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date: 28 March 2017

Parliaments in 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.

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, defence budgets, sanctions, or arms exports, differences across countries are far less researched. The available data suggests, however, that differences 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 differ a lot. Parliaments are not strong or weak across the full spectrum of foreign policy competences. Instead, parliamentary competencies are country- and issue-specific. A general trend towards a parliamentarization or de-parliamentarization 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 the propensity of countries to use armed force. Case study research finds that variation in parliamentary powers impacts 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 due to 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 parliaments and governments are exceptional. Rather than an institutional constraint in a system of checks and balances, parliamentary war powers can be understood as an additional re-assurance against unpopular decisions to use force.

Most studies of parliaments in foreign affairs are characterized by “methodological nationalism,” the assumption that nation-states are the natural units of analysis. However, the activities of parliaments 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 inter-parliamentary institutions. The most powerful parliamentary actor beyond the nation-state is the European Parliament. Although its formal competencies are limited, it has been very effective in using its powers to influence European foreign policy.