Stefanie Walter

National Votes with International Consequences. A Democratic Threat to Cooperation?

In recent years, there has been an increase in national votes – referendums and elections – whose outcomes not only affect domestic voters, but which potentially have significant negative consequences for citizens of foreign countries as well. Especially when such votes mandate a unilateral withdrawal from or non-compliance with mutually agreed international institutions, they present considerable challenges for international cooperation, democracy, and national sovereignty. How can stable international cooperation be maintained under the specter of election- or referendum-induced unilateral withdrawal or non-compliance? Is it democratic to allow such votes, even if many others who are affected by this decision do not get to vote? Is it undemocratic to not implement the wish of one people, if other parties to an international agreement are opposed? And is it legitimate for foreign policymakers to get involved in domestic election or referendum campaigns in an effort to try to avoid harm for their citizens, even if this conflicts with the norm of national sovereignty? Apart from these normative questions, practical questions about the effectiveness of different policy responses arise. This essay shows that in the context of such votes, it is impossible to maintain international cooperation, democratic principles and national sovereignty at the same time and discusses the challenges this presents for maintaining popular support for the institutions that underpin the contemporary global liberal world order.

Link to full paper here.