The Importance of Democratic Diplomacy

The Importance of Democratic Diplomacy

by Joseph Sadek

For ten months in 2017, I had a front-row seat to the most democratic form of diplomacy. I served as one of five Research Assistants at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly’s (PA) Secretariat in Brussels, Belgium. The experience left me with innumerable personal and professional memories and, most importantly, “Europe’s Capital” gave me an appreciation for parliamentary diplomacy at an international, institutional level.

Diplomacy among and between legislators and parliamentarians is an unfamiliar side of diplomatic engagement. Inside the Washington, D.C. Beltway, policymakers and Capitol Hill staffers are familiar with congressional delegations (CODELs), but the broader American public may know little about their representatives’ international trips or foreign engagements. Yet, U.S. congressional travel hit an all-time high in 2016. Even as an active constituent and student of international affairs, I had little understanding of U.S. CODELs, let alone parliamentary diplomacy and its importance for U.S. global alliances. The NATO PA experience convinced me that parliamentary diplomacy and dialogue are necessary components of international engagement if international institutions are to serve democratic societies and advance international cooperation.

Most Americans are familiar with NATO, the post-World War II military alliance of twenty-nine member states. Fewer Americans probably know who leads the alliance. NATO’s executive leadership includes the North Atlantic Council, which is composed of appointed ambassadors from NATO member states; the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who commands NATO’s armed forces; and the Secretary General of NATO, who leads the alliance’s international staff at its headquarters in Belgium. None of these diplomatic and military leaders are directly elected by the citizens of their respective democracies. NATO’s governance structure, therefore, begs the question: “Where is the democratic oversight? Do citizens have a say?”

A resident of Cleveland, Rotterdam, or Madrid has little say in the transatlantic security decisions made daily in Brussels or Washington. However, parliamentarians play an important role for democratic oversight of and engagement with NATO through the PA. While citizens may exert little influence on the Secretary General of NATO, a U.S. Representative on the House Armed Services Committee or Senator on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee maintains continuous ties to his or her counterparts in allied parliaments and at NATO headquarters. These elected officials are responsive to their constituents. While heads of state (i.e., presidents and prime ministers) tend to lead their nations’ militaries, parliamentarians play a central role in their nation’s foreign, defense, and security policies.

Nearly every NATO member state requires its legislature to approve military spending for NATO. In the United States, the “power of the purse” is the popular term for Congress’ constitutional authority over military and national defense spending. U.S. Congress also wields the responsibility to declare war when it deems necessary. Parliamentarians, therefore, have a responsibility to their constituents, and often to their national constitutions, to play a central role in the maintenance and oversight of the NATO alliance and its defense and security priorities.

The NATO PA works hand-in-glove with parliamentarians to ensure democratic oversight of NATO. The PA staff facilitates and organizes various fora for parliamentarians several times a year to give legislators the opportunity to learn about, oversee and inspect alliance activities within and beyond North America and Europe. Twice per year, more than 350 delegates convene a forum to discuss, debate, and deliberate NATO’s most important challenges. Members of the PA debate cost sharing (otherwise known as “burden sharing”), the impact of climate change, the deployment of missile defenses, and other diplomatic and military issues. The assembly also meets with NATO’s global partner network to promote democratic norms and to deepen cooperation with the alliance. Parliamentarians hold hearings to interrogate NATO civilian staff and to articulate national security priorities to NATO military staff. These exchanges help member states’ parliaments and congresses understand the diplomatic and military challenges NATO faces. NATO PA-led activities often conclude with summary reports, allowing parliamentarians to build consensus on vital alliance issues. Legislators return home with a current and complete awareness of NATO’s challenges, successes and failures, and they are equipped to communicate those lessons learned to their constituents and legislative colleagues.

One prominent and recent example of the PA’s indispensable role was to address alliance burden sharing. The United States has long bemoaned the relatively large sums it pays for NATO’s readiness compared with Canada and Europe. While President Trump might be the most vociferous and recent voice of this perennial complaint, NATO member states’ heads-of-state agreed to meet a 2 percent of GDP military-spending threshold in 2014. Today, member states are on track to meet the 2 percent spending goal, and parliamentary diplomacy has played a major role. Parliamentary dialogue and exchange, facilitated by the NATO PA, built consensus on alliance burden sharing and, for the most part, member states are meeting their financial obligations.

Last month President Trump postponed a congressional delegation’s foreign travel to Brussels, Egypt, and Afghanistan. Congressional leaders were heading to Europe to reaffirm U.S. commitments to NATO, meet with Egypt’s President, and visit U.S. armed forces in Afghanistan. The President’s move threw parliamentary diplomacy’s significance into sharp relief. Although parliaments and congresses often receive little attention for their diplomatic activities, they are essential because they provide democratic legitimacy to and maintain oversight of international institutions, like NATO.

This is why institutions such as the NATO PA are essential. They facilitate dialogue, exchange, and promote consensus building among democratic but distant and diverse allies. The PA also creates a space for parliamentarians to fulfill their responsibilities to their constituents—to promote and defend their national interests on the global stage. As alliance diversity and pluralism grow, responsive and democratic diplomacy will become more urgent. Parliamentarians, and the institutions that support them, will play an increasingly important role in the years ahead.

Image: The Romanian Chamber of Deputies (Romanian Parliament)

Courtesy of Joseph Sadek (author) and the NATO Parliamentary Assembly

Joseph Sadek is an alumnus of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (F16).  After graduation Joseph served as a Research Assistant at the NATO Parliamentary Assembly in Brussels, Belgium, where he supported a broad research agenda. Currently, Joseph is the Executive Assistant to the Director of the Kozmetsky Center of Excellence at St. Edward's University. His views expressed in this article are solely his own. 

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