The US Congress has recently passed a law penalizing foreign companies and individuals in Europe for working on a gas-pipeline from Russia to Germany. This law affects non-US citizens in Europe and the general population in Germany, who would be using the natural gas imported through this pipeline.

The elected German government has strongly objected to this US law.

So, I'm wondering what's the legal and political principle for making such laws? And do such laws violate some basic principles of democracy?

The basic principle of democracy might be summed as a rule by the people and for the people.

But I don't see how extraterritorial laws, where a law of one country affects the population of another country, fulfills this democratic principle.

Because the people in the affected country don't elect their foreign law-makers. The foreign law-makers aren't accountable to the people for whom they've made the laws. And the population affected by extraterritorial laws don't have any way of changing or eliminating any such laws that they don't like.

  • 1
    This is why I like Trump. He's a good reminder of who our real enemy is. Dec 23, 2019 at 20:46
  • 3
    In today's world, animosity can destroy the whole world through nuclear war. And unfortunately, Trump isn't just good at reminding who the enemies are. He also pretty good at increasing animosity and making new enemies, where none existed before.
    – user29459
    Dec 24, 2019 at 0:27
  • Democracy limits individual actions in a nation. They are probably not applicable when an individual engages with a foreign nation, which potentially could impact the citizens of a nation or other nations, under national security rules.
    – user29025
    Dec 27, 2019 at 7:03
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    What about voting to go to war? The people in the target nation don't get a say in that
    – Caleth
    Jan 2, 2020 at 10:27

3 Answers 3


There is no problem with democracy here.

  • The US cannot forbid German citizens or companies to deal with Russia.
  • The US can forbid US citizens or companies to deal with German citizens or companies who deal with Russia. That applies US law to US citizens who do something the US government and congress dislike.

It might be a violation of trade agreements between the US and EU pass such sanctions, but trade agreements tend to have exceptions for "national security" reasons.

Of course Germany and the EU can view this as an unfriendly act and pass counter-sanctions of their own. Too much of that and you get a new Cold War. But for now, there seem to be no counter-sanctions. Compare the much more sweeping spat over Iran sanctions.

  • From what I understand, this US law includes financial penalties for non-US citizens, who work on this pipeline. Because if they hold any US property, then their transactions will be blocked. Which amounts to confiscation of property. This is penalizing foreigners. This isn't just about US companies and individuals. worldoil.com/news/2019/12/10/…
    – user29459
    Dec 23, 2019 at 0:39
  • @Mike, blocking a transaction is not a confiscation, and everybody sending money to the US needs to understand that "terms and conditions apply."
    – o.m.
    Dec 23, 2019 at 7:49
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    Blocking of transactions isn't just about sending money. USA for example has the largest stock market in the world. A lot of foreigners own US stocks. And this law will stop people from selling their US stocks and taking back their money. Which has the same effect as confiscation of property. Because if you can't use your property and money, then it's the same as if you don't have it.
    – user29459
    Dec 23, 2019 at 8:22
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    If the US economy was truly and fully only US economy, then I would agree that only Americans should decide what to do with it. But this isn't the situation at all. Because the US stock market, for example, lists many foreign companies that are based in foreign countries. So, the US stock market is actually an international market place with companies and investors from many different countries. The US government basically misled investors by presenting USA as good place to do business in. But then they changed the rules and took advantage of the trust foreigners placed in USA.
    – user29459
    Dec 24, 2019 at 0:05
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    @o.m. It's hard to anticipate unprecedented behavior that has never happened before. USA used to respect its allies a lot more during the Cold War. Because at that time, countries could switch sides or become neutral. But after the USSR fell apart, then US politicians decided that now they are the sole superpower, and now they can do whatever they want. And now we are seeing the consequences of this new attitude. USA didn't treat its allies like this in the past. And that's why they didn't anticipate such behavior from USA.
    – user29459
    Dec 24, 2019 at 12:13

Extraterritoriality comes in conflict not so much with democracy, but with sovereignty, i.e. an autocratic regime is just as likely to be displeased when a foreign power exercises its foreign policy through extraterritorial laws.

Quoting an EU study:

There is a general principle in international law that one state cannot take measures on the territory of another state by means of enforcement of national laws without the consent of the latter. [...]

The principle of extraterritoriality stems out of the notion of jurisdiction. State jurisdiction is a manifestation of state sovereignty (Bowett, 1982, 1). ‘Sovereignty’ is legal shorthand for legal personality of a certain kind, that of statehood; ‘jurisdiction’ refers to particular aspects of the substance, especially rights (or claims), liberties, and powers.” (Brownlie, 2008, 106). As a general rule, state is entitled to exercise domestic jurisdiction limited only by rules of international law: "State sovereignty in the sense of contemporary public international law denotes the basic international legal status of a State that is not subject, within its territorial jurisdiction, to governmental, executive, legislative, or judicial jurisdiction of a foreign State or to foreign law other than public international law" (Bernhardt, 2003, 512).

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    If democracy is a rule by the people and for the people, then interference in their sovereignty is the same as interference in their democracy. Because they've made a sovereign decision through democratic means to do something in their own country, and a foreign power is trying to subvert their decision and force them to do something else against their will. This law is meant to influence the activity of foreigners in a foreign land. Foreigners will bear the consequences of any such change. But these foreigners don't have any say in this. Which is undemocratic.
    – user29459
    Dec 23, 2019 at 8:18
  • @user I didn't see the comment at the time, but there are problems with this argument because at the limit of this line everyone is a "sovereign citizen" and nobody can tell anybody else what to do. And even if you manage to well-define a polity who is not ot be interfered with, there are practical limits to this given the UNSC etc. (E.g. if Sebians vote to kill or expel all Kosovars, etc.) Anyhow, I see based on your self-answer that you intended to push your viewpoint rather than ask a Q seeking information (on such limits). Feb 18, 2023 at 23:53

I find the two answers, given to my question until now, less than satisfactory.

Because US law-makers have explicitly stated that the intent of this law is to reverse a democratically reached decision in Germany.

So, US law-makers, according to their own admission, are legislating for Germany and its people, without being accountable to the people there in any democratic way. And the fact that US law-makers are taking advantage of close economic integration between Germany and USA to implement this law on US soil is just a technicality.

I don't see how this technicality negates the fact that they are ordering people in another democratic country to do something under threats of serious penalties, without being accountable to these people in any way.

Perhaps the problem here is that I've assumed democracy has some kind of universal principles, which apply anywhere and everywhere. But apparently this isn't true. Democracy is more like a set of rules for a limited group of people, who are only required to treat each other democratically, but not outsiders.

So, to answer my own question, I would now say that extraterritorial laws don't violate any basic principles of democracy. Because democracy doesn't have any principles to violate. It's not possible to violate something that doesn't exist.

Perhaps this is why democracy in the past was able to accommodate slavery, civil rights violations, genocide of Native Americans, and exclusion of women from the democratic process.

Democracy is just a bunch of rules that people agree upon. Such people can change their rules from time to time. But there are no democratic principles that can stop democrats from abusing outsiders in various undemocratic ways, even now.

  • Mkay, so this seems to come down to the well-known critique that majority rule is two wolves voting to eat a sheep. The only connection with your question seems to be that they can also vote to eat a foreign sheep. Feb 19, 2023 at 0:03

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