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Journal of Political Ecology: 
Case Studies in History and Society



VOLUME 7 (2000)

Democratic Commitments: Legislatures and International Cooperation, By Lisa L. Martin, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press (2000), viii, 225 pp.

Reviewed by: Leslie R. Alm and Ross E. Burkhart, Department of Political Science, Boise State University

In Democratic Commitments, Lisa Martin challenges the long-held, mainly realist assumption that international relations do not operate according to the same laws of political behavior as do domestic politics. She does this by exploring the general problem of international cooperation and how this cooperation is related to the demand for credibility. More specifically, Martin approaches the problem of international credibility by examining the domestic source of commitments through the role of national legislatures in established democracies. She finds that the degree of legislative influence on international cooperation far exceeds common estimates. Further, she finds this true in both presidential and parliamentary systems. In the end, Martin concludes that institutionalized legislative participation in international cooperation not only enhances the credibility of states' commitments, it leads to more stable and deeper patterns of international cooperation. Martin's contribution, thus, is at two levels: that of the nature of international cooperation, and that of the performance of democratic countries in foreign policy.

Martin uses her first two chapters to establish her framework of study and to provide readers with her research conclusions. In doing so, she identifies two central research questions: how to explain variation in legislative influence on foreign policy, and how legislative participation affects stable democracies' ability to make commitments to other states. In search of finding answers to these questions, Martin suggests that rather than viewing the executive-legislative relationship as a zero-sum game where one side must lose, we are much better off by thinking of executive-legislative relations as an exchange relationship where competition coexists with the pursuit of mutually beneficial deals. This is a theme (position) that Martin returns to again and again throughout her work, lending a neoliberal perspective to it. Furthermore, Martin allows that once we accept this view of a mutually beneficial exchange relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government, the potential of finding and explaining the intricacies of the executive-legislative relationship increase dramatically.

In her second chapter, Martin reinforces her most basic research finding--that legislative influence on international bargaining and cooperation is deep and subtle--and delineates how her study is designed to explain variation in legislative influence via the mechanism of credibility. Martin, just as she does in her introductory chapter, emphasizes that legislative-executive relations must be conceptualized as an exchange relationship rather than a question of which body dominates. It is clear that Martin believes this approach is essential if we are to understand legislative influence on foreign relations. She also makes clear that understanding legislative influence requires methods that are able to measure subtle and indirect measures of influence, such as delegation, whereby legislatures can maintain influence over policy outcomes without necessarily controlling the government. Further, Martin identifies the implementation stage of the policy process (rather than the bargaining stage) as the key to measuring legislative influence. She posits that the policy of implementation nearly always engages legislatures in democratic systems, that legislatures are directly and immediately involved in implementation and hence provide a vital (if indirect) role in putting international cooperation into place. The basic idea underlying this line of thought is that unless bargains can be enforced back home, no amount of diplomatic skill will allow the establishment of credible commitments.

Martin identifies four different expectations (hypotheses) that provide the basis of discussion throughout the entire text: Legislatures will move to institutionalize their participation in international cooperative endeavors when there is greater conflict of interest between the executive and legislature (Delegation Hypothesis); Executives are unable to manipulate the structure of legislative participation to evade legislative influence or international cooperation (Influence Hypothesis); Institutionalized legislative participation in international cooperation leads to greater credibility of international commitments (Credibility Hypothesis); and, Institutionalized legislative participation leads to greater levels of international cooperation (Cooperation Hypothesis).

In her five middle chapters (3-7), Martin provides empirical evidence to support her basic proposition that institutionalized legislative influence enhances the credibility of state commitments. In chapter 3, Martin uses regression analysis and the examination of the use of executive agreements and treaties in the United States to essentially refute the proposition that executives can manipulate institutions so as to evade legislative influence. Instead, she finds that legislatures maintain numerous mechanisms to influence international agreements, particularly during their implementation, finding support for the Cooperation Hypothesis. Specifically, she argues that first-year presidents find it more difficult to conclude agreements and that executive agreements are more frequently used when alternative commitment mechanisms (e.g., military sanctions) exist.

Chapter 4 (dealing with the domestic politics of economic sanctions) provides what Martin calls predictable, substantial, and significant differences in legislative behavior depending on the structure of party control of government. In essence, Martin uses specific cases of economic sanctions to illustrate her belief that conflict between the branches motivates Congress to institutionalize its foreign policy activities, thus allowing it to establish more credible commitments to economic sanctions and therefore achieve higher levels of international cooperation. The findings are supportive of the Delegation Hypothesis.

United States food-aid policy is the topic of discussion in chapter 5. Through a detailed historical analysis of United States food aid programs, Martin once again provides empirical evidence supporting her hypothesis that institutionalized legislative participation in international cooperation leads to greater credibility of international commitments (the Credibility Hypothesis). Her study of food-aid to Egypt and India (among other countries) suggests that historically, attempts to use food-aid in ways that require long-term commitments have not been successful without congressional support (the Cooperation Hypothesis).

Chapter 6 and 7 focus on parliamentary (versus presidential) forms of democracy. Martin centers her research on institutional choice among European Union (EU) member states to show that even with parliamentary systems legislative influence is quite prevalent. In this regard, Martin posits that legislative influence increases as executive-legislative conflict increases (the Delegation Hypothesis) and that because executives often anticipate reactions of legislatures, apparent legislation inactivity may simply reflect such anticipation. She also provides a detailed case study of Denmark that Martin claims bears out her premise that countries where parliaments take an early (and active) part in the negotiation process have a much higher (and successful) implementation rate than those countries where this does not occur. The Danish example bolsters the Credibility Hypothesis.

Martin uses her concluding chapter (8) to revisit the concepts and conclusions that she highlighted in her introductory chapter. She reminds readers that in order to understand legislative influence, we must focus on the implementation stage of the policy process rather than on the bargaining stage and that executive-legislative interactions are better seen as an exchange relationship rather than a struggle for power. Martin again emphasizes that we must look beyond simple measures of activity to measure influence, that we must look at far more indirect and subtle measures such as executive anticipation. In the end, Martin restates her most basic finding: that organized legislative engagement in processes of international cooperation enhances the credibility of democracies' commitments and therefore the level of cooperation achieved.

The book is well organized, especially in terms of laying out the assumptions, hypotheses, and findings. Martin never strays far from her basic beliefs, choosing to emphasize her conclusions at every turn. The strength of this book is Martin's historical and descriptive analysis of real-world examples of how legislatures influence the making (and implementing) of foreign policy. She is at her best when she is providing detailed analyses of historical events. Her description of the historical development of United States food-aid policy is exceptionally well done. It demonstrates in very clear terms the importance of the implementation stage of policy making. Martin excels in her descriptive analysis explaining why South Africa is an outlier, and how the United States approached movement toward Most Favored Nation's status for China. Also, her descriptive analysis of Denmark as a case study in parliamentary influence is superb and quite timely (and appropriate) given Denmark's recent decision not to adopt the European common currency.

Weaknesses of this book are few. However, several mild irritants stand out. There exist few (if any) original data. The author uses completed studies by other researchers as the basis for her empirical analyses. While this in no way lessons the impact of her findings, it would have been nice to see the author use data that she had collected and analyzed rather than depending on other sources for so much of her data. The use of the more complex research methodologies is not well presented or explained. The assumption is surely made that readers will have the expertise already in hand to read and understand regression output. Readers who have a good deal of experience with regression analysis should not have too much trouble following the author's logic and presentation. However, those with no such experience will have some trouble understanding the interpretation of output. One minor problem that proved distracting was lack of a sufficient explanation of statistical significance in the tables in chapter 3. At one point a variable is marked as statistically significant at one level (t-statistic less than 2) but in another table a variable is not marked as statistically significant with a similar value for the t-statistic. The tables would have been much more understandable with some indication of what level of statistical significance was appropriate for each.

Readers of this journal will no doubt be interested in how Martin's analysis applies to international cooperation with respect to environmental agreements. Are those countries that make use of exchange relationships between the legislature and the executive more likely to create credible and stable environmental agreements with other countries? Unfortunately, Martin does not address environmental or natural resource issues at all in her analysis. Since Martin stays close to her data examples and avoids speculation outside of her narrowed focus, it is difficult to reach conclusions about such wide-ranging international agreements such as the Rio biodiversity and Kyoto climate control agreements. Martin's framework for international cooperation may well apply to environmental agreements, but the research necessary to prove that it does remains to be accomplished.

Having said all that, this is a fine book. It is extremely well researched and well written. It is certainly focused toward a high level of readership and would be most appropriate for advanced undergraduate students or graduate students of international relations who have had at least an introductory course in research methodology. It would be an especially good read for anyone (including policymakers) interested in the interactions between the executive and legislative branches with respect to United States foreign relations. Ultimately, Martin has made a significant contribution to international relations and foreign policy analysis. Martin's presentation of the multifaceted foreign policy decision-making process is refreshing. It is a welcome challenge to the realist and neorealist "state as black box" conception of the domestic decision making process in foreign policy.