Can congressional diplomacy work for grand strategy?

Back in 2017, I predicted that the “damage control” diplomacy Congress had started to exert in response to the Trump administration’s unorthodox shifts in US foreign policy would grow, as the first branch of government worked across party lines to assure traditional allies that Congress had their back. 

Members of Congress have recently acted, working with peer legislators from advanced democracies to create the Interparliamentary Alliance on China. Yet Congress’ newest international action prompts a big question: will congressional diplomacy work for America’s number-one grand-strategic priority?

‘Legislative diplomacy’ has a decades-long history, promoting congressional engagement in areas of positive-sum foreign policy partnership with the executive branch that administrations have otherwise deprioritized. 

Historically, legislative diplomacy has taken two main forms – interparliamentary assemblies, and peer-to-peer legislative strengthening operations like the House Democracy Partnership and the Open World Leadership Center. Interparliamentary assemblies (IPAs) refer to institutionalized groups of peer legislators organized around a specific function or alongside a particularly multilateral institution, such as NATO or the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).  By contrast, the House Democracy Partnership is a US-based legislative agency which works directly with peer democratizing legislatures to assist in building the infrastructure and know-how of an effective parliament. 

Like most multilateral institutions, the interparliamentary assemblies in which Congress participates saw two major moments of institutional proliferation – after World War II, and after the Cold War. These forums served to bolster Congress’s “complementary policy goals largely otherwise ignored by the executive, such as human rights, legislative operations, and the integrity of elections,” in otherwise security-prioritizing pacts like NATO and the OSCE, while aiming to “correct the ‘democratic deficit’ in international organizations … by giving varying degrees of oversight authorities and functions to directly elected legislative diplomats from members[‘] countries.” 

My research indicates the success of Congress’s participation in legislative diplomacy depends on three factors: 

  • Picking relatively niche areas of foreign policy over which the executive branch would less jealously guard centralized institutional control
  • Prioritizing positive-sum foreign affairs influence through direct legislative diplomatic operations overseas (over interbranch zero-sum fighting for traditional foreign policy influence at home)
  • Quickly institutionalizing initiatives via connections to leadership or key committee and funding posts, so they outlive a particular patron, champion, or “entrepreneur

For example, in 1990, members of Congress, working through the US Helsinki Commission, pushed peer countries to agree to establish the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe Parliamentary Assembly in the Charter of Paris for a New Europe. Since the OSCE itself (which dates back decades earlier) operates on unanimity, while the OSCE PA operates on majority rule, members of Congress have used the parliamentary assembly to push policies otherwise unlikely to be prioritized in the main organization, principally dealing with human rights and religious freedom. Successes in this model include getting nearly all 50+ member states to adopt US standards for airline-based anti-trafficking training, and strengthening the OSCE’s role in reviewing draft religious freedom legislation from member state parliaments for alignment with best practices. 

These areas, of course, are far from front-page news, and that’s the point! By working through well-institutionalized legislative diplomatic channels, congressional foreign policy entrepreneurs have been able to avoid some of the collective-action and executive-resistance problems that make traditional foreign policy influence so hard to come by in Congress. These types of subtler influence, I wrote, are nearly always missed in typical “resurgent Congress” debates among scholars and analysts. 

Which is why I was intrigued recently to hear of the launch of the Interparliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), a 100+ member group of legislators from 13 countries with the goal of “pushing their governments for a stronger, more concerted line on China” in response to “Beijing’s increasingly assertive behaviour [sic].” The nine US members (as of this writing) include founding co-chairs Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Robert Menendez (D-NJ), of the Foreign Relations Committee, and comprise a bipartisan, bicameral lot. These members explicitly commit to promote “a coordinated response between democratic states to challenges posed by the present conduct and future ambitions of the People’s Republic of China,” a challenge that they argue will “outlast individual governments and administrations.” 

IPAC raises interesting questions for the future of legislative diplomacy: can members of Congress actually shift American foreign policy, or allied government behavior, on such a hot-button issue, by themselves? Can legislative diplomacy be expanded from relatively niche foreign policy topics to grand strategy itself, coordinating international legislative responses to strategic competition between China and the West? If so, what are the conditions under which such a project might succeed or fail? 

I am skeptical, given the framework I proposed above, of the ability of legislators to move the needle through individual diplomatic flesh-pressing of this kind, particularly on America’s number-one foreign policy priority. Moves like this earlier in the Trump administration by Sen. John McCain or House Speaker Paul Ryan, for example, failed to prevent subsequent alliance tensions between the US and Germany or South Korea, their stated goal. Members of Congress have, to be sure, played a key role in bolstering the international affairs budget in response to Trump’s repeated 30% proposed cuts. Yet these and related efforts like the House-passed NATO Support Act have largely succeeded in preventing proposed changes to the international status quo initiated by the president, rather than Congress affirmatively doing so itself. “The initiative in foreign affairs,” Woodrow Wilson wrote in 1908, is “virtually the power to control them absolutely,” and Congress will always face an uphill battle against this first-mover advantage. 

When legislative diplomacy has been most successful (under its own goals), it has instead sought to work as a complement to executive branch goals, increasing overall US capacity to  affect foreign affairs by taking advantage either of the gains from institutional specialization (e.g. in the House Democracy Partnership) or of asymmetric interest (as in the case of the OSCE PA and human trafficking). 

The “China Challenge” presents neither avenue for unique congressional value-add. The potential for congressional leadership on IPAC’s first goal, to maintain the integrity of members’ domestic political systems, is undermined by Congress’s long-standing disinvestment in technical expertise; the legislative branch is hardly an institutional leader on cybersecurity, microtargeting, artificial intelligence, or the other frontier-technological threats to democratic integrity around the world. This opens a structural advantage for executive branch agencies to work in a networked, peer-to-peer way with partner governments on practical approaches to securing election systems, critical infrastructure, and media environments.

Further, the Trump administration has shown no shortage of interest in confronting Chinese aggression, calling it a “vital national interest” and placing it at the center of the president’s reelection bid. In such an environment, it’s likely the executive branch will suck up all the oxygen on international cooperation or coercion to respond to Chinese strategic competition, leaving little room for behind-the-scenes leadership from Congress, especially if it runs counter to administration goals. The bipartisan group of American legislators who helped start IPAC certainly did so in good faith and with noble goals.

But the history of legislative diplomacy suggests that an interparliamentary assembly is unlikely to be an effective venue for translating congressional preferences into an improved strategic situation with China. Rather, in seeking to increase congressional influence on this important issue, members should look to congressional advisory vehicles like a bolstered Congressional-Executive Commission on China to more directly shape American policy and allies’ strategic thinking.

As I’ve previously argued in other contexts, on contentious or high-profile issues over which the executive branch is likely to take a leading role, inserting members of Congress into internal executive branch policymaking processes, rather than trying to create separate congressional channels of influence, has proven more successful in shifting executive-branch policymaking outcomes towards Congress’s goals.

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Topics: Oversight