Accessibility links

Analysis From Washington -- Decentralizing Foreign Policy

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 19 May 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Since the end of the Cold War, regional and even local governments in many countries have challenged the traditional monopoly that central governments have enjoyed over the formulation and conduct of foreign policy.

Some local authorities have sought a foreign policy role as a first step toward secession and the formation of an independent state. But most have done so either to promote the special interests or even values of their populations.

As a result of such diversity, this broad development does not presage the demise of the nation state as the predominant actor in international affairs. But it does undercut the ability of such states to pursue a consistent and coherent foreign policy. And it also provides an opportunity for some countries and multi-national corporations to play local governments against national ones.

Examples of such increased regional participation in foreign policy abound. But three cases -- from Russia, from the United States, and from the European Union -- stand out. Taken together, they show just how diverse this trend is; taken individually, each appears likely to have very different consequences for the respective states as actors in international affairs.

In Russia, there is an entire spectrum of regional and local activism in foreign affairs. Some regions -- such as Chechnya -- have sought a foreign policy role in order to advance their own independence. Others -- such as Tatarstan or Sakha -- have done so to promote their own economic interests. And still others -- such as Saint Petersburg -- have acted to shore up local patriotism.

And the ways in which they have pursued these goals are equally diverse. Chechnya has appointed its own representatives abroad. Tatarstan has succeeded in placing its representatives in several key Russian embassies abroad. And Sakha and Petersburg have both issued declarations about their own views on foreign policy issues and directly negotiated with foreign firms.

In the United States, state and local governments increasingly are passing legislation banning government purchases from companies that do business in a particular country or countries that the authorities in these governments find objectionable.

Six local governments in the state of California, for example, have passed such sanctions against companies originating in or doing business with Burma. Several other local and state governments have done the same. And still other local and state authorities are considering the imposition of similar bans against companies involved with trade in Indonesia, China, Egypt, and Pakistan.

Such sanctions are neither symbolic -- like the earlier declarations by several American cities that they were "nuclear-free" zones -- nor trivial. Many local and regional governments are major purchasers of goods and services, and many corporations must thus decide whether to give up these customers or alternatively give up customers in offending countries.

In many cases, these local and state sanctions are simply a restatement of central policy. The U.S. government, for example, has a sanctions regime against Burma. But in some cases, the local and state policies are very different from those of Washington -- local actions against China, for instance -- and thus add a new degree of complexity to American foreign relations.

Finally, in Europe, the last decade has seen the rise of regional representation in the supranational institutions of the European Union. As EU integration has proceeded, local and regional authorities have gained against their own central governments.

Not only do these local governments now have a set of institutions to appeal to over the head of their governments, but within the EU institutions, the representatives of such local governments often learn that they have more in common with representatives of the regions of other countries than they do with their own national governments.

On the one hand, this development may promote the further integration of the European Union by lessening the importance of its constituent nation states. But on the other, it may so undermine the respective governments that they can no longer act as states in the international environment.

And that dilemma, which is now very much on view in Brussels and Strasbourg, is one that other countries, including the Russian Federation and the United States, will increasingly face.

Indeed, the lesson for these countries as well as others seems to be that every move toward integration at the supranational level will be accompanied by another toward disintegration at the national level -- at least in the making of foreign policy.
XS
SM
MD
LG