Impact of Domestic Affairs on Foreign Affairs: Review of Scholarly Treatment of this Subject

Foreign policies are designed with the aim of achieving complex domestic and international agendas. They usually involve an elaborate series of steps in which domestic politics play an important role. Foreign policies are in most cases designed and finalised through coalitions of domestic and international actors and groups. The domestic political environment to a large extent shapes the entire framework of decision-making, also in an international context.  That environment includes all laws enacted and their legislative decisions, and government agencies and lobby groups that influence or restrict individuals or organisations in the society. Furthermore, domestic politics do play an important role when strategic foreign policy decisions are considered because of the threats anticipated or already executed in connection with national security issues.

Important for the analysis of foreign-policy decision making is the dimension of domestic politics.[1] Kaarbo accepts that domestic political calculations influence foreign policy choices.[2] In a more recent article she records her instructive conclusion: FPA research has consistently shown the significance of domestic politics and decision making to issues central to international politics.[3] Hill concludes decisively that the domestic environment undoubtedly shapes foreign policy regularly and in significant ways.[4]

Breuning contributes substantially by setting the scene for this all-important subject of the inter-relationship of domestic and foreign policy and the relevance of domestic developments to foreign policy decisions.[5] She expands on the domestic constraints within which foreign policy decisions are made given the fact that domestic constituencies indeed influenced foreign affairs. At the same time, she focuses on the role and impact of the public,[6] as part of the domestic scene, on the formation of foreign policy options. The inter-connections between domestic and foreign affairs are undeniable. Foreign policy can never be detached from the domestic context from which it springs. Without domestic influence there could hardly be a foreign policy.[7] Foreign policy seldom succeeds if it is not acceptable at home. Domestic pressures may take several different forms and the relationship between foreign-policy decision makers and domestic constituencies is shaped in part by the institutions of the society.[8]

Light also explores the effect of domestic politics on foreign affairs. In doing so she is aware that it is increasingly difficult to separate foreign policy from domestic politics.[9] Coupled with that is the growing recognition that states are no longer the sole actors in the international system. Interdependencies and concern about global problems mean that governments are no longer free arbiters of the policies of their states, which consequently undermine FPA.[10] Her conclusion is comprehensive: FPA remains relevant to the international system on condition that foreign policy analysts start to consider the implications of domestic developments on the conduct of foreign policy.[11] If that was true when she wrote those observations in 1994, they are much more pertinent today. Now completely new international and domestic imperatives exert influence beyond practically all the normal and general contours constructed for FPA at its beginning six decades ago. Then tranquillity ruled in comparison to today’s turbulent environment, where both domestic and international calamity can strike anywhere and at any time.

Because most foreign-affairs decisions occur in a particular domestic context, the study of foreign policy is somewhat unusual in that it has to deal with both domestic and international arenas.[12] According to Rosenau, the continuing erosion of the distinction between domestic and foreign issues means that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to determine where domestic policy ends and foreign policy begins.[13] For his part, Dugis refers to Rosecrance who not only places great emphasis on the correlation between domestic and international politics but also contends that it is unworkable to isolate domestic politics from foreign policy.[14] Similarly, Carlsnaes maintains that the divide between domestic and international politics is highly questionable.[15]

Morgenthau, one of the original authorities on foreign policy and hence FPA, has been criticised by Smith. The latter could not find in the former’s writings any linkage between the domestic polity and the international system. For Smith, that omission resulted in a far too restricted view being advanced. It basically failed to concentrate on the influence of domestic policy in foreign policy.[16]

Foreign policy is greatly influenced by the domestic political environment. It is shaped by and rooted in domestic affairs. Foreign affairs decisions must therefore be evaluated in a particular domestic context because they are primarily generated from within.[17] Over time the distinction between domestic and foreign issues has eroded and became obscured. In recent decades the link between the two has become closer. The importance of domestic affairs for foreign affairs has become more crucial, and globalisation has accelerated and fuelled this process.[18] It is imperative to have a systematic account of the impact of domestic politics on foreign policy.[19] Without it, explanations of foreign affairs may be distorted. Most importantly, the list of role players influencing that decision-making process will also be incomplete.

White’s understanding of foreign policy requires the analyst to be knowledgeable about interactions between states but also cognisant of political processes within the state.[20] Most foreign policy questions have domestic dimensions and varied constituencies as well. This makes matters still more complex. And these domestic determinants must be highlighted and explained in the foreign policy decision-making process. The elements of these mixed domestic-foreign affairs often cannot be disentangled.[21]

Rosenau explains how FPA has provided a means for bringing foreign and domestic policy together under the same analytical umbrella.[22] For Hill, the nature of the relationship between domestic structure and foreign policy is equally important. It forces FPA to accept the fact that it does need to be concerned with more than just nation-states as its actors.[23] Hill sets two basic criteria when it comes to FPA and domestic policies: the origins of foreign policy decisions have to be traced inside a society as much as in international politics and they must be examined in such a way that the findings are directly related.[24] The judiciary as the third branch of government thus fitted into this definition of being as much inside society as the other two branches. Accordingly, for Hudson and Vore, the concepts and theories of FPA are generally as applicable to domestic as to foreign policy choices because the distinctions between foreign and domestic policy have become blurred. For these two authors, FPA seems to apply as much to the explanation and projection of domestic policy choice as to foreign policy choice.[25] In turn Hudson reaches the conclusion that with globalisation all politics have become foreign policy in one way or another.[26]

The real world of international politics has become increasingly globalised and interactive. That has occurred to such an extent that FPA needs to develop new understandings regarding the nature of policy making among the various actors who shape foreign policy.[27] Farnham draws attention to two imperatives these actors face: how domestic political constraints transform foreign policy; and how the values of the society become the preferences of the state.[28]

Hudson and Vore explain that from its inception FPA has assumed that human beings, acting individually or in collectivities, are the source of much behaviour and most changes in international politics.[29] Baumann and Stengel acknowledge the fact that despite criticism of FPA for treating the state as a unitary actor, the state is still the most important actor when it comes to foreign affairs while other actors increasingly affect many aspects of people’s lives and influence foreign policy decisions.[30]

Risse introduces the concept of governance. For him FPA tries to explain the foreign affairs of a particular agent in international life, namely, the state. In turn governance focuses on how actors — whether state or non-state — contribute to the political regulation of social affairs or to the common good. That outlook causes him to be critical of FPA’s overly state-centric focus. He doubts whether such a state-centric perspective is still helpful in understanding and explaining contemporary world affairs. Especially in an age of globalisation and in the fight against terror, other perspectives are required.[31] He argues persuasively that FPA needs to take governance more seriously if it wants to remain relevant in the study of world affairs.

Farnham adds another perspective that is not to be neglected or ignored:

One of the most pressing concerns in the study of international relations today is developing a systematic account of the impact of domestic politics on foreign policy. Until this is accomplished, not only will our explanations of foreign policy decisions be incomplete, but our theories may often be less helpful to policymakers than we would like.[32]

The linkages between the international and national environments are considered crucial in the decision-making process of foreign policy.[33] Hill summarises this concept succinctly:

… analysts of foreign policy must take notice of the two-way flows which arise from the distinction between the foreign and domestic: foreign policy has its domestic sources, and domestic policy has its foreign influences.[34]

The symbiotic relationship between foreign affairs and domestic issues is a reality.

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[1] Haass 2011 explores the imperatives of sound domestic policies being a precondition for effective foreign policy. The interdependence of domestic and foreign policy was already advanced by Warburg 1944. The interaction of the international system and domestic structures, and how international politics and those structures affect each other, are dealt with by Gourevitch 1978, pp. 881-911. His conclusion:

International relations and domestic politics are therefore so interrelated that they should be analyzed simultaneously, as wholes.

Ibid., p. 911.

Putnam 1988 explores this symbiotic relationship between diplomacy and domestic politics.

[2] Kaarbo 2003, p. 168.

[3] Kaarbo 2015, p. 195.

[4] Hill 2003, p. 248.

[5] Breuning 2007, pp. 115-140. Her chapter 5 is entitled: “Domestic Constraints on Foreign Policy Making”.

[6] Breyer 2015, p. 87: The public regards SCOTUS “as one of the few remaining bulwarks against abuse”.

[7] Hill 2003, p. 37. Elsewhere in his book he declares that foreign and domestic affairs are separate but not separable. Ibid., p. 224.

[8] Breuning 2007, pp. 116 and 120.

[9] Light 1994, p. 95.

[10] Ibid., p. 100.

[11] Ibid., p. 101.

[12] Gerner 1995, pp. 17 and 21.

[13] Ibid., p. 18. See also De Mesquita 2002, pp. 1-9.

[14] Dugis 2009, p. 175.

[15] Carlsnaes 2013, p. 324.

[16] Smith 1986, p. 13.

[17] Hill 2003, p. 222.

[18] McCormick 1999, pp. 1-2. Commentaries by De Mesquita 2002, Farnham 2004, and Rosenau 2008 add great value to the understanding of the importance of domestic affairs and its consequential impact on foreign affairs.

[19] Hudson highlights the effects of domestic political contestations of foreign-policy decision making. Hudson 2012, pp. 13-23.

[20] White 1989, p. 7. Emphasis in original text.

[21] Franck 1991, p. 86. He expands further on this theme:

In today’s world, no ‘affair’ is any longer exclusively ‘foreign.’ Every international initiative, every foreign expenditure of lives and treasure, has significant domestic repercussions … There is no longer any such thing as a discrete ‘foreign-affairs’ enterprise, certainly not one so distinct as to warrant a radically different, and surely inferior, constitutional arrangement of its own.


[22] Rosenau 2008, p. i.

[23] Hill 1974, pp. 152-153.

[24] Ibid., p. 150.

[25] Hudson, Vore 1995, pp. 211 and 228.

[26] Hudson 2014.

[27] Foyle 2003, pp. 164 and 170.

[28] Farnham 2004, p. 459.

[29] Hudson, Vore 1995, p. 209.

[30] Baumann, Stengel 2014, pp. 489 and 494.

[31] Risse 2013, pp. 181-183.

[32] Farnham 2004, p. 441.

[33] Irish, Frank 1975, p. 3.

[34] Hill 2003, p. 39.