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Difference Between Foreign Policy and Domestic Policy

Difference Between Foreign Policy and Domestic Policy

The difference between foreign and domestic policy may appear clear and simple; however, drawing a line that neatly separates the two can be rather complicated. In fact, in the complex world of politics everything seems to be strictly linked and correlated to the point that almost every action taken in the realm of foreign policy has an echo in the domestic sphere and vice versa.

However, from a theoretical perspective, we can identify a number of differences between the two.

The term “foreign policy” encompasses all actions made by a country in the international context with regard to other States or to international institutions. Such actions include

  • Ratifying international (bilateral or multilateral) treaties or conventions;
  • Adhering to international law (which includes international human rights law, international humanitarian law, etc.);
  • Getting involved in international multilateral bodies such as the United Nations;
  • Complying with the regulations set out in international treaties and conventions;
  • Providing foreign aid to other countries;
  • Sending peacekeepers to missions coordinated by international institutions;
  • Funding international mechanisms;
  • Advocating for the creation of international institutions;
  • Funding and supporting international governmental and nongovernmental organizations;
  • Undertaking diplomatic efforts and actions;
  • Creating alliances and ties with other countries;
  • Providing military, structural, and financial support to other countries;
  • Providing military, structural, and financial support to non-state actors;
  • Outsourcing state-owned corporations;
  • Intervening in international and national conflicts; and
  • Supporting countries (or areas) affected by natural disasters.

Conversely, the term “domestic policy” refers to all actions and decisions related to issues concerning the domestic sphere of a country, including business, the environment, health care, education, taxes, energy, social welfare, collective and individual rights, law enforcement, housing, immigration, military, religion, and the economy.

In democratic countries, whenever a candidate runs for office (President, Prime Minister, etc.), he/she must include programs concerning both foreign and domestic policies in his/her campaign. For instance, during the recent 2016 US Presidential campaigns, we saw Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton expose their foreign and domestic agendas. They tackled topics related to the role of the United States in Syria, the fight against terrorism, taxes, the replacement (or improvement) of Obamacare, and many other topics.

Winning an elections—any regular election—is a matter of combining good domestic and foreign policies in order to gain the trust and the support of the masses.


Indeed, the main difference between foreign and domestic policy is their area of concern (inside or outside the country). However, the two also differ in terms of their interests, external factors, public pressure, whether they are proactive or reactive, and their level of security.

Interests. Whenever we talk about foreign policy , we need to keep in mind that the number of stakeholders and actors involved is incredibly high, much higher than in the case of domestic policy. In fact, international relations are built on a fragile net of personal and diplomatic relationships that need to be carefully cultivated and shielded. The thick interlinkages between countries deeply affect the decision-making process at the international level.

Therefore, making smart choices in the realm of foreign policy means balancing the interests of all possible stakeholders involved. For instance, while larger involvement in Syria by the US may have a positive impact in the fight against ISIS, a stronger American presence in the area could intensify the tensions with the Russian counterpart. In the same way, stronger economic ties between China and Russia could jeopardize the leading economic role of the United States on a global scale.

On the contrary, at the domestic level, the number of stakeholders is considerably lower. Indeed, the leading party and the President (or Prime Minister) in office need to respect the promises made during the electoral campaign to preserve the support of the population. Yet, while they need to worry about the opposition, they are relatively free to operate within the country’s borders.

External factors. When the President drafts a new law or makes decisions concerning the country, he/she does so (or should do so) with the country’s best interest in mind. Conversely, when the head of the nation makes foreign policy decisions, he/she needs to anticipate the moves and the interests of other countries. Failing to take into account all external factors can have dramatic consequences and provoke enormous losses.

Public pressure. In general, foreign policy is less influenced by public pressure for a number of reasons:

  • Citizens give priority to the policies that directly affect them (i.e., tax reductions, immigration policies, health care, etc.) and are less likely to interfere in matters that (apparently) do not jeopardize the smooth continuation of their daily lives. Luckily, this is not always the case, and in some instances, citizens have protested against and influenced the outcome of foreign policies, such as with the Vietnam War;
  • Foreign policies tend to be less publicized by the government and are always surrounded by a veil of secrecy, in particular as far as military operations and interferences are concerned;
  • Media coverage can be less accurate without increasing the popular discontent: virtually no American citizen is likely to protest if the media does not accurately report the number of casualties provoked by a US drone attack in Yemen; and
  • If the actions of the government breach domestic laws, the citizens have (or should have) the means and the opportunity to seek accountability and reparation. Conversely, as the world of international politics and international law is more unpredictable, ensuring accountability for actions and decisions implemented under the umbrella of foreign policy is much more complex.

Proactive vs reactive. Foreign policy is often shaped and influenced by external events and by the actions of other countries. On the contrary, domestic policy depends on the intentions and the agenda of the head of state who acts in a proactive way. The strong linkages between all international actors create a tangled web of actions and reactions.

Such tendencies can also lead to an impasse, like in the case of the Cold War: for years, the United States and the Soviet Union have fought in the “space” and have perfected their nuclear arsenal without initiating a war. Even though no official war was fought, the two superpowers have kept the international community in check for decades. In the realm of foreign policy, every move has a meaning and calls for a reaction.

Conversely, domestic policy reacts to the needs of the country and the requests of the citizens and, at the same time, depends on the tendencies and abilities of the President/Prime Minister. Domestic policy does not necessarily react to provocations, but rather it adjusts to the context and tries to shape the structure/wealth of the country of concern.

Level of secrecy. During electoral campaigns—in the case of democracies—the candidates need to disclose their general agendas concerning both domestic and foreign policies. However, no head of state would ever openly reveal all implications and choices related to foreign policy. While the citizens have the right to know the intentions of their leader, governments tend to cover up their international agenda in order to maximize their benefits and reduce the risks. Furthermore, countries often engage in dangerous military operations to combat international threats like terrorist groups, and such operations often need to remain secret.

As far as domestic policy is concerned, candidates and heads of states should maintain the highest possible level of transparency in order to preserve the support and the trust of the electors.


As we have seen, foreign policy and domestic policy differ in a number of substantial ways.

  • They have different areas of concern:
  1. Foreign policy is related to the role played by a country within the international community with regard to other States and international institutions; and
  2. Domestic policy is related to all actions and decisions made by the government within the borders of a given country.
  • Foreign policy is covered by a veil of secrecy that should be absent in domestic policy;
  • Foreign policy reacts to external conditions and influences while domestic policy is more proactive;
  • Foreign policy needs to take into account a large number of stakeholders and external influences and interests while domestic policy does not; and
  • Foreign policy is less subjected to public pressure than domestic policy.

However, a closer analysis would easily reveal that not all the just mentioned conditions always apply, for instance:

  • Not all governments act for the benefit of their country and their citizens;
  • Not all governments (virtually no government) have a transparent domestic agenda;
  • Not all foreign policy operations are kept secret to protect the population and prevent failures; and

Not all domestic policies are subjected to public pressure.

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References :

[0][1] Foreign Policy, Encyclopaedia Britannica, available at https://www.britannica.com/topic/foreign-policy

[1][2] Domestic Policy, Legal Dictionary, available at https://legaldictionary.net/domestic-policy/

[2][3] Foreign Policy and Domestic Policy, available at http://lawgovpol.com/foreign-policy-domestic-policy/


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