Legislative debates on foreign policy

Linking policy discourse to outcomes

December 10, 2021

The framing of foreign aid

Why do countries give foreign aid? Thanks to the research and data collection efforts of AidData and other scholars and organizations, we know more and more about where aid goes, and for what types of projects. Yet the factors that determine choices for or against particular recipient states or aid projects remain less than fully understood.

While development agencies largely control individual project decision, national legislatures (the U.S. Congress, the British Parliament, etc.) generally have considerable influence over broad policy outlines. Our goal is to identify the arguments for or against aid that shape legislative outcomes, and to uncover patterns over time and across donor states in the salience of particular arguments. These patterns, in turn, can be used to improve our understanding of aid policy decision-making.

We use topic modeling and other machine learning techniques to classify foreign aid debates into a number of different argument categories. The resulting classification allows us to investigate partisan, over-time and other patterns in argumentation and framing.

Moral foundations in foreign policy

Foreign aid is a key instance of a foreign policy that is often deemed to contain a significant moral component. Key international relations thinkers have famously held that morality has no place in foreign policy. Yet debates about foreign policy almost always involve implicit or exlicit invocations of moral arguments. In recent years, the “moral foundations” approach to examining such arguments has won many adherents. We examine which moral foundations are used (and how) in foreign policy debates by different political actors.

Our first investigation here examines whether the political left draws on different moral foundations than does the political right, as has been argued by some scholars. Specifically, we look at legislative foreign policy debates across several countries to assess the degree to which partisan patterns are country- and context-specific.