Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games | Study Guide

Robert D. Putnam

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Diplomacy and Domestic Politics: The Logic of Two-Level Games | Summary



Introduction: the Entanglements of Domestic and International Politics

Robert D. Putnam contends that the influence of domestic politics on international relations has not yet been detailed satisfactorily. Putnam utilizes the example of the Bonn Summit Conference of 1978 which was a meeting of seven nations known as the "G7." The purpose of the conference was to address the worldwide oil crisis. Putnam sorts through the complex factors that influenced the negotiations at the Bonn Summit that aimed at initiating recovery from the impacts of an oil shock. The comprehensive deal that negotiators at the Bonn Summit achieved included President Jimmy Carter's (b. 1924) commitment to decontrol domestic oil prices, German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt's (1918–2015) promise to provide additional fiscal stimulus, and Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda's (1905–95) pledge to reach a seven percent growth rate. Putnam claims that the policy changes agreed to in Bonn were only possible at the domestic level because of the international agreements. Domestic pressure influenced the accord at the international level. The Bonn Summit required play at both levels to produce an agreement acceptable to all parties involved.

Two-level Games: a Metaphor for Domestic-International Interaction

Putnam suggests the metaphor of a game to describe the type of negotiations that took place in Bonn in 1978. According to this metaphor, international deals can be viewed as victories achieved simultaneously at two game tables—the first taking place at the international level, Level I, and the second taking place among each group of constituents at the domestic level, Level II. At Level I governments rally to achieve outcomes favorable to their domestic constituents. At Level II negotiators work to form coalitions that will ratify the agreements adopted at Level I. Each negotiator plays at both metaphorical game boards. In 1978 a move on one board realigned the play on both boards.

Level I bargaining takes place between chief negotiators representing each nation. At Level II the game involves separate discussions among different groups of constituents regarding the ratification of the tentative agreement. Play at Level II informs the types of agreements proposed at Level I, while play at Level I happens with an eye toward Level II ratification.

Toward a Theory of Ratification: the Importance of "Win-sets"

The set of Level I agreements that are likely to be ratified at Level II are known as "win-sets." Larger win-sets more often lead to agreements at Level I, but larger win-sets also put negotiators at a disadvantage. Smaller win-sets give negotiators more leverage at Level I but less often lead to agreements that are capable of being ratified at Level II. There is a higher risk that players who have less to gain will simply quit playing. Any agreement made will fall within the overlapping win-sets of all negotiators involved.

Determinants of the Win-set

Putnam discusses three factors that determine the size of a win-set. The first involves the preferences and coalitions at Level II. Win-sets tend to be larger when an agreement must be reached. When negotiators cannot reach an agreement, the status quo is maintained. Nations that are more self-sufficient are more inclined to settle for the status quo, thereby reducing the size of their win-sets. There are cases in which the only domestic dispute is about whether or not an international agreement should be pursued. Domestic interests are called homogenous in such cases. Where Level II interests are homogenous, the odds of ratification often depend upon the negotiator increasing gains at Level I. International agreements may be less likely as a result. International agreements are more likely to occur where domestic interests are heterogeneous. Negotiators often face trade-offs at Level II because negotiations involve multiple issues, and package deals proposed at Level I may open up more acceptable alternatives. This situation is dubbed a "synergistic linkage" because international negotiations change the domestic situation. Synergistic linkages occur more often between nations that depend on each other economically.

The second factor that determines the size of a win-set involves the type of procedures required to ratify an agreement at Level II. The win-set size is smaller when a large majority of domestic approval is required. The win-set size tends to be bigger if only a simple majority is needed for ratification. Negotiators who are more autonomous tend to have larger win-sets.

The third factor that determines the size of a win-set is the types of strategies the chief negotiator utilizes. To expand the win-set, the chief negotiator may offer side-payments or exploit the goodwill of the constituents. Ratification is more likely for negotiators with high domestic approval ratings. The higher the likelihood of domestic approval at Level II, the higher the disadvantage in bargaining at Level I. Negotiators have to weigh the costs and benefits relative to domestic coalitions in deciding whether to enter into Level I agreements.

Uncertainty and Bargaining Tactics

Negotiators are often uninformed about domestic politics in other nations. In 1978 American officials lacked an understanding of the domestic problems that German Chancellor Schmidt (1918–2015) was facing over the issue of reflation. American negotiators faced uncertainty regarding Germany's win-set size as a result. This increased concerns about the possibility that Germany might be forced to defect from the negotiations. A chief negotiator seeking to reduce uncertainty at Level I should aim for a "kinky win-set" guaranteed to be ratified at Level II. Kinky win-sets increase the negotiator's credibility at the Level I table because the other actors do not have to fear that domestic backlash will prevent ratification.

Restructuring and Reverberation

Negotiators often benefit from restructuring negotiations to change the perceived costs and benefits to the countries negotiating. International pressures "reverberate" if Level I pressures have an impact on domestic politics and cause changes to domestic demands. This is precisely what happened at the Bonn Summit in 1978. Reverberations more often occur when the likelihood of offending international players is higher. More dependent nations experience more reverberations when engaging in negotiations. Uncertainty can coerce interconnected nations to simply accept any agreement that looks favorable. Domestic backlashes sometimes occur in cases where adversaries cause reverberations.

The Role of the Chief Negotiator

The chief negotiator generally gives more weight to the game being played at Level II. The negotiator may be at a disadvantage when domestic groups pressure negotiators to make a deal at Level I. The chief negotiator has the power to veto any agreement. It is undeniable that each negotiator has independent political interests that factor into negotiations.


The two-level approach to understanding international negotiations offers a more comprehensive description of the way domestic and international affairs are connected. Strengths at one game table may turn into weaknesses at the other. When there is uncertainty, small victories or kinky win sets offer useful advantages. Future researchers would do well to continue to outline how agreements at the international level are ratified at the domestic level.



The tradition of logic is based upon principles that are used to derive valid arguments. The law of non-contradiction establishes that no piece of an argument can be adopted as both true and not true at the same time. Robert D. Putnam demonstrates the divisions that result from the adoption of logic to guide his analysis of international negotiations. No gray area exists in his analysis of political science theories. Putnam acknowledges that the same cannot be said for political science practices. Domestic politics and international relations are so entangled that earlier academic attempts to theoretically demonstrate that one is founded upon the other simply fall short.

The central idea that shapes Putnam's thinking is the idea that the Bonn accord is the clearest case of a successful international negotiation. At the Bonn Summit Conference of 1978, policy coordination was negotiated, ratified, and actualized by all players involved in the negotiations. Putnam employs counterfactual statements to trace out a path to understanding how the accord became politically possible. Counterfactual statements in logic are those statements expressed in the form "if it had been the case that X, then Y." Statements in the counterfactual form are notoriously challenging to verify because there is no evidence available corresponding to situations that have not occurred. Putnam acknowledges this difficulty when discussing the likelihood that policy changes adopted at Bonn would have occurred under any other set of circumstances. He writes, "those policy changes would very probably not have been pursued ... in the absence of the international agreement." This counterfactual claim becomes the lynchpin of his thesis that the Bonn negotiations shifted the domestic landscape and produced policies that were previously out of reach.

Theory versus Practice

Putnam comments on the distinction between negotiations in theory and practice. He notes that the theoretical discussion has limits and acknowledges that the practical level is less predictable than any theory suggests. Putnam writes about the theoretical distinction between "a negotiation phase and a ratification phase." He says it "is useful for purposes of exposition, although it is not descriptively accurate." In practice Level I negotiators bring ideas from Level II discussions along with them to initial meetings. Level I bargaining is always accomplished with an eye toward the importance of ratification at Level II. The separation between levels that Putnam traces works only when theorizing about international relations. The two levels of negotiations are not actually easy to distinguish. Putnam also notes that "the 'constituents' views may themselves evolve in the course of the negotiations." All parties' perspectives are subject to change as communication proceeds. What initially appears as a "win" at the beginning of the process can sometimes look more like a "loss" as time passes.

The two-level game theory outlined in the text offers a viable account of international politics. Beneath the surface lurks the perennial issue of separating theory from practice. Negotiations are less cut and dry in practice. The theory of the two-level game offers a simple model to enhance understanding about what is a complicated process that varies across the board. Putnam offers a plethora of examples of specific treaties and deals from the history of international politics to address this issue. While the deal struck at Bonn is the leading example, Putnam also discusses the SALT talks between the United States and the Soviet Union concerning arms control, the Panama Canal Treaty (1977) that the United States signed to relinquish control of the canal, and the Versailles Treaty (1919) that ended World War I (1914–18). These examples help Putnam demonstrate the application of the two-level theory to real-world events and clarify the limits of the theory.

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