When Canada’s prime minister recently made a special trip to the US to address the National Governors’ Association’s annual retreat, it was a sign that something unusual was afoot. In becoming the first foreign leader to formally engage with the group of 50 governors of American states and five US territories, Justin Trudeau was acknowledging a newly urgent force in the age of Trump: sub-nationalism. Or that a nation-state is emphatically a sum of its parts.
Other countries seem to have had the same realisation as Mr Trudeau. China, Japan, Mexico and Vietnam also dispatched lower-level representatives to the governors’ meeting.
Consider political decentralisation now officially on the global agenda. It is aimed at trade alliances, climate change cooperation, even the efforts to counter violent extremism. And it has the potential to drive globalism with a local accent.
Sub-nationalism is thriving in the US. In India, for at least a decade, something called “competitive federalism” has had states vying with each other to attract foreign investment, sometimes to the detriment of equitable economic growth. And led by elected mayors with powerful megaphones and active twitter accounts, big cities the world over are increasingly pushing their own distinct identities. Sometimes, these are at a tangent to the main axis of the national agenda.
At least for the US, Donald Trump himself called it. As president-elect, Mr Trump told a rally in Pennsylvania: “People talk about how we’re living in a globalised world, but the relationships people value most are local — family, city, state, and country. Local, folks, local.”
The last three words may be a good way to sum up the rather dry concept of sub-nationalism. Political scientists define it as the assertion by a state or a region of its own interests, separately from those of the nation. What that really means though, as Mr Trump said, is local interests come first — for regions, states and cities.
His administration is provoking sub-nationalism to new heights and the world is watching. But it’s early days yet. So far, US state governors worried about federal trade protectionism, hostility towards immigrants, foreign students and business visitors and the retreat from climate-friendly policies have done little more than make the case for their own constituents. Their message to foreign businesses and consumers is that the federal government doesn’t speak for all of America. Or as Terry McAuliffe, governor of Virginia and current chair of the national association, puts it: “What I try to tell everybody is, ‘Forget the federal government. Come directly to the states’.”
That may sound unrealistic, even frankly unbelievable. Isn’t the nation-state supposed to be the fundamental building block of international relations? Is Dubai supposed to do direct deals with Detroit by ignoring the policies laid out by Washington? Will mayor Sadiq Khan’s London be a welcoming island — really, almost a law unto itself — in the unfriendly seas of post-Brexit Britain?
Obviously, sub-nationalism is faced with the limits of what is possible. But it has had some startling successes. After Mr Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris agreement, the Climate Alliance, a bipartisan group of US state governors, city mayors and business CEOs, made the case that America wasn’t pulling out, just the Trump administration. One governor, Jerry Brown of California, a state that pays more in federal tax than it gets back from Washington, even travelled to China to sign climate cooperation agreements with Xi Jinping. The Beijing meeting had all the hallmarks of a state visit, complete with an official banquet.
Does this portend even more independence? Only up to a point. The cleaving together of interest groups will be on full display in September 2018, when sub-national entities from around the world will gather in California to sign the “Under2 MOU,” an agreement that commits to upholding the Paris targets. The coalition, which claims it covers 176 jurisdictions across 36 countries and six continents, includes entities as disparate as Alsace, the Australian Capital Territory, Chhattisgarh, Sichuan, South Sumatra and Telangana.
Clearly, the political landscape is being reshaped. When national governance is unable to respond sufficiently well to interests and belief systems shared by a city or a cluster of cities, states or regions, sub-national initiative is the result.
There have been echoes of sub-nationalism before now. After the US withdrew from the Kyoto Protocols, yet another international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, more than 130 American cities vowed to meet the treaty’s targets anyway.
What makes the current situation different though is the broad spectrum of shared interests that now bring together sub-national groups. This can only grow as cities become richer and more populous.
In the mid-1990s, UCLA professor Kenichi Ohmae, a nuclear physicist and management theorist, predicted the rise and rebirth of region-states or city-states. His book had a rather definitive title, The End Of The Nation State. We are not there yet. But sub-nationalism is here to stay.