March 26, 2019

The Soft Power of Parliamentary Diplomacy

By Dr. Davor Jancic, Senior Researcher in EU Law, T.M.C. Asser Institute The Hague, Faculty of Law, University of Amsterdam.


The world has become too globalised, too interdependent and too interconnected for diplomacy to be left to executive actors alone. For better or worse, Westphalian sovereignty belongs to a bygone era. Many decisions and policies with a decisive impact on the lives of both individuals and states as socio-political and economic communities are nowadays made outside the framework of those states. A vast multitude of international or supranational organisations–whose scope is global (e.g. the UN, WTO), regional (e.g. the EU, Council of Europe, Mercosur, African Union) or crossregional (e.g. NATO, OSCE)–set the parameters, or even directly govern, important segments of domestic regulatory affairs. Since this rapid development of global governance is a corollary of governmental action, parliaments are effectively denied the possibility to legislate on transnational policies and exercise democratic control over their creation. To compensate for this, parliamentary diplomacy has flourished in the past several decades. This phenomenon testifies to the evolving nature of representative democracy in the 21st century.

Parliamentary diplomacy encompasses foreign affairs activities of individual parliamentarians (e.g. Speakers, chairpersons), groups of parliamentarians (e.g. committees, delegations, intergroups, friendship groups), bilateral interparliamentary forums (e.g. Transatlantic Legislators’ Dialogue), or international parliamentary institutions. The latter is the most advanced form of parliamentary diplomacy and ranges from parliamentary organs of international organisations (e.g. Parliamentary Assemblies of the OSCE and the Council of Europe), those that are only loosely linked to an international organisation (e.g. NATO Parliamentary Assembly), to those that are not associated to an international organisation whatsoever (e.g. Interparliamentary Union, Latin American Parliament). The world leader in parliamentary diplomacy is the European Parliament. It possesses a rather developed internal structure for conducting autonomous international affairs not only via its committees (e.g. AFET, DEVE, INTA, LIBE), delegations and intergroups, but also via assemblies it has created with international and regional parliamentary partners (e.g. Euro-Latin American Parliamentary Assembly, Euronest Parliamentary Assembly).

All of these institutional manifestations of parliamentary diplomacy exercise soft power, because they as a rule possess no legally binding powers. However, their impact is realized through functions that complement those carried out internally within the legal orders in which these parliaments are established. These functions of parliamentary diplomacy are aimed at debating global challenges (e.g. terrorism and climate change), conflict resolution (e.g. advocacy in the Libyan and Syrian crises), discussing bilateral or multilateral international agreements, assessing the implications of extraterritorial legislation, approximating regulatory approaches to prevent legal disputes and political frictions, protesting diplomatic misconduct (e.g. US NSA online surveillance over the EU), strengthening domestic scrutiny and accountability mechanisms, nurturing the exchange of information and best practices, capacity building (e.g. democracy support, election observation missions, exchange of parliamentary know-how), and, generally, improving diplomatic relations between states and regions. These activities are carried out through dialogue fostered during countless visits and meetings that parliamentarians organise around the globe.

Yet this does not mean that parliamentarians must become political globetrotters, traveling the world in search of peace and cooperation. In legal terms, the soft power of parliamentary diplomacy can become hard if it is firmly embedded in internal constitutional orders, where binding legal powers are available. Parliamentary diplomacy is therefore also a cognitive category. Parliamentarians should incorporate the outcomes of their diplomacy in domestic affairs by taking a broad perspective in conducting their daily business. Though elected locally, parliamentarians must think globally. This is important not only to shield domestic interests from unwanted external influence, but also to avoid backlash that is likely to occur due to the high level of interlacement between polities if action is taken in complete disregard of the interests of ‘others’. These two sides of the same coin are pertinent. Acting as diplomats, elected representatives can attend to these exigencies of contemporary policy making.

Combining the soft power of parliamentary diplomacy in external affairs with the hard power in internal affairs is a recipe for reconceptualising representative democracy. To borrow the terminology of Harvard’s Joseph Nye, parliaments need to exercise smart power in the fast-paced global, digital age of today. They are advised to adapt to the changing nature of global governance if they are to preserve the good functions they perform in shaping their societies. Failing to do so could harm the interests of their constituents in the long term and parliamentary diplomacy is one of the ways of addressing this.






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