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date: 19 August 2017

Two-Level Games in Foreign Policy Analysis

Summary and Keywords

Whether in multilateral negotiations or bilateral meetings, government leaders regularly engage in “two-level games” played simultaneously at the domestic and the international level. From the two-level-games perspective, executives are “chief negotiators” involved in some form of international negotiations for which they ultimately need to gain domestic approval at the ratification stage. This ratification requirement provides the critical link between the international and domestic level, but it can be based on formal voting requirements or more informal ways of ratification, such as public approval ratings. With its focus on government leaders as “gatekeepers” and central actors in international negotiations, the two-level games perspective constitutes a distinct approach in foreign policy analysis and serves to reintegrate the subfields of comparative politics and international relations. While there are similarities to a liberal perspective, two-level games emphasize that executives hold a certain degree of autonomy in their decision making that cannot be purely derived from their constituencies. Unlike realism, however, the approach recognizes the importance of domestic veto players and institutional constraints. Since its inception in the late 1980s, a vast body of literature on two-level games has evolved including refinements of its theoretical foundation and applications in various policy areas. Against this background, this essay engages with key controversies in two-level games and foreign policy analysis throughout the last three decades. The discussion is organized along six debates concerning the levels of analysis, domestic political institutions, the interaction between the domestic and international levels, relevant actors, their interests and preferences, and the relationship between comparative politics and international relations.

Keywords: bargaining, domestic politics, two-level games, interests, levels of analysis, negotiation analysis, ratification, veto players, win sets


In 2013, David Cameron announced that the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government would hold a referendum on Britain’s continued membership in the European Union (EU). Although it was initially intended to strengthen his domestic political position and his support from within the Conservative party, it ended with Cameron’s resignation as Prime Minister when 52% of British voters cast their ballot in favor of leaving the EU in the June 23, 2016, referendum. In 1950, the ratification of the treaty on the International Trade Organization (ITO) failed because President Truman realized that he would not be able to gain legislative approval from the U.S. Congress after several failed attempts at ratification of the ITO Charter. Congressional opposition largely stemmed from what was perceived as the ITO meddling with domestic economic policy. Hence, no other country ratified the treaty and the ITO never came into being. When President Obama entered office in 2009, one of his main priorities was to quickly sign an environmental treaty. However, a Republican majority in Congress opposed it, hindering ratification at that point in time.

These examples illustrate the close linkage between domestic politics and international relations, which is particularly pronounced regarding economic and trade-related issues, environmental policy, or membership in international organizations. However, the influence of domestic factors also extends to issues traditionally understood to be outside the area of domestic political contestation. For instance, when chemical weapons were used in the Syrian civil war, several Western governments considered responding with military force against the Assad regime. Recalling members of parliament out of recess, David Cameron held a parliamentary vote on August 29, 2013, to prepare the ground for a military strike. However, the motion was defeated because dozens of Conservative Members of Parliament (MPs) voted against their own government. As a consequence, Britain refrained from intervention in Syria. Likewise, a motion submitted to the U.S. Congress on the same matter was withdrawn on short notice because the Obama administration realized that it would face an uphill battle in securing a majority in the Republican-controlled House of Representatives.

Against this backdrop, a range of essential questions arise regarding the relationship between domestic politics and international relations. When is it necessary to examine the domestic level to explain cooperation, conflict, and defection in global politics? Which domestic actors are relevant for analyzing foreign policy? Where do the interests and preferences of these actors come from? To what extent does the domestic level shape foreign policy outcomes and global governance at large? Finally, how does the interaction between domestic and international politics work in practice?

These questions demonstrate the multitude of facets that motivate research and dominate discussions in two-level games and foreign policy analysis. This research field at the intersection between comparative politics and international relations is particularly complex due to a plethora of actors, institutions, and interactions at the international, domestic, and transnational levels. Why should researchers increase complexity by analyzing multiple levels of analysis when one of the most important aims of theory is to simplify reality? Moreover, what is the added value of bringing domestic politics into the analysis of foreign policy? The simple answer is that foreign policy cannot be understood without considering the domestic level.

Whether in multilateral negotiations, interstate cooperation, or bilateral meetings, executives frequently engage in what Putnam (1988) termed “two-level games” played simultaneously at the domestic and the international level. From the two-level-games perspective, government leaders are “chief negotiators” engaged in some form of international negotiations for which they ultimately need to gain domestic approval (ratification). While this ratification requirement provides the “crucial theoretical link” between the domestic and international level, it can be based on formal voting requirements (e.g., mandatory legislative approval in a certain policy area) or more informal means of ratification, such as measures of public opinion and public approval ratings that are taken into consideration by policy makers. Together, the possible outcomes of international negotiations on the one hand, and the set of negotiation agreements that could win domestic approval on the other hand define a leader’s “win set” (Putnam, 1988, pp. 435–437). Based on the size of the win set, theoretical expectations for the likelihood of certain negotiation outcomes can be formulated (Moravcsik, 1993a; Putnam, 1988).

At the international level, national government representatives with different interests and preferences bargain with one another to solve collective action problems, to increase the welfare of their citizens, to institutionalize cooperation through the creation of international institutions, or to find modes of conflict resolution for war-torn societies. As such, cooperation can take place in diverse areas including trade, finance, security, development, environment, or health care. Interactions understood as bargaining processes between actors at the global level occur in an institutionalized framework at the United Nations (UN) and its subsidiary and ancillary organizations (e.g., the Bretton Woods institutions—the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank) as well as informal (and more flexible) governance contexts, such as the G-8 or the G-20. The creation of myriad international organizations (IOs) means that not only national governments but also international bureaucrats have become important actors in global governance. Moreover, with the politicization of the authority of IOs (Zürn, Binder, & Ecker-Erhardt, 2012), non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have entered the stage as relevant actors and IOs have become open to consulting them and relying on their expertise (Tallberg, Sommerer, Squatrito, & Jönsson, 2013).

Globalization processes and the increased contestation of IOs have placed national government representatives under severe pressure from parliaments, courts, business and labor groups, public opinion, and NGOs to justify concessions made when bargaining with other countries in international negotiations without creating tangible welfare gains for their own citizens. Thus, the domestic ratification of international agreements can involve high uncertainty for negotiating parties, depending on the power-sharing mechanisms and the number of veto players at the national level. An example is the “cliffhanger” story of the trade agreement between Canada and the EU (i.e., CETA), where in 2016 the regional parliament of Wallonia held the Belgian national government hostage until its demands had been met and a four-page amendment was added into the 1,600-page treaty.

At the domestic level, a multitude of actors with different interests (e.g., politicians, bureaucrats, organized interests, think tanks, NGOs, and voters) interact within domestic political institutions (e.g., parliaments and ministries) to deliberate and determine a country’s foreign policy choices. Meanwhile, at the transnational level, actors that span borders (e.g., multinational firms, transnational advocacy groups, and even terrorist organizations) seek to influence countries’ domestic and foreign policies. Research in this subfield of international relations looks back to vigorous discussions over the appropriate level of analysis (Frieden, Lake, & Schultz, 2013; Gourevitch, 1978, 2002; Moravcsik, 1993a; Singer, 1961; Waltz, 1959).

As in most areas of the social sciences, there is no easy answer to the question of which level of analysis best explains foreign policy. As useful shorthand, the customary levels of analysis (international, domestic, and individual) can be linked to the major theoretical perspectives in international relations (realism, liberalism, and constructivism). Nonetheless, while a seminal formulation of constructivism emphasizes the systemic or international level (Wendt, 1999), other constructivist studies explore the interaction of the international and domestic spheres (e.g., Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998) or focus entirely on domestic actors and institutions (e.g., Kier, 1997; Rathbun, 2004). Similarly, neoclassical realists conceive of domestic politics as an intervening variable that can undercut systemic imperatives (Davidson, 2011; Lobell, Ripsman, & Taliaferro, 2009). Naturally, the choice of theoretical perspective and level of analysis affect which actors become analytically relevant (e.g., politicians, firms, industries or business associations, national bureaucracies, IOs, NGOs, and terrorist networks).

Key controversies and debates in two-level games and foreign policy analysis throughout the last three decades are discussed here. Levels of analysis, domestic political institutions, the interaction between the domestic and international level, relevant actors, their interests and preferences, and the relationship between comparative politics and international relations, are included. Furthermore, a research agenda for future studies completes this discussion.

Key Controversies and Debates

International studies have long been divided into several major perspectives or research traditions: realism, liberalism, neoliberal institutionalism, Marxism, constructivism, postmodernism, and feminism, among others (Frieden et al., 2013; Reus-Smit & Snidal, 2008). Depending on the perspective taken, foreign policy can be disaggregated into several basic concepts that explain cooperation at the international level: power (realism), interests (liberalism), institutions (neoliberal institutionalism), ideas and identity (constructivism), and interactions (bargaining). In analogy to this proliferation of perspectives, levels of analysis focus on the origin of a cause, at the individual, domestic or international level (Nau, 2017). Accordingly, two-level-games scholarship has extensively engaged in several controversies and debates over the past decades (Brummer & Oppermann, 2014; Conceição-Heldt, 2013b). Since the publication of Putnam’s seminal study, a vast and dynamic body of literature has evolved around the following overarching questions:

  • Level of analysis: Which level is most adequate to explain foreign policy?

  • Domestic political institutions: Which domestic institutions affect the formulation of foreign policy and bargaining strategies at the international level?

  • Interaction between domestic and international level: How does the interaction between the different levels work in practice?

  • Relevant actors: Who are the relevant actors in foreign policy?

  • Interests and preferences: Where do actors’ interests come from and which preferences prevail during negotiations?

  • Integrating theories of domestic and international politics: How can insights from comparative politics be brought into international relations?

Level of Analysis

The first controversy deals with the question of which level of analysis should be used to explain foreign policy. Following the publication of Waltz’s (1959) study, in which he developed a taxonomy of international relations made up of three levels of analysis (individual, domestic, and international), Singer (1961) counterargued that it was not possible to elaborate a single model that combines two or more levels. This position led to a debate on the (dis)advantages of each approach. Gourevitch (1978) brought this research forward by studying the impact of international pressures on domestic politics and their consequences for foreign policy, the so-called “second image reversed.” Ten years later, with the publication of Putnam’s article (1988), domestic politics finally found its place in international relations scholarship as an important explanatory variable of foreign policy. Putnam was the first to demonstrate that foreign policy is a two-level game, in which government representatives are “sandwiched” (Nau, 2017) between the domestic and the international level. Chief negotiators must deal simultaneously and interactively with their counterparts at the international level and with their constituents at the domestic level. Agreement at the international level is only possible when the win sets of involved actors overlap. Thereby, the size of the win set is basically shaped by three factors: preferences and possible coalitions, political institutions at the domestic level, and chief negotiators’ bargaining strategies at the international level (Putnam, 1988).

Even though two-level games in foreign policy have since been the subject of vigorous debates over the most adequate level of analysis and the caveats of trying to investigate the interaction between the two levels over time for several countries, the vast body of literature in this field attests that no single level is always superior to the others when explaining foreign policy (Evans, Jacobson, & Putnam, 1993; Gourevitch, 1978; Milner, 1997; Singer, 1961; Waltz, 1959). Depending on the field of research, it may be useful to build explanations from the bottom up in a two-step process in which domestic political institutions and interactions at the international level are equally important. In other cases, one can simply examine the international level and the positions of actors in world politics, such as the relative distribution of power (e.g., multipolarity vs. unipolarity; established vs. rising powers; divisions among great, middle, or small powers) and geopolitical considerations to explain outcomes in foreign policy. If students opt for the domestic level, then the central question that arises is which institutions to analyze to explain foreign policy and the bargaining strategies of actors that interact at the international level. This leads to the second controversy in this academic field, namely the role played by domestic political institutions in foreign policy.

Domestic Political Institutions

Domestic political institutions are an important variable in explaining foreign policy. But how does domestic politics affect actors’ interaction at the international level? And what is known about which domestic variables shape a country’s foreign policy? Domestic politics can lead governments to pursue suboptimal outcomes due to agency problems and because different political institutions, culture, economic structure, and leadership goals can hinder international cooperation (Fearon, 1998). Likewise, foreign policy can deviate from the imperatives of the international system when domestic political circumstances prevent policy flexibility (Lobell et al., 2009). Domestic political institutions include the role played by interest groups and their capacity to influence government representatives, power-sharing mechanisms between the executive and the legislature, and the number of veto players (Henisz & Zelner, 2006; Tsebelis, 2002). Apart from these institutions, domestic public opinion and “audience costs” constitute another important political constraint on national government representatives when involved in negotiations at the international level (Fearon, 1994). Thus, studies focusing on the domestic level can be subdivided into three general approaches: society centered approaches, state-centered approaches, and public opinion.

In particular, society-centered approaches go back to the competition among societal groups to explain a state’s global political economy (Moravcsik, 1997). International trade cooperation is a field in which the winners and losers can be easily quantified; unsurprisingly, a vast majority of studies comes from this academic field. Several scholars have investigated how competition between coalitions of business and labor groups shape trade policy (Frieden, 1988; Gourevitch, 1986) and how this is affected by class cleavages (Hiscox, 2002; Midford, 1993; Rogowski, 1989). Other scholars, in turn, have underlined that protectionist interest groups are more likely to prevail over free traders due to the organizational bias in society; that is, those who lose from trade liberalization (e.g., farmers) are more likely to organize than those who benefit from it (Bailey, Goldstein, & Weingast, 1997; Goldstein, 1998). More recently, scholars have underlined that interest groups equally represent free-trade interests (Dür, 2010; Moravcsik, 1997; Woll, 2008). For example, Dür (2010) investigates how EU export-oriented firms were able to mobilize, making it more difficult that a government of an excluded country will adopt trade policies to protect exporter interests. Other scholars explore how business and labor groups use campaign funds as “carrot and stick” for influencing Congressional votes on trade agreements (Bardwell, 2000; Conceição-Heldt, 2011a; Engel & Jackson, 1998). Finally, Milner and Tingley (2015) show that domestic factors like the legislative branch, bureaucracy, organized interests, and public opinion all affect the making of U.S. foreign policy. However, because some policy areas are more contested ideologically than others there is a bias toward certain policy instruments in U.S. foreign policy, favoring military means, coercion, or sanctions, rather than less coercive alternatives like economic aid, trade, or immigration policy. This concept helps explain, for instance, why President Obama made extensive use of military and coercive measures despite his stated policy preference not to use these instruments (Milner & Tingley, 2015, p. 256).

While a vast number of two-level-game applications exist in the fields of economic and trade policy, there is also a sizable literature in the security field that adopts Putnam’s model. For example, Risse-Kappen (1995) shows that European leaders regularly pointed to domestic pressures when negotiating with their U.S. counterparts over security issues like the Korean armistice negotiations, the Suez crisis, or the nuclear arms control agreement. The study demonstrates that, throughout these cases, engaging in two-level games turned out to be much more successful than a negotiating strategy of coercive bargaining backed by material resources (Risse-Kappen, 1995, p. 208). With regard to NATO’s intermediate nuclear force (INF) posture, Eichenberg (1993) applies the two-level framework to four phases of U.S.–German negotiations during 1977–1988. Contrary to intuition, Eichenberg shows that in three of four episodes, international agreement was actually the result of shrinking domestic win sets. Baum and Potter (2015, p. 225) present evidence suggesting that U.S. military threats were not taken seriously by Iraq and Syria because U.S. leaders were unable to send credible signals due to domestic weaknesses. Focusing on “reverberation” in two-level games—understood as the effect of foreign leaders’ statements and actions on domestic politics, Strong (2017) shows how hierarchical relations between negotiating partners can distort the two-level game. His study compares American and British media coverage of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq vis-à-vis US–UK negotiations. Due to its hierarchical position, the United States can play a “three-level game” at the domestic, international, and foreign domestic table, whereas British government representatives were relegated to two levels only, without leverage on U.S. domestic politics (Strong, 2017, p. 19).

As this overview illustrates, most studies focus on the established trade powers (the European Union and the United States) or military powers (the United States and Russia) and thus fail to analyze the role of interest groups in rising powers (Conceição-Heldt, 2013a). Considering the current power shift in global governance with Brazil, Russia, India, and China (the so-called BRICs) playing a more proactive role, expanding the analysis of two-level games to rising powers remains one of the most challenging issues for future research. Such approaches in this research field promise to be particularly fruitful because they include not only democracies (Brazil, India, and South Africa) but also “defective democracies” (Russia) and autocracies (China). However, this line of research also needs to further determine the extent to which regime type affects the win sets of BRICs and their respective foreign policies.

State-centered approaches direct our attention to the domestic institutional structure of the state and are the second central category to explain a country’s foreign policy (see also Rosenau, 1967). This strand of literature has been mainly developed to analyze trade cooperation, but institutional structures and their variance across democracies have also been highlighted by studies on environmental, human rights, or security issues, to name just a few other areas. In contrast to neorealist approaches, Milner (1997) argues that relative gains and cheating are not the central categories to explain international cooperation but rather the domestic distributional consequences of cooperation. For situations characterized by high divergence of preferences between the executive, the legislature, and societal interest groups, Milner shows that the more the information is distributed among these three types of actors, and the more institutions have a say in trade policy, the more likely it is that each player can veto a trade agreement. In the same vein, using a game-theoretic model, Milner and Rosendorff (1997) investigated how elections and divided government shape international trade negotiations. Pahre’s (2001) historical study on bilateral trade treaties in Europe demonstrates that when treaties require legislative ratification, it is more difficult for executives to liberalize tariff rates through international agreements. At the same time, treaties signed in the past will affect countries’ tariff rates indirectly because these treaties function as a constrain on a state’s ability to change its tariffs autonomously.

Rogowski (1999) studies the impact of domestic institutions in a country’s foreign policy by focusing on the franchise (“peak” interest groups), representational mechanisms, and decision rules. By now, a new strand of quantitative and qualitative studies applies Tsebelis’ (1995, 2002) veto players approach to foreign policy. For example, Mansfield, Milner, and Pevehouse (2007) in a study covering 194 countries from 1950 to 1999 demonstrate that the probability of signing a trade agreement decreases as the number of veto players increase. More recently, Conceição-Heldt (2011b) explains the causes of impasse at the current deadlocked Doha round by focusing on domestic political institutions, which she operationalizes through power-sharing mechanisms between executive and legislature, the number of veto players, the link between parties in government and interest groups of four major trade powers (the United States, the European Union, Brazil, and Australia), and the missing time dimension of negotiations, which includes time pressure, best alternatives to a negotiated agreement, repetitive bargaining games, and bargaining strategies.

Unlike trade and economic policy, the security field has been slow to adopt the two-level game and veto-player frameworks, partly because there is less legislative activity in this area. Moreover, executives traditionally enjoy greater autonomy in security affairs due to a smaller number of potential veto players in this policy area (Mello, 2014). However, recent trends indicate increased challenges of executive dominance in foreign and security policy (Raunio & Wagner, 2017). Specifically, some security-related studies have employed the veto-player concept. For example, Reiter and Tillman (2002) analyze various domestic constraints on executive conflict initiation, measuring whether the legislature is required to ratify international treaties. Among other results, Reiter and Tillman find that in states with this form of legislative power, conflict initiation does indeed become less likely, which resonates with a traditional view of institutional constraints. Choi (2010) reports the effect of veto players on executive conflict behavior in democratic, nondemocratic, and mixed dyads. Overall, the study provides validation for a restricting effect of legislative constraints and the veto player argument. Despite these advances in the extension of veto player approaches to conflict studies, the prevailing measures of institutional constraints remain abstract and removed from actual processes of foreign-policy decision making. These shortcomings are tackled by recent studies on “parliamentary war powers,” which specifically investigate veto rights in security matters (Dieterich et al., 2010; Peters and Wagner, 2011). This literature shows that parliaments with war powers can stop executives from controversial military engagements (Dieterich, Hummel, & Marschall, 2015) and that even traditionally weak parliaments in security matters, like the UK House of Commons, have become “informal veto players” (Mello, 2017a).

The two-level game approach has also been applied to topics other than economic, trade, and security issues. Kroll and Shogren (2008) investigate how domestic politics affects international bargaining over climate-change policy. Their formal models indicate that—contrary to Schelling’s paradox—governments do not necessarily gain in international negotiations from having domestic constraints. Bailer and Weiler (2015) provide an empirical examination of climate-change negotiations. Among other findings, their study shows that domestic pressures make democracies more willing to reach international agreements than nondemocracies. Purdon (2014) also applies the two-level game approach to climate change politics but explores the issue from within a neoclassical realist framework to explain state’s varying sensitivity to relative-gains concerns on the grounds of international and domestic incentives. Oppermann (2008) combines principal-agent (PA) theory with two-level games to investigate the Blair government’s policy toward Europe. The study conceptualizes the informational and institutional determinants of governmental win sets, which ultimately help to explain why New Labour did not pursue a more dedicated approach toward European integration. Finally, Maley (2016) focuses on the politics of refugees as a two-level game, showing how Australian policy toward this issue has been shaped largely by domestic political considerations.

Domestic public opinion is the third important category for analyzing foreign policy, particularly for consolidated democracies. The notion that ordinary citizens act as a constraint on belligerent governments is an important feature of democratic theory and has prominently been employed in explanations of the democratic peace phenomenon (Mello, 2017b). Kant’s well-known proposition that if citizens would have to approve war, a rational weighting of costs and benefits would lead them to decide against it (2007 [1795]), has served as the foundation for a range of arguments on public constraints. Rational choice studies have operationalized Kant’s argument as a fixed cost that democratic leaders face when contemplating the use of military force (Bueno de Mesquita & Lalman, 1992). Others also address public constraints but emphasize that public opinion does not comprise a fixed cost and should rather be treated as a variable that can influence government decisions if support or opposition becomes particularly pronounced. According to the liberal view, democratic governments are constrained by the requirement to take into account the will of the people (Russett & Oneal, 2001) and to gather citizens’ support for decisions on war and peace, because democracies will only fight wars for popular, liberal reasons (Doyle, 1983).

These and similar arguments in the democratic peace literature assume a citizen-policy link that, whether directly or indirectly, constrains democratic leaders. By implication, this means that public support is a prerequisite for most foreign policy endeavors, especially for high-salience decisions like war involvement. However, it has also been pointed out that public opinion, on its own, rarely alters a decision in favor of or against military operations and may sometimes even be ignored by policymakers. For example, Barry Buzan refers to the British government’s involvement in the Suez invasion of 1956, which took place despite the fact that a plurality among the British public was not in favor of using military force (Buzan, 1974). Hence, based on the Suez crisis and similar historical episodes in which public opinion was effectively ignored by democratic governments, Buzan highlights the importance of considering the interplay between public opinion and additional influences, which also have to direct against a policy that constitutes a constraint on the government (Buzan, 1974).

Others question the logic of the public constraint hypothesis or argue that its effect is weaker than usually assumed. Because few people are directly affected by war, citizens’ cost–benefit calculations, by and large, should not result in substantial opposition to military operations (Rosato, 2003). This could be one of the reasons why there has long been evidence of a “permissive mood” among the public toward foreign engagements (Caspary, 1970, p. 546). Also, while studies suggest that the public is generally able to form sensible collective policy preferences and to change these if necessary, the quality of public opinion ultimately depends on the availability of unbiased and correct information (Shapiro & Page, 1988).

All these studies attest that domestic political institutions are a crucial part of a country’s foreign policy and can be a constraint depending on the power-sharing mechanisms between the executive and the legislature, the number of veto players within a political system, public opinion (cf., the demonstrations in Belgium and other parts of Europe against TTIP and CETA), and audience costs that may affect the likelihood of a successful treaty ratification. In the same vein, a government’s decision to engage in military intervention is likely to be influenced by public opinion, especially when there’s vocal opposition to war. The decision of the German government in 2002 to distance itself from the looming Iraq war illustrates this. In an election year with large groups of German voters opposing the war, it was too risky for the government to engage in this military enterprise, not to speak of constitutional restrictions. What these two examples from trade and war have in common is that in democratic systems, voters and citizens can, in principle, influence foreign policy by removing elected politicians who make unpopular decisions.

Interaction Between the Domestic and the International Levels

Systemic level studies hold domestic politics constant and explore variance by focusing on the position of states in the international system, which is defined by the relative distribution of power. Putnam (1988) was the first scholar to systematically explore the question of when and how domestic politics determine international relations. When bargaining at the international level, national government representatives are playing a negotiating game simultaneously at the international and domestic levels. Whereas at the international level the challenge consists in finding a compromise agreement that is acceptable to all negotiating parties, at the domestic level the main challenge is to find a deal that is acceptable to domestic constituents and legislators so that it can be ratified. When chief negotiators renege on a domestic commitment in the absence of enforceable contracts, they go beyond their win set, making voluntary defection more likely to occur at the ratification stage. By contrast, involuntary defection reflects the behavior of a chief negotiator who is unable to deliver on a signed agreement because of failed ratification. As Putnam underlines, “the smaller the win sets, the greater the risk of involuntary defection” (1988, p. 439). Going back to the study by Schelling (1960) on the paradox of weakness, Putnam also shows with regard to the strategies of negotiators, that the larger a negotiator’s win set, the easier it should be to successfully conclude a negotiation. At the same time, however, a large win set weakens the bargaining position of negotiators. Putnam hypothesizes that domestically constrained negotiators, implying a smaller win set, can exploit their domestic weakness to obtain a favorable deal at the international level. This allows them to bargain with their counterparties from a position of strength.

Following the publication of Putnam’s study, a systemic-level approach has been used by some scholars to study how international negotiations shape domestic politics. Some studies (Larsén, 2007; Paarlberg, 1997; Patterson, 1997) even refer to the EU trade policy as a three-level game made up of the international, European, and domestic levels. Due to the complexity of comparing the negotiating positions and domestic levels of 28 states, several studies either opt to compare the positions of three major EU states on European integration (Moravcsik, 1993b) or to aggregate member states’ preferences into liberal, protectionist, or swing positions related to trade policy liberalization (Conceição-Heldt, 2011a; Elsig, 2010). In a different vein, constructivists have taken up Putnam’s metaphor to conceive of a “two-level norm game” where norm entrepreneurs make domestic demands that later become international norms as, for instance, universal suffrage (Finnemore & Sikkink, 1998, p. 893).

Another strand of literature uses a bargaining-centered approach by investigating how negotiating strategies shape outcomes (Conceição-Heldt, 2004; Dür & Mateo, 2010; Odell, 2009). A wide range of studies focusing on the current Doha round of trade liberalization at the WTO are at the intersection of international and domestic politics (Conceição-Heldt, 2011a; Ghosn, 2010; Narlikar, 2010; Simonelli, 2011). Scholars of global economic governance have moved to study how rising powers contest or accept the rules and institutions of the old liberal world order (Conceição-Heldt, 2017; Lavenex, Kriziv, & Serrano, 2017). This new and emerging strand of literature contributes to the systemic structural level of analysis and with its focus on rising powers as rule takers or rule makers (Hopewell, 2015; Schirm, 2010) constitutes an excellent complement to the literature on incumbent powers (Kahler, 2013; Narlikar, 2013). For example, Zangl, Heussner, Kruck, and Lanzendörfer (2016) develop an institutionalist power shift theory, which holds that the success of institutional adaptation depends on a rising power’s ability to undermine international institutions and to make credible threats to this effect. Against the common wisdom that rising powers are rule takers and passive actors in global governance, Conceição-Heldt (2017) shows that they are able to use a combination of hard and soft strategies of influence to shape global trade governance rules.

Actors in Foreign Policy

Another controversy in two-level games concerns the actors that exercise power and influence over foreign policy. This issue reflects the divide in the existing perspectives and the focus on different levels of analysis in international relations. Actors are then identified depending on whether they operate primarily at the domestic, international, or transnational level.

At the domestic level, a vast array of actors exists, including powerful states like the permanent members of the UN Security Council (China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, United States) or rising powers (e.g., Brazil, China, and India) but also politicians (e.g., prime ministers, presidents, foreign, security, or finance ministers, and secretaries of state), parliaments (in which, depending on the political system, one or two chambers have to ratify international agreements), and bureaucracies (e.g., Department of Defense in the US, Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Germany, or the Directorate-General Trade of the European Union). These actors have different interests in foreign policy. States are primarily concerned with their (perceived) national interests. Accordingly, national government representatives see foreign policy as a way of achieving welfare (e.g., through free trade), security, or the provision of public goods. Politicians’ interests can have a reelection, ideology, or policy goals dimension. By contrast, interest groups are concerned with wealth and profit for the groups they represent (Frieden et al., 2013). The contributions of Max Weber (1922) and William Niskanen (1971) have shown that budget maximization, influence, and policy preferences are the commonly ascribed interests to this specific group of actors.

At the international level, government representatives, a group that can include politicians and bureaucrats, interact with their counterparts, with IOs and transnational NGOs and networks. Not only IOs—such as the United Nations, the IMF, the World Bank, the European Central Bank or the European Commission (Barnett & Finnemore, 1999; Hawkins, Lake, Nielson, & Tierney, 2006; Keohane, 2002; Koremenos, Lipson, & Snidal, 2001) but also NGOs (e.g., Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and Greenpeace) or multinational enterprises (e.g., Nike, Google, or Bombardier) are powerful actors in world politics today.

Even though scholars assume in some cases that IOs reflect the interests of member states according to their voting power (Mearsheimer, 1994), more recent studies in this field persuasively demonstrate that bureaucracies of IOs are actors in their own right with preferences that can conflict with the interests and preferences of the more powerful states in the system (Conceição-Heldt, 2010; Hawkins et al., 2006). This literature engages in the study of (a) how IOs open up to transnational actors (Tallberg et al., 2013), (b) which accountability mechanisms hinder abuses of power (Grant & Keohane, 2005), (c) the politicization of IOs (Zürn et al., 2012), and (d) how states are losing control of IO bureaucracies (Johnson, 2013).

Moreover, at the transnational level, new actors such as transnational advocacy networks (TANs) have become relevant forces in international relations that shape foreign policy and exert pressure on states (Kahler, 2009; Keck & Sikkink, 1998; Raustiala, 1997; Smith-Cannoy, 2012). TANs include, for example, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) but also transnational terrorist networks such as Al Qaeda or Da’esh. One can say that TANs are made of individuals and NGOs acting in pursuit of a normative objective. TANs can alter interactions between states by mobilizing social pressure for policy change. At the same time, they can facilitate cooperation by providing information about international agreements and monitoring compliance (e.g., see Raustiala, 1997). However, transnational terrorist networks use threats and violence to bargain with and extract concessions from states and to spread insecurity and fight against Western values (see Frieden et al., 2013).

In recent years, terrorist groups have committed atrocities in Paris, Brussels, Istanbul, Berlin, and many other places, killing and wounding scores of people, indicating a new form of transnational terrorism that coincides with a transformation of warfare (Mello, 2010). Even though terrorist TANs interact with states in a variety of ways, little is known about their structure, material resources, and interests. Exceptions include Sageman (2004), which explores network structures of terrorist organizations and, more recently, Rabasa and Benard (2014) who describe the methods and evolution of terrorist networks in Europe.

The literature and other evidence show that IOs, national bureaucracies, or TANs are unlikely to replace states as the central actors of world politics. Nevertheless, these different actors play important roles in global relations, and that is why their interests should have to be taken into account when studying two-level games and foreign policy. Having mapped key actors, this essay now turns to the debate relating to interests and preferences in foreign policy.

Interests and Preferences

A further controversy in the literature relates to the discussion on actors’ interests and preferences and is closely related to the previous section. Because definitions of interests and preferences vary greatly within the study of international relations, these terms need to be defined. Frieden et al. (2013) define interests as “what actors want to achieve through political action,” linking the concept with preferences, as they equate interests with “[actors’] preferences over the outcomes that may result from their political choices” (2013, p. 42). Others refer to actors’ preferences as a ranking that orders the possible outcomes of an interaction (Bueno de Mesquita, Morrow, Siverson, & Smith, 1999). Accordingly, preferences are transitive and exogenously given. In any given setting, actors prefer some outcomes to others and pursue strategies to achieve their most preferred possible outcomes (Frieden, 1999, p. 41).

Generally, scholars specify preferences in one of three ways: by assumption, by observation, or by deduction. Treating states like firms or individuals who are perceived as utility maximizers, many international relations and political economy scholars simply assume that countries attempt to maximize the national welfare of their citizens. However, this assumption has several limitations. First, because international relations involve a wide array of actors, including firms, labor groups, NGOs, bureaucracies, IOs, and TANs. In addition, these actors are likely to have heterogeneous preferences. At the same time, international relations deal with a multiplicity of issues, beyond economic matters, like national defense or environmental cooperation. This has led to a contentious debate in international relations between rational choice and constructivist scholars (Frieden, 1999). Whereas the former assume that preferences are exogenously given, the latter perceive them as endogenous and open to change (Risse, 2003). A second way of defining preferences of states is by observation. In this case, scholars identify national preferences by examining a country’s behavior. These preferences are then used to analyze interaction among states or between state and nonstate actors (Frieden, 1999, p. 58). Trade students widely agree that interest groups play a central role in explaining the origin of states’ trade policy preferences (Dür, 2010; Frieden, 1999; Goldstein, 2012; Milner, 1997; Moravcsik, 1993b, 1997). Finally, preferences can be deduced by recurring to preexisting theory. This implies that if actors’ features and theory predicts that in a determined context actors are more likely to have a particular set of preferences, actor preferences can be accurately predicted. For example, firms’ or interest groups preferences for trade protection increase as their profitability and competitiveness decline. Thus, the less profitable firms or the less competitive interest groups are, the more they prefer trade protection. Based on this proposition or “theory,” namely by knowing how profitable or competitive a form or interest group is, its preference toward trade protection or liberalization can be inferred. When theories about preferences are accurate, they help to explain variation over time and across units (Frieden, 1999, p. 62). Moravcsik (1993b) shows that the greater the economic benefits for powerful interest groups, the greater their incentives to lobby national government representatives to ensure that their preferences are taken into consideration during trade negotiations. By contrast, the costlier the adjustments, the more likely interest groups are to oppose a trade agreement.

More recently, EU trade policy scholars have distinguished between net importers and net exporters, between goods and services traders, and between protectionists and free traders (Dür, 2007; Elsig, 2010). Like the three-level-game approach, mentioned before, in EU governance, interest groups not only try to influence their governments at the national level. To be effective, interest groups must also organize themselves at the European level to establish themselves vis-à-vis three institutions: national permanent representations in Brussels, the Commission, and the European Parliament. Whether they are able to influence trade agreements depends on their ability to organize, to formulate their preferred policy position, and to communicate that position within the context of interest group competition (e.g., see Klüver, 2013).

Debates about interests and preferences have also been central to the security field. Mainstream international relations approaches have long bracketed “national interests” and merely assumed that all states in the international system strive for security, as expected by Waltz’ (1979) formulation of neorealism. Other neorealists, like Mearsheimer (2001), have argued that states are rather power maximizers, assuming that this defines their national interest. By contrast, institutionalist scholars have emphasized welfare maximization (Keohane, 1984) as a legitimate goal of state policy. However, none of these approaches investigated where, exactly, interests and preferences come from. This changed with the “constructivist turn” (Checkel, 1998) in international relations where scholars began to question widely held assumptions about state interests. For example, Finnemore (1996) demonstrates how the conduct of armed conflict and state interests change because of the normative influence of transnational actors like the International Committee of the Red Cross. Similarly, she also documents how norms of “humanitarian military intervention” change over time and how these affect the definition of national interests (Finnemore, 2003). Others have shown that historical learning and individual socialization were more decisive than material factors in explaining Soviet military interventions and leaders’ reluctance to use military force at the end of the Cold War (Bennett, 1999, 2005) and that political ideology affects the way governments define national interests in the security realm (Rathbun, 2004).

Integrating Comparative and International Politics

Many authors have lamented the “great divide” (Caporaso, 1997) that continues to separate the fields of comparative politics and international relations (see also Rathbun, 2006; Russett, 2003). As evidenced throughout this essay, studies in international relations typically focus on the systemic or the state level to explain international outcomes or individual states’ foreign policies. Comparativists, on the other hand, usually employ differentiated theories of politics inside the state, or specific groups of states, but rarely consider interstate relations or the international system as contextual variables.

While systemic theories tend to be abstract and parsimonious, many of them fail to account for specific outcomes, meaning that they cannot explain why a certain state chose a particular foreign policy at a precise point in time. For example, partly due to its level of generality, the seminal neorealist work, Waltz (1979), remains underspecified to account for many phenomena of interest. Even realist scholars thus conclude that “any foreign policy and its opposite can sometimes be deduced from Waltz’s theory” (Christensen & Snyder, 1990, p. 138). Waltz famously replied to critics of his formulation of neorealism that his theory was never intended to explain foreign policy because it rested on a higher level of generality (Waltz, 1996). This position generated a debate about the proper domain for neorealist theory with Elman (1996a, 1996b), who took the stance that neorealism is indeed suited to explain foreign policy outcomes but that a lack of specification and inherent ambiguity in some prominent formulations of neorealism undermine the theory’s explanatory power (for a similar argument see Fearon, 1998).

When mainstream international relations theories failed to explain the end of the Cold War and the change of the international system from a bipolar to a unipolar and multipolar world order, scholars began to realize that domestic politics and actor-specific explanations, many of which were to be found in foreign policy analysis, had to be brought into international relations theories to account for these developments (Hudson, 2005). While these studies long neglected the link between domestic and international politics in favor of systemic variables, a consensus emerged around the position that the domestic and the international spheres are strongly interconnected and that a focus on the former enhances the understanding of the latter (Gourevitch, 2002). Against the backdrop of these debates within the field of international relations, neoclassical realism (re)introduced domestic politics as an intervening variable (Lobell et al., 2009) and constructivist work increasingly focused on the domestic level (e.g., Rathbun, 2004).

Moreover, recent trends indicate that the subfield divide may be narrowing. For instance, scholars have noted a “democratic turn” in security studies, moving toward differentiated understandings of democracy (Geis & Wagner, 2011). This resulted in a broadening of the democratic peace research program, beyond the mere distinction between democracies and nondemocracies, to explore the conditions under which democracies use military force, inherent ambiguities of democracy, and a variety of differences among democracies concerning their constitutional structure, political culture, domestic institutions, and party politics (Bueno de Mesquita & Smith, 2012; Geis, Müller, & Schörnig, 2013; Mello, 2014; Peters & Wagner, 2011; Rathbun, 2004). Furthermore, as Russett (2003) points out, many of the data sets that have seen increased usage by international relations researchers in past decades were compiled by scholars in comparative politics. Examples include measures of regime type and institutional quality, government composition, political ideology, and many others.

What Remains to Be Done?

As shown throughout this essay, the two-level-games approach remains a vibrant field of research. Moreover, Putnam’s metaphor and subsequent theoretical refinements of the two-level-games approach are well suited to span the chasm that divides comparative and international politics. That being said, some questions have not been fully addressed by previous studies, and several areas warrant more intensive exploration. Specifically, future research could focus on five areas. First, despite its popularity and theoretical appeal, the evidence for the widely cited “Schelling paradox” has been decidedly mixed (Caporaso, 1997; Kroll & Shogren, 2008; Schultz, 2013). Future studies should explore systematically the conditions under which leaders as chief negotiators willingly “tie their own hands” domestically to exploit this circumstance in international negotiations. Second, two-level-games applications could profit from adding a temporal dimension to replace static analyses with historical, process-oriented perspectives (Caporaso, 1997; Thies, 2001). Even though a few studies have engaged in embedding negotiations in a temporal dimension (Büthe, 2002; Conceição-Heldt, 2011a; Narlikar, 2010), most of the theoretical assumptions of these studies have not yet been confronted with evidence to back the plausibility of their arguments. Third, while the two-level-games perspective enriches IR and foreign policy analysis by bringing in domestic politics, very little is known about the interaction between the international and domestic levels. In this regard, Strong’s (2017) focus on hierarchy in two-level games is a step in the right direction because it allows for the analysis of foreign influence upon domestic bargaining processes. Future work could apply this more broadly to other cases of bilateral relations between the United States and its cooperation partners. Another promising avenue for further research lies in the combination of two-level games and principal-agent (PA) theory, as suggested by Oppermann (2008). The PA framework allows for the assessment of governments’ win sets by conceptualizing them as collective agents with the parliamentary majority and the electorate as dual principals. Finally, considering the ongoing power shift in global governance with the BRIC states playing a more proactive role in world politics, expanding the two-level-games perspective to rising powers will remain a challenge for future research. Two questions that require further analysis are (a) under which conditions rising powers challenge the existing liberal world order and (b) whether the recently created New Development Bank supplements or rather substitutes old Bretton Woods institutions.

The vibrant research in this field illustrates that the study of interactions at the domestic, international, and transnational levels is now an indispensable part of the story to understand state’s foreign policy. Nevertheless, future studies should aim to further (re-)integrate the subfields of international relations and comparative politics. With fundamental transformations taking place at the domestic level, citizens questioning the European integration process and the legitimacy of IOs, in parallel with a general shift toward nationalism and populism, today more than ever scholars need to take into account two-level games to explain foreign policy outcomes.

Further Reading

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Caporaso, J. A. (1997). Across the great divide: Integrating comparative and international politics. International Studies Quarterly, 41(4), 563–592.Find this resource:

Conceição-Heldt, Eugénia d. (2013c). Two-level games and trade cooperation: What do we know? International Politics, 50(4), 579–599.Find this resource:

Evans, P. B. (1993). Building an integrative approach to international and domestic politics: Reflections and projections. In P. B. Evans, H. K. Jacobson, & R. D. Putnam (Eds.), Double-edged diplomacy: International bargaining and domestic politics (pp. 397–430). Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

Fearon, J. D. (1998). Domestic politics, foreign policy, and theories of international relations. Annual Review of Political Science, 1(1), 289–313.Find this resource:

Gourevitch, P. (2002). Domestic politics and international relations. In W. Carlsnaes, T. Risse, & B. A. Simmons (Eds.), Handbook of international relations (pp. 309–328). London: SAGE.Find this resource:

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Milner, H. V. (1997). Interests, Institutions, and Information: Domestic Politics and International Relations. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

Moravcsik, A. (1993a). Introduction: Integrating international and domestic theories of international bargaining. In P. B. Evans, H. K. Jacobson, & R. D. Putnam (Eds.), Double-edged diplomacy: International bargaining and domestic politics (pp. 3–42). Berkeley: University of California Press.Find this resource:

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