peterson (1996), David Auerswald (1999, 2000) and Miriam Elman (2000) used in-depth case studies to compare decision-making processes on the use of force between democracies with autonomous executives, on the one hand, and executives facing strong legislatures, on the other hand. The cases studied were quite diverse and include the great powers during the Crimean War, the Fashoda Crisis (1898), the Suez Crisis, and the Bosnian civil war, as well as Finland in World War II and Israel in the late 1970s. All three authors found support for the general notion that institutional constraints by parliaments matter; however, all three also emphasize that policies are best explained by the interactions of institutions and actor preferences. They therefore hesitated to claim a general relation between a strong parliament and conflict avoidance. Susan Peterson (1996), for example, found that executives facing strong parliaments are “more susceptible to the whims of public opinion” but that democracies may be difficult to restrain whenever “those whims are warlike” (p. 199). In a similar vein, Elman (2000) states that “if the executive is dovish and the legislature is hawkish, executive autonomy will prolong peace. If the executive is belligerent and the legislature is more moderate, executive autonomy will increase the likelihood of war” (p. 93). Among the three authors, Auerswald (2004) comes closest to a general proposition that different institutional systems impact on the likelihood of conflict initiation by the executive. Even if a legislature is initially in favor of conflict, Auerswald argues, institutionally constrained executives will be reluctant to engage in conflict because they are aware of the inherent risks of such endeavors. However, strong executives run a lower risk of domestic defeat and are thus less risk-averse (pp. 641–642).

A second group of scholars run statistical analyses to gauge the impact of parliaments on conflict behavior. Reiter and Tillman (2002) examined conflict initiation by 37 democracies over the period 1919 to 1992, using country-years as units of analysis. One of their hypotheses states that “as legislative control over foreign policy increases, the likelihood of that state initiating a conflict decreases.” As a proxy for legislative control, Reiter and Tillman use treaty-ratification power. Their finding is mixed: Although there was a statistically significant correlation between legislative power over treaty ratification and the initiation of so-called militarized interstate conflicts, the variable becomes insignificant when only conflicts involving the use of force are included. Clark and Nordstrom (2005) have confirmed these findings.

The weak spot in Reiter and Tillman’s (2002) study is their decision to take treaty-ratification power as an indicator of parliamentary power in decision-making on the use of force. To be fair, better indicators were not available at the time of their research, and therefore the only way to study a larger set of countries over a longer period of time was to assume that “legislative involvement in treaty ratification is likely to extend to other areas of foreign policy” (p. 816).

The study by Dieterich et al. (2015) on the involvement of EU states in the 2003 Iraq War is based on the high-quality data they gathered for this particular purpose (see “War Powers”). They found that the only two EU members that had sent in ground troops, Poland and the United Kingdom, have weak parliaments, whereas the eleven EU countries with parliaments with comprehensive war powers contributed no more than logistical support and mostly refrained from supporting the war at all. They see this as strong evidence for a “parliamentary peace . . . high parliamentary war powers are associated with reduced war involvement. Countries with a high degree of parliamentary war powers were significantly less militarily engaged in the Iraq War” (p. 100). However, their evidence is exclusively bivariate. Statistical controls for additional variables, such as military capabilities or the party political orientation of the government, are missing.

Such variables were included in the study by Patrick Mello (2014), who also extended the analysis to additional interventions (Kosovo in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001) and countries (e.g., Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United States). Mello used fuzzy-set qualitative comparative analysis to identify configurations of variables that impact on a government’s decision to participate in a military intervention. Using data from Dieterich et al. (2010) and Wagner et al. (2010), Mello found “no cross-case pattern . . . for parliamentary veto rights” (p. 186). For the Kosovo intervention, Mello found that the absence of parliamentary veto power is a necessary condition for participation. However, for the Iraq war, Mello found that constitutional restraints explained the nonparticipation of numerous states better than did parliamentary veto power. In addition, several parliaments that could have vetoed participation did not do so.

A final group of case studies were not designed to explain variation in participation in military missions but to trace the actual use of parliamentary war powers in decision-making on multilateral interventions under the auspices of the United Nations, NATO, or the EU. Based on a study of the EU-led operations Artemis (Democratic Republic of the Congo, 2003) and Concordia (Macedonia, 2003), Bono (2005) found that the national parliaments in Britain, France, and Italy were “either constitutionally and procedurally unable or politically unwilling to exercise supervision over EU-led military engagements in the ex-ante accountability phase.” Of course, with hindsight (that is, informed by the comprehensive studies just discussed, which were not available at the time of Bono’s study), one may criticize her study for selecting countries with weak parliamentary-control competencies. However, in-depth studies of powerful parliaments have not provided a much rosier picture. In his study of the German Bundestag and the participation in European Union Force operations in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (EUFOR DRC) in 2006, Jungbauer (2012) reported a multitude of activities by MPs, including discussions with the German minister of defense and the EU’s high representative Solana, as well as inspection visits to Kinshasa. Jungbauer concludes that MPs, although very well informed, have had very limited influence. In a study of the EU’s maritime mission Atalanta, Peters, Glahn, and Wagner (2013) found that parliaments were only informed once the planning process was already at an advanced stage.

Taken together, the empirical studies find modest support for the notion that parliaments are influential in decision-making on the use of force. The studies that found the strongest support either used a problematic indicator or refrained from controlling for other factors, such as military capabilities. In contrast, Mello’s study, the most sophisticated and thorough of the empirical studies, found support only in some but not all cases.

However, there are several reasons why the influence of parliaments may be greater than it appears from the studies reviewed here. First of all, the number of cases for which we have data of good quality remains limited, which hampers quantitative analysis. Taken together, all NATO and EU member states for which data are available, and which share a baseline probability of participating in a military intervention in the first place, still make for a modestly sized n of 30 or so.

Second, episodes like the 2013 Syria vote in Britain may mislead us to think of parliamentary influence primarily in terms of legislative–executive antagonism. However, as every textbook in comparative politics emphasizes, in parliamentary systems, the majority party or coalition of parties forms a functional unit with the government.4 Because in parliamentary systems, parliament has the power to unseat the government, the latter has developed mechanisms to discipline the parliamentary majority. Thus, the government’s main antagonist is not the parliament per se but the opposition in parliament. Party politics thus supersedes legislative–executive relations. As a consequence, we should expect to see parliaments blocking executive action only in exceptional cases—namely, when the established mechanisms of party discipline have failed to ensure the support of the governmental majority.

Effective party discipline, however, does not equal parliamentary insignificance. Although the opposition is, by definition, not in a position to block government policy, MPs of the majority party or coalition use intraparty channels to voice concerns and criticize government policies. Especially in countries in which deployment decisions require parliamentary approval, this often makes the government sensitive to the concerns of its MPs and regularly leads to the introduction of caveats to the deployment mandate (Saideman & Auerswald, 2012). A parliament may thus be influential not by imposing its will on the executive but by making the executive take the concerns of MPs into account when defining its policies. In states with a consensual political culture, such as the Nordic countries, this way of influencing decisions may extend to the (major) opposition party or parties, as well.

In many cases, the foreign policy preferences of the majority in parliament may not even differ much from those of the government. This raises the question, why would one want parliament to interfere in foreign policy decision-making in the first place? One answer points to the socialization of MPs into a country’s foreign policy community. Especially for MPs from opposition parties, service on foreign relations and defense committees familiarizes them with the nuts and bolts of foreign affairs and ultimately prepares them for assuming office.

In addition, a strong parliament may serve as a reassurance in unlikely cases of legislative–executive disagreement: For example, an ex ante veto power over military missions can be found especially in countries with a culture of restraint (such as Germany or Japan). Political culture and institutional constraint thus work hand in hand to make any imprudent use of force unlikely. Although it may seem difficult to imagine a more belligerent government in such a country, it is reassuring to proponents of the dominant culture of restraint to have additional veto points over the use of force.

Parliaments and Foreign Policy Beyond the Nation-State

Most studies of parliaments in foreign affairs are characterized by “methodological nationalism”—that is, the assumption that nation-states are the natural units of analysis. However, parliaments’ activities in foreign affairs are not exhausted by the monitoring and scrutinizing of national executives. In addition, there is a long tradition of “parliamentary diplomacy,” understood as “individual or collective action by parliamentarians aimed at catalysing, facilitating and strengthening the existing constitutional functions of parliaments through dialogues between peers on countless open policy questions across continents and levels of governance” (Stavridis & Jančić, 2016, p. 111). According to Stavridis and Jančić (2016), intensified globalization and the proliferation of nonstate entities brought about an increase in parliamentary diplomacy after the end of the Cold War. Examples include the approximately 300 parliamentary delegations that the Chinese National People’s Congress received and sent and the successful lobbying efforts of British MPs to release a Saudi citizen who was a resident of the United Kingdom from Guantanamo (p. 112). The section “Interparliamentary Cooperation” will zoom in on institutionalized interparliamentary cooperation, which is the most visible and probably most influential type of parliamentary diplomacy. The section “European Parliament” will then address the European Parliament, which has been by far the most active, assertive, and influential parliament beyond the nation-state.

Interparliamentary Cooperation

The establishment of the oldest interparliamentary institution (IPI), the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), in 1889, provides a good illustration of early parliamentary diplomacy: MPs in Great Britain and France who were active in the peace movement of the late 19th century founded the IPU to be a network of peace activists who would lobby governments to support arbitration and disarmament. The rationale was to coordinate activities in a growing number of countries and to foster friendly relations between those countries by making use of the status and privileges of their parliamentary mandates (Uhlig, 1988).

For many years, the IPU was the only IPI, understood as “an institution that (1) transcends national borders, (2) has a collegial organization, (3) and at least some directly or indirectly elected members” (Rocabert, Schimmelfennig, & Winzen, 2014, p. 5). World War II and the end of the Cold War, however, were followed by the establishment of numerous new IPIs. The rationale of these later establishments differed from the one that had led to the creation of the IPU: Instead of creating a network of like-minded activists, these later IPIs were perceived as a means for parliaments to better scrutinize governments’ growing activities in international organizations and thus their foreign policies. Not surprisingly, therefore, many IPIs are closely linked to regional institutions, including—in the order of their establishment—the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE, 1949), the Conference of NATO Parliamentarians (1955, later renamed in NATO Parliamentary Assembly), the East African Legislative Assembly (linked to the East African Community, 1967), the Andean Parliament (linked to the Andean Community, 1979), the Parliamentary Assembly to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Mercosur Parliament (1991), and the Interparliamentary Assembly of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN, 2010) (a comprehensive list can be found in Rocabert et al., 2014).

IPIs differ in various respects: while most have plenary meetings twice a year, some (such as the Parliamentary Assembly of NATO) have established a system of committees, which also meet regularly. Whereas most IPIs are composed of national delegations, some (such as PACE) encourage the establishment of political groups—that is, factions of MPs from like-minded political parties. Finally, IPIs differ in terms of the influence they can wield. On the one end of the spectrum, PACE is directly involved in the election of the members of the (highly influential) European Court of Human Rights and the European Commissioner for Human Rights. What is more, PACE is “de facto in charge of deciding on admitting a country to membership in the Council of Europe” (Habegger, 2010, p. 193). On the other end of the spectrum, the recently established Inter-parliamentary Conference for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Commons Security and Defense Policy of the EU can only adopt nonbinding conclusions by consensus (Wouters & Raube, 2012). However, it would be misleading to regard IPIs with few means of directly influencing an international organization as inconsequential talking shops. By creating networks of MPs and by fostering the exchange of information, IPIs enhance MPs’ capacity to monitor and scrutinize their governments indirectly.

The European Parliament

The European Parliament started as a parliamentary assembly composed of members of national parliaments who would serve in their national legislatures as well as in the European Parliament. However, the growing legislative activities of the European Communities and rising powers of the European Parliament made this dual mandate more and more difficult. In conjunction with ambitions to attribute state-like features to the European Communities, the high workload led to the decision to have the first direct elections in 1979. Since then, the EP has acquired additional competences and without doubt is the most powerful parliamentary institution beyond the nation state by far.

The formal powers of the European Parliament in foreign affairs are by and large limited to a consent requirement for international treaties and the budget (Van Hecke, & Wolfs, 2015). However, the EP has not hesitated to block the ratification of international treaties, such as the EU agreement with the United States on the transfer of financial data (the SWIFT agreement). Moreover, the EP has frequently used its limited powers as a lever to exercise influence over a broader range of foreign policy issues. A well-documented case is the establishment of the European External Action Service (EEAS). Although the EP had only a right to be consulted, it used its power to co-legislate the staff and financial regulations to exert influence over the substance of the EEAS (Raube, 2012). The European Parliament has also been very active in parliamentary diplomacy. It has more than forty delegations to third countries and organizations, and it has been active in election monitoring and mediation (see the contributions to Stavridis & Irrera, 2015)

This assertive stance can be explained by reference to the Parliament’s position in the political system of the EU, which is closer to that of the U.S. Congress than to most national parliaments: Most importantly, no government falls and no new elections are called in case the EP lacks confidence in the EU’s dual executive (the Council and the Commission). As a consequence, the party political ties between European Parliament, Council, and Commission are much looser than in the member states. Taken together, the political system of the EU gives the Parliament ample room to act independently of the executive.


In the summer of 1914, British MPs learned that the government had made a secret de facto commitment to come to the defense of France in case of a German attack. A number of agitated MPs, among whom were Ramsay MacDonald, the later prime minister, and Norman Angell, the author of The Great Illusion, founded the Union of Democratic Control, which campaigned for “no treaty, arrangement or undertaking [to be] entered upon in the name of Great Britain without the sanction of parliament” (quoted in Harris, 1996, p. 54). The foundation of the Union of Democratic Control is an early illustration of the hopes and expectations placed onto parliament that it will act as a constraint on unpopular, imprudent, or even unlawful foreign policies. In the same spirit, the U.S. Congress adopted the War Powers Resolution, in 1973, and the Spanish parliament introduced a parliamentary veto power over military missions, in 2005. Reforms of legislative–executive relations with a view to trade agreements or arms exports suggest that similar expectations are held in issues other than the use of force.

The jury on whether such expectations are warranted is still out. Available evidence leaves little doubt that parliament impacts on government policy in some cases. In contrast to the American presidential system, however, open confrontations between legislature and executive are the exception in the parliamentary systems that populate most of Europe. Often, parliament and government do not dispute foreign policy because the majority in parliament and the government form a functional unit. If parliament impacts on foreign policy it mostly does so in a subtle way because governments act in the shadow of parliamentary powers and accommodate parliaments’ concern in order to avoid the embarrassment of open confrontation. This makes researching parliamentary influence challenging.

As many other areas in foreign policy analysis, the study of parliaments is heavily imbued with methodological nationalism. However, parliamentary activity in foreign affairs is no longer limited to the nation-state and the national government. Interparliamentary institutions are proliferating, which points to a grown demand for the exchange of information and best practices among parliamentarians across borders. Moreover, the European Parliament has developed into a powerful player in EU politics, including its foreign relations.


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(1.) Thank you to Tapio Raunio for helpful comments on an earlier version of this article.

(2.) Following a widespread convention, legislatures in parliamentary systems are herein referred to as “parliaments,” and legislatures in presidential systems, as “congresses.” The U.S. Congress is addressed in the section “Congress and Foreign Policy.”

(3.) European Union politics—that is, parliaments’ competences in monitoring and scrutinizing decision-making in the multilevel polity of the EU—is equally well documented and examined. However, this field only qualifies as “foreign affairs” in the technical sense that it concerns developments and decisions beyond a country’s border. De facto, it is widely regarded as a sphere sui generis, which is also reflected in the creation of specialized European Affairs Committees that have replaced Foreign Affairs Committees in dealing with the EU. Given space constraints and the fact that this is only relevant for EU member states, this article does not discuss parliaments in EU policymaking.

(4.) Much of the literature on the institutionalist theory of the Democratic Peace has taken its cues from the U.S. system in which Congress is more independent of the executive and acts as a check on the government.