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The Foreign Relations of Subnational Governments

Summary and Keywords

Subnational governments are increasingly involved in foreign policy and foreign relations in activities usually labeled as paradiplomacy or constituent diplomacy. This phenomenon is due to the rising capacity of substate territories to act in world politics and has been aided by advances in transportation and telecommunications. National governments’ control of foreign policy has been permeated in many ways, particularly with globalization and “glocalization.”

Since 1945, subnational governments such as Australian states, Canadian provinces, and U.S. states have sought to influence foreign policy and foreign relations. Subnational leaders began traveling outside their national borders to recruit foreign investment and promote trade, even opening offices to represent their interests around the world. Subnational governments in Belgium, Germany, and Spain were active in world politics by the 1980s, and these activities expanded in Latin America in the 1990s. Today, there are new levels of activity within federal systems such as India and Nigeria. Subnational leaders now receive ambassadors and heads of government and can be treated like heads of state when they travel abroad to promote their interests.

Not only has paradiplomacy spread to subnational governments across the world, but the breath of issues addressed by legislatures and leaders is far beyond economic policy, connecting to intermestic issues such as border security, energy, environmental protection, human rights, and immigration. Shared national borders led to transborder associations being formed decades ago, and these have increased in number and specialization. New levels of awareness of global interdependencies means that subnational leaders today are likely to see both the opportunities and threats from globalization and then seek to represent their citizens’ interests.

Foreign policy in the 21st century is not only affected by transnational actors outside of government, such as multinational corporations and environmental groups, but also governmental actors from the local level to the national level. The extent to which subnational governments participate in foreign policy depends on variables related to autonomy and opportunity. Autonomy variables include constitutional framework, division of power, and rules as determined by legislative action or court decisions. Opportunity variables include geography, economic interdependence, kinship (ethnic and religious ties), as well as partisanship and the political ambitions of subnational leaders. Political culture is a variable that can affect autonomy and opportunity.

Paradiplomacy has influenced the expectations and roles of subnational leaders and has created varying degrees of institutionalization. Degrees of autonomy allowed for Flanders are not available for U.S. states. Whereas most subnational governments do not have formal roles in international organizations or a ministry devoted to international relations, this does occur in Quebec. Thus, federalism dynamics and intergovernmental relations are evolving and remain important to study.

In future research, scholars should more fully examine how subnational leaders’ roles evolve and the political impacts of paradiplomacy; the effects of democratization and how paradiplomacy is diffused; how national and subnational identity shapes paradiplomacy, and the effects paradiplomacy has on domestic and international law as well as political economy. The autonomy and power of subnational governments should be better conceptualized, particularly because less deference is given to national-level policy makers in foreign policy.

Keywords: paradiplomacy, foreign policy, federalism, globalization, economic development, political economy, subnational governments, constituent diplomacy


Foreign policy in the 21st century is affected not only by national governments and transnational actors, such as multinational corporations (MNCs), but also by subnational governments such as cantons, regions, and provinces. These subnational governments experience enhanced interdependencies due to globalization and have rising capacities to act beyond their borders because of professionalism in government as well as advances in transportation, telecommunications, and increased information sharing. Although subnational governments and their leaders have been involved in foreign relations since the 1800s and particularly since 1945, their activities have been overlooked in some ways. Scholars must pay more attention to how the boundaries of national governments’ control of foreign policy have been permeated.

Subnational governments’ internationally-oriented activities are usually labeled as paradiplomacy (Duchacek, 1990; Soldatos, 1990). Other terms such as subnational diplomacy or substate diplomacy (Criekemans, 2010b) and constituent diplomacy (Kincaid, 1990) are also utilized but have less acceptance in the literature. Paradiplomacy connotes activities occurring in parallel to state-centric diplomacy, and these activities may occur in tandem with national diplomacy or as a challenge to it. Thus, this article uses the term paradiplomacy more than constituent diplomacy because of the wide range of activities that occur across a number of subnational governments across the world—both in federal, democratic systems and in countries, such as China, that are outside of this category. The range of policy areas in paradiplomacy is diverse, including border security, cultural promotion, economic development (e.g., foreign direct investment, tourism, and global trade), educational linkages, energy use, environmental protection, human rights, and immigration. These policy areas are intermestic issues that cannot be placed within domestic or foreign policy arenas (Manning, 1977). Yet, they readily affect citizens and, although traditionally controlled by national governments, these issues are now within the interests (and perhaps the responsibility) of subnational governments.

The number of countries with paradiplomacy has also grown substantially over time. Although Australian states, Canadian provinces, and U.S. states have engaged in paradiplomacy for many decades, today’s subnational leaders and legislatures in Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, China, Germany, India, Italy, Nigeria, Mexico, South Africa, Spain, and the United Kingdom participate in paradiplomacy. Shared national borders have led to many transborder associations being formed as well. Some groups are general in nature, such as the Border Governors Conference of Mexican and U.S. states, while others have more specific purposes, such as the Four Motors for Europe and the Western Climate Initiative.

Over time, “me-tooism” has emerged as a stimulus for paradiplomacy as subnational governments follow “in the footsteps of others in developing international roles” (Soldatos, 1990, p. 46). Federal, democratic systems are the key places for these activities, and subnational governments that share borders with other countries are most likely to be engaged (Fry, 1990; McMillan, 2012; Schiavon, 2017b). The term “foreign relations” is a better description of most activities because subnational governments rarely have the final say on “foreign policy” matters due to constitutional rules that grant this authority to the national government.

No matter what name is given to these activities, subnational governments’ capacity to act in the globalized world has changed over time. This change has affected our understanding of foreign policy as well as other major questions within the international relations literature, such as those related to diplomacy, foreign policy analysis, nationalism and identity, and political economy. Foreign relations activities by subnational governments have challenged and reshaped the norms and expectations about themselves within both national and international politics and have resulted in shifts to institutional and personal leadership roles.

The study of subnational governments’ foreign relations presents two major challenges. First, scholars have not agreed upon what to call these activities. Paradiplomacy, constituent diplomacy, micro-diplomacy, proto-diplomacy, and subnational diplomacy all appear in the literature (e.g., Aldecoa & Keating, 1999; Hocking, 1993; Michelmann & Soldatos, 1990). Scholars have different conceptualizations, ask different questions, and study different variables. There has been greater synthesis of scholarship in recent years since efforts toward cumulation have been established within the International Studies Association (ISA). Scholars across the world in various subfields have, for example, had workshops and organized panels on specific topics at recent ISA meetings.

Second, relevant research has appeared across many subfields and areas of political science such as comparative politics, diplomatic studies, federalism, foreign policy analysis, international relations, national politics (i.e. Canadian politics), and political economy. Other relevant research has appeared in disciplines such as economics, environmental studies, history, law, and sociology. Kuznetsov (2015) explains that paradiplomacy is examined by scholars through 11 distinct areas of discourse, those named above as parts of political science as well as those, like border studies, geopolitics and globalization, that connect to other disciplinary fields. Therefore, political science scholarship in multiple subfields must be integrated with works in economic development, international business, constitutional law, and international law for a complete picture. Divergent disciplines mean that multiple methodologies are utilized by scholars and practitioners.

The historical overview of subnational governments and foreign relations in the next section explains some variations among specific countries and world regions. The third section examines the literature and explains how it has been shaped by the theories, methods, and variables chosen by scholars. This discussion facilitates an understanding of how the literature has progressed, why some topics have been explored in depth, and why other topics have been overlooked. The fourth section explores the big questions that will likely drive future scholarship. Finally, the article concludes with some observations about the relevance of this important phenomenon.

Historical Overview

This overview provides a longitudinal story of subnational governments and foreign relations and also distinguishes some differences across world regions. One key point is that much paradiplomacy relates to economic changes that, since 1945, have produced four main consequences: (a) more challenges to sovereignty; (b) economic regionalism with disaggregating and integrative effects; (c) subnational governments’ regulatory controls; and (d) more international agreements and associations linking subnational governments, national governments, and MNCs. This helps to explain why most paradiplomacy focused initially on economic interests and policies—particularly the attraction of foreign direct investment, export promotion, and trade policy. Tavares (2016) calls this “single-themed paradiplomacy.” Over time, economic objectives have led to subnational governments to post personnel outside of national borders as well as travels by subnational leaders to pursue economic deals and linkages. The roles of many subnational agencies and leaders’ activities have been institutionalized and changed expectations, allowing paradiplomacy to expand into other policy realms. In addition, new policy areas have been explored since global contact networks have developed. One clear example of this is with environmental issues because there is greater global information diffusion on environmental and energy issues as well as transportation available to allow leaders to travel. This trend is seen in the work of the Western Climate Initiative developed by California and Quebec and in other gatherings of leaders that have resulted from greater degrees of advocacy and influence of subnational leaders (Chaloux, 2017b; Lequesne & Paquin, 2017).

Subnational governments became involved in world politics in four different waves of activity. These have corresponded, in some ways, with the spread of democratization around the world. Although instances of subnational governments’ foreign relations forays date back to the 19th century, the first wave occurred during the 1950s and 1960s and involved Canadian provinces, U.S. states, and Australian states. The second wave occurred in the 1970s and 1980s and widened to include some of Europe’s subnational governments such as Belgian regions, German Länder, and Spanish autonomous communities. During this period, economic partnership between North America and Europe also expanded to Japan. The third wave during the 1990s brought many more Latin American and Asian subnational governments into paradiplomacy, such as enhanced activities by Mexican and Brazilian states. Since 2000, diversity has continued to increase, with subnational governments and their leaders from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East taking part, particularly in places such as China, India, Nigeria, and South Africa.

Subnational governments encounter difficulties in their respective abilities to internationalize. Problems include little knowledge and coordination between agencies, staff and leadership turnover, an absence of a long-term strategy, and a lack of dependable budgetary resources (Fry, 1998, 2017; McMillan, 2012; Schiavon, 2017b; Tavares, 2016). Most Canadian provinces, as discussed below, have greater institutional resources than U.S. states. Federalism dynamics also matter such that distrust by U.S. governors of Washington, D.C., and the lack of an integrated system of intergovernmental relations regarding many topics remain hurdles limiting U.S. states’ engagement with foreign relations. Although some progress has been made with greater communication by the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative to U.S. states and localities during the Obama administration, gaps and problems persist.

Countries with collaborative federalism (e.g., how German Länder relate to Berlin) demonstrate that federalism and intergovernmental dynamics affect subnational diplomacy (Hrbek, 2007). Constitutional allowances give some subnational governments more liberty to act, as in Belgium, and restrict activities and policy control in other places, whether in countries with a long history of paradiplomacy, such as Brazil (see Setzer, 2015; Tavares, 2016) or in countries with a shorter history of these activities, such as India. Thus, constitutional frameworks and the degree of intergovernmental cooperation condition the internationalization efforts of subnational governments. Of course, advances in telecommunications allow for a greater internationalization as well as global presence without huge expenditures. These developments were in tandem with subnational governments choosing to move toward contract personnel in the 1990s rather than full-time government officials because contracts allow for greater flexibility in terms of responsiveness to market changes and in time commitments by personnel.

Two general stories hold true: (a) paradiplomacy tends to be economic in focus for some time before branching out into other policy areas, and (b) institutionalization of practices and strategies is difficult. Although Canadian provinces have created provincial ministries of international relations and some subnational governments across the world have been sophisticated in institutionalizing policies and taking advantage of constitutional changes that decentralized authority, many subnational governments and their leaders lack a real strategic vision for foreign relations (Fry, 1998, 2017; Schiavon, 2017b). This results in slow movement toward clear objectives, and it makes internationally oriented efforts vulnerable to budget cuts. Perhaps in response, accountability in many subnational governments (e.g., budgetary sophistication and data collection) has increased with more attention from national organizations, transborder associations, and information-sharing capabilities that have disseminated best practices. To better understand the diversity of actions by subnational governments, the next section looks at paradiplomacy across the world.

Comparative Overview

The subsections below explain how subnational governments have engaged with paradiplomacy over time in different regions of the world.

North America

Canadian provinces have been active in foreign relations since Quebec posted an agent to Paris in 1882 (Quebec Ministère des Relations Internationales, 2006). Until 1996, Quebec had “opened more offices overseas and spent more money on international pursuits than the other nine Canadian provinces combined.” An even bigger revelation is that Quebec “spends more and has a larger international staff than all U.S. states combined” (Fry, 1998, p. 77). Fry illustrates that Quebec’s global engagement stands as the most institutionalized of any subnational government, especially because of its ministry that manages Quebec’s overseas offices, manages participation in La Francophonie and international organizations, negotiates and enforces international agreements, coordinates international issues, and leads its foreign relations initiatives (Quebec Ministère des Relations Internationales, 2017). Given its ideational distinctiveness and objective of greater levels of global action, Quebec’s activities are labeled as protodiplomacy (Duchacek et al., 1988) or sovereign paradiplomacy (Tavares, 2016). Although Ottawa officials represent Canada before international organizations, Quebec attempts to influence the national delegation to many organizations.

Canadian provinces have been very active in transborder relations and in signing bilateral agreements. The provinces are members of the association of New England Governors and Eastern Canadian Premiers, Council of Great Lakes Governors, and Western Governors Association. Canadian provincial premiers remain active on issues related to economic development, environmental affairs, and border issues (Chaloux, 2017a; Criekemans, 2010a; Paquin, 2010). All Canadian provinces have a level of institutionalization that is less affected by changes in leadership at the level of premiers, unlike subnational foreign relations in many other parts of the world that are more affected by subnational leaders and their agendas. Importantly, Canadian premiers sometimes team up with American governors to push back on protectionist economic policies, as they have during the Obama and Trump presidencies, because subnational officials on both sides of the American–Canadian border consider these policies to hurt their economic growth.

Within the United States, New York was the first U.S. state to open an office overseas in 1953. Virginia, Illinois, and Ohio had offices in Europe by 1970. International offices have increased over time, but there have been years of decline. Economic downturns caused leaders to reorganize, consolidate, or close offices, and budgets for programs face legislative scrutiny (Fry, 1998). By 2004, contract representatives staffed 80% of U.S. state offices—giving states leverage to “open and close offices rapidly in response to budget pressures or new market opportunities.” Other trends are part-time personnel, staff in regional hubs that oversee markets in several countries, and shared offices. Offices established through associations like the Council of Great Lakes Governors provide a shared space that can survive budget cuts but preserve market presence (State International Development Organizations, 2004, 2007).

In the 1950s, U.S. governors began traveling overseas. The National Governors’ Conference took 10 governors to the Soviet Union in 1959 and 28 governors to Latin America in 1960 (Graves, 1964). North Carolina governor Luther Hodges was the earliest solo pioneer in travels abroad—taking a trip to recruit foreign direct investment from Europe in 1959. Other governors followed in his footsteps by luring foreign direct investment and, later, by promoting exports. As Georgia’s governor from 1971 to 1975, Jimmy Carter says he spent 25% of his time on international issues. He visited 10 nations and established overseas offices (Woolley & Peters, 2007).

What began as economic development activities became governors’ international roles that related to gubernatorial duties as head of a U.S. state—both in meeting officials abroad and hosting them at home. Over time, these activities affected governors’ work as coordinators of intergovernmental relations, as they had with Canada’s provincial premiers. Economic oriented activities expanded to trips about cultural and educational linkages, connecting to political constituencies (e.g., ethnic or religious lobbies), or in addressing policy issues from immigration and border security to environmental affairs. Governors of U.S. states bordering Canada and Mexico worked with their counterparts to set up associations beginning in the 1970s. These address specific issues (e.g., trade or climate change) or multiple areas. Some governors have become vocal advocates for particular positions on trade policy, the use of the National Guard and U.S. military, or issues related to human rights, divestment, or even Middle East peace. Bill Richardson, a former UN Ambassador and New Mexico governor, is a unique example of a state leader becoming involved in high-level diplomatic negotiations, but many governors have interacted at the international level beyond economic development (McMillan, 2012, pp. 31–50). Political leadership can be a driving factor in governors’ connections to paradiplomacy, and political will is a necessary condition for paradiplomacy—not just political capacity (Conlan & Sager, 2001; McMillan, 2012).

Today, governor-led overseas travels are an accepted practice in most U.S. states, although they have decreased in number from the high point in the late 1980s (McMillan, 2012, p. 39). More subnational officials, such as secretaries of commerce or agriculture, regularly travel abroad, and global contact networks have become institutionalized. Depending on business and political culture, governors may still be needed to open doors. Governors with political ambitions may want to be seen engaging in international affairs, and activities may connect with political topics (McMillan, 2012, pp. 36–58, 156–162).

Therefore, the primary differences between Canadian provinces and U.S. states is that the latter do not have agencies with the degree of sophistication as those in Canada, and U.S. states tend to participate in “single-themed paradiplomacy,” focusing on economic issues or even expanding to transborder issues with their Mexican or Canadian counterparts. Canadian provinces, on the other hand, are engaged in “global paradiplomacy,” having multiple interests and agendas worldwide. This type of activity only applies in a significant way to some U.S. states (Tavares, 2016, pp. 33–37).


The roots of Australian states’ international offices are their representation in London during the 1800s as a part of the British Empire, but New South Wales opened its first international office in New York in 1958. The economic bonds between Australia and Japan also led New South Wales and Western Australia to place representatives in New York by 1968. By the 1980s, Australia’s states had representation in the United States, Europe, and Japan, and Queensland had a Bahrain office until 1987 (Ravenhill, 1990). Australia’s governors now regularly travel abroad seeking to promote their states’ interests and lean on the global contact network established through overseas representatives, but they remain focused on single-themed paradiplomacy that concentrates on trade and investment issues and avoids overtly political issues (Tavares, 2016).


European subnational governments have participated in multilevel governance by engaging on issues with their national governments and European Union (EU) institutions for decades (Hooghe & Marks, 2001). Belgian federalism means that the governing authority with legislative power in an issue area has administrative control and that federal and regional laws have equal status. This context, combined with the tension between the constitutional rules governing foreign relations and “practical organization of foreign policymaking,” make Belgium a special case (Massart-Piérard & Bursens, 2007, pp. 18–19). Belgium and its regions seek to advocate their interests to EU institutions. Regions formed international offices in the 1970s and have diplomatic representation in Europe, the United States, Japan, and Africa. By 2003, Flanders had 100 economic representatives worldwide (Ministry of Flanders, Administration of Foreign Affairs, 2003). Flanders has been able to conclude treaties with nation-states and other regions since 1993, and Wallonia works to “coordinate international cultural policy initiatives” (Criekemans, 2010a, pp. 41–43). Given their constitutional powers, Flanders and Wallonia are the only subnational regions to have diplomatic clout distinct from other regions. They are “presented to the outside world as diplomats who are functionally specialized” (Criekemans, 2010a, p. 47).

German Länder were given the right to present their views to the national government in 1979 in hopes of shaping Germany’s EU positions (Nass, 1989). Article 23 of the Basic Law provides the Länder with the “formal rights of participation in dealing with EU matters at the domestic and EU levels” (Hrbek, 2007, p. 26). Baden-Württemberg, North Rhine-Westphalia, and Rhineland-Palatinate are among those Länder that established international offices beginning in the 1980s to promote economic development. These offices began to recruit foreign direct investment in the United States and Japan after ministers-president started traveling abroad (Michelmann, 1990; Nass, 1989). Germany is shaped by cooperative federalism, and Germany’s ministers-president work on economic matters as well as other issues ranging from immigration and border security to environmental protection.

Spain’s autonomous communities highlight their cultural attachments, particularly within the citizens of Catalonia and the Basque country, when compared to other subnational governments. These nationalistic movements regard themselves as having their own political and cultural distinctiveness (Aldecoa & Cornago, 2009). This is synonymous with Quebec. Therefore, Catalonia’s strategy is the “double export” of its identity and economy (Criekemans, 2010a, p. 43). Subnational governments in Spain differ from other subnational units because of the ideational framing that they give their international identity and the ways in which they perceive their citizens’ interests. The Catalan government has taken “a strategic protodiplomatic turn” since 2012 as it seeks its own sovereignty (García Segura, 2017, p. 358). The Catalan parliament approved a Declaration of Sovereignty, scheduled a vote for independence, and—although unsuccessful in getting a majority of voters to support independence—continues to push ahead. The Spanish government continues to limit these political moves through the judiciary, and Spain’s Constitutional Court has “always ruled against Catalan pro-independence moves” (García Segura, 2017, p. 361). Importantly, Catalan officials have sought to internationalize their independence movement through global media, resulting in the Spanish Foreign Ministry having to contact all Spanish embassies and consulates on messaging to “neutralize” this independence process. This internationalization of Catalan independence involves the diplomatic realm, and it may serve as a case study for other subnational governments, such as Scotland, with similar aspirations toward sovereignty.

Latin America

Brazil has participated in paradiplomacy since the early 20th century, mirroring efforts that occurred in Australia and Canada. The state of São Paulo signed an agreement with Japan in 1907 about the immigration of Japanese immigrants to Brazil, forecasting the location of “largest Japanese diaspora in the world” as well as an institutionalized office to work on São Paulo’s international interests (Tavares, 2016, p. 11). Sister-state agreements were signed in the 1970s, and Brazilian governors traveled abroad in search of foreign direct investment by the 1980s, an activity that continues. Brazilian states have been slow to form offices abroad, but some governors have been involved in setting up foreign-relations institutions—more in recent years. As with other subnational governments such as U.S. states, governors’ agendas have affected internationalization and particularly institutionalization (Michaud, 2002; Tavares, 2016).

Over time, Brazil’s national government has acknowledged paradiplomacy through the formation of a bureau on Federative and Parliamentary Issues in its Ministry of External Relations and has even included paradiplomacy questions on its Foreign Service Officer exam since 1995 (Tavares, 2016, pp. 52–53). As Latin America’s largest economy, Brazilian states’ international activities are likely to increase and may help to shape Brazil’s identity as it seeks to become a bigger player in world politics.

Mexico’s subnational governments were brought into world politics by domestic processes of decentralization and democratization as well as increased globalization (Schiavon, 2017a, 2017b). Economic power is an important variable because the most economically viable Mexican states have been active in foreign relations, even if they have “very limited participation in the design and implementation of federal trade policy” (Schiavon, 2004, p. 111). Mexico’s paradiplomacy has risen over time and continues to be affected by interdependencies and globalization (Schiavon, 2010, 2017a, 2017b). Importantly, one of the distinctive international activities of Mexican states is to serve migrant communities abroad, particularly those in the United States (Schiavon, 2006).

Mexican states have varied levels of international activity, but they are not nearly as active with overseas offices and leaders’ travels as Canadian provinces or U.S. states. For example, only nine Mexican states have representation abroad, and most of these offices are within the United States. Not surprisingly, those subnational governments with greater degrees of institutional resources (both in terms of numbers of staff and their training and capacity as well as budgetary allocations) are more active and better prepared to participate in international negotiations and advocate for their own interests. Lack of clarity within a legal framework is also a deterrent to more internationalization and paradiplomacy (Schiavon, 2017a, p. 313). Paradiplomacy is also taking place at the local level, with Mexican localities signing 500 agreements that would fall into the category of “ceremonial paradiplomacy,” which is more about image than substance because these are mostly sister-city agreements (Tavares, 2016, p. 49). Given the increased levels of Mexican paradiplomacy since 2000, it is likely that these activities will increase in the future.


China is not a federal system, but its subnational leaders and regions have engaged in paradiplomacy since the 1980s, when, according to one U.S. state official, Chinese delegations “flooded states” in an overwhelming fashion (McMillan, 2012, p. 100). Chinese provinces have agreements with other subnational governments, and their officials regularly travel abroad to promote economic or cultural ties, seemingly caused by increasing market liberalization (Kincaid, 2001). Chinese governors, like their U.S. counterparts, have slowed their travels to some places, such as North America, in recent years as networks have become institutionalized. Back home, Chinese provinces have expanded their trade offices abroad and have foreign relations departments of considerable size and growing capacity (Tavares, 2016).

India’s states are large economic units with increased ties to the global economy, a key reason that India’s governors are hosting more political and economic elites as well as traveling abroad. Mattoo & Happymon (2009) point out that many international financial institutions “are negotiating directly with the state governments” of India, and they note that the states of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra have offices to deal with World Trade Organization issues (pp. 177–178). These authors describe how Indian state leaders have “transcended their traditional role” to lure foreign direct investment (p. 178). Indian states’ actions are not limited to the economic arena because those states bordering Bangladesh are working on illegal immigration and border security issues, just like U.S. states. In fact, India’s former deputy prime minister encouraged states to identify and deport foreigners (Dossani & Vijaykumar, 2006). Mattoo & Happymon (2009) claim that some Indian states’ special constitutional status, their leaders’ political leadership and ambition, as well as the institutional framework of coalition governments at the federal level, have enabled India’s transformation into paradiplomacy. Although India states are “emerging as significant players in the conduct of India’s foreign, economic, and strategic policy,” Indian paradiplomacy remains “sporadic, ad-hoc, exclusive, and mostly reactionary,” particularly given the lack of clarity within a legal framework—even if economically oriented activities are less likely to face resistance from New Delhi than other policy areas (Asthana & Jacob, 2017, p. 336).


Africa’s subnational leaders are relatively new to the arena of paradiplomacy but seem to showcase greater activities each year, representing (along with Asia), the new frontier of paradiplomacy. Nigeria’s governors have been particularly active in recent years with international travels, and Kenya’s governors are joining in this activity as well. Africa’s new democracies mean that decentralized authority sometimes challenges national political and cultural norms. As with other federal countries in Europe and North America, it is often hard for national-level officials to allow provinces and regions to build capacity. This difficulty is combined with the fact that a democratic culture, with a vibrant civil society and an active and mobilized citizenry, has yet to take hold in many places in Africa. Thus, paradiplomacy in Africa has many limitations.

In South Africa, Nganje (2014) argues that decentralization has not created increased accountability, transparency, and representation of citizens. South Africa’s provinces have been more engaged in a “utilitarian exercise that is largely devoid of any symbolic or political undertones,” but they have limited capacity to act—as do subnational governments in other countries that are new to paradiplomacy. Socioeconomic benefits related to education, healthcare, and economic development have been reported in such provinces as Gauteng, North West, and Western Cape. Like other subnational governments, South African subnational leaders have sometimes abused foreign travel and new initiatives often lack accountability. As in other places, subnational executives—South Africa’s provincial premiers—are a key variable determining the level of paradiplomacy (Nganje, 2014). Greater interaction with the global economy, such as new trade connections and foreign investment from Asia, Europe, and North America, is likely to assist in building new capacities among South Africa’s subnational governments as well as those in Nigeria and other African countries in the future.

Assessing the Literature: Theories, Methods, & Variables

Theoretical and methodological choices affect research, so it is important to recognize how these choices have shaped the literature. For many scholars, globalization and regionalization are the primary reasons for subnational governments conducting foreign relations and that the predominant motives are economic interests (Fry, 1998; McMillan, 2008, 2012; Schiavon, 2017b). The following subsections address theoretical bias in the literature, scholars’ use of mixed methods, and how future studies of paradiplomacy should think about variables to move the literature forward.


As the history of paradiplomacy illustrates, the prevalence of economic linkages biases the explanatory variables toward economic globalization and aligns within liberal theory and its variants. Overwhelmingly, international relation scholars have applied complex interdependence theory and studies of transnational relations to shape research questions and measurement techniques. Key variables in many studies are economic data (global trade and foreign direct investment), the movement of peoples (in tourism and cultural exchanges), and diplomatic interaction among subnational officials. The dominance of Liberalism is found within case studies (e.g., Fry, 1998; Kline, 1984, 1999) or through the systematic treatment of quantitative data (e.g., McMillan, 2012; Schiavon, 2004, 2017b).

The Realist focus on hard power and the unitary state assumption has limited its applicability, particularly given the constitutional rules giving national governments control of military power. Howard (2004) explores national security issues, but primarily within a Constructivist lens. Yet, with greater attention to security issues in many national and subnational governments (particularly in Europe and North America) and subnational leaders’ worries about border security and immigration, there may be more room for Realist approaches in the study of paradiplomacy in the future.

A few scholars, such as Lecours (2002), have employed an ideational framework within Constructivism to study paradiplomacy—drawing on evidence that biological and cultural linkages can affect identity issues at the subnational level and can shape interactions. Leaders such as U.S. governors have paid attention to religious and ethnic minorities as a way of building political favor with a population, such as Jewish voters, when pursuing international activities. There is more room for scholars to study how subnational leaders perceive their own international roles, what outside forces they view as affecting their subnational government, and for what reasons. In addition, critical theory has not been readily deployed in the international relations literature, but it can be found in more sociological studies, such as work in urban sociology and global cities (e.g. Amen, Archer, & Bosman, 2006) or in defining “glocalization” (Roudometof, 2016).


The case study method has been widely used within the literature and has been helpful for understanding changing constitutional dynamics, the evolution of national and subnational leaders’ roles, and processes of institutionalization. Yet this approach has resulted in more descriptive analyses at the expense of drawing meaningful conclusions that would be more generalizable and prescriptive. Scholars have used qualitative and quantitative methodologies, but, given the problem of divergent disciplines with relevant research, they have not always measured the same activities in consistent ways. Quantitative studies, therefore, have not been as useful as they might have been in pushing the scientific study of paradiplomacy.

Comparative case studies have been prevalent on subnational diplomacy—whether within international relations, comparative politics, or federalism (e.g., Criekeman, 2010b; Michelmann & Soldatos, 1990). Legal analysis has also been important in showcasing the parameters of paradiplomacy within different political and legal environments (Friedman, 1994; Grimmett, 2007; Guay, 2000; Hayes, 2005; Henkin, 1996). Qualitative studies remain valuable in deciphering diplomatic protocols and negotiating tactics (e.g., Chaloux, Paquin, & Séguin, 2015), and elite interviews have been significant parts of some studies, particularly those that can be used by practitioners and policymakers (e.g., Fry, 1998; McMillan, 2012; Sager, 2002; Schiavon, 2017a, 2017b). Paired with quantitative data and analysis, qualitative analysis can become more predictive (e.g., McMillan, 2008, 2009, 2012; Schiavon, 2017b). Archives can also be useful, particularly for examination of research questions related to evolving leaders’ roles and identity (e.g., McMillan, 2015). Cultural distinctions of subnational governments, as well as questions about gender and identity, need further study, so ideational approaches should be examined, as those by Cantir (2017).

An appreciation for mixed methods involving such techniques as legal analysis, archival discovery, elite interviews, and quantitative analysis is in the best interest of promoting scholarly discovery. Importantly, scholars must agree upon definitions and measurement techniques to adeptly build toward the accumulation of knowledge. Only after methodological issues are systematically addressed can data be gathered and theory building begin. Notably, general theories of international relations are likely not as useful as microtheories. Beasley, Kaarbo, & Solomon-Strauss (2016) illustrate how role theory should be applied to subnational leaders; they further propose that various levels of analysis (substate, state, and suprastate) be used and that more scholars need to challenge the state-centrism of the literature (see Cantir & Kaarbo, 2016, p. 184).

With methodological agreement, variables can be better measured and understood. Thus, the autonomy of subnational governments and the power of their leaders need better conceptualization. Typologies of decentralization and democratization would help scholars because greater pushes toward centralized authority and authoritarianism have slowed paradiplomacy in Russia in recent years (Schiavon, 2017b). As international relations scholars have found ways to measure the political capacity and the political will of national governments, they must also focus on ways in which these variables can apply to subnational governments.

Variables of Autonomy and Opportunity

The degree of subnational foreign policy and foreign relations activities depends on variables of autonomy and variables of opportunity. Autonomy variables include constitutional framework, division of power, and rules, as determined by legislative action and court decisions. Treaty-making powers and implementation abilities connect with constitutional rules and norms. Belgium, for example, gives Flanders and Wallonia much greater autonomy than is permitted for Argentine provinces. In some federal systems, differences of autonomy are determined by constitutional rules, such that Quebec has greater ability to act with international capacity than Ontario and British Columbia. Thus, autonomy variables are not always uniform across a country, and Canada and Spain offer examples of this (Criekemans, 2010a).

Criekemans (2010a) concludes that distinctions between paradiplomacy and diplomacy are increasingly blurred, especially in those subnational governments that possess legislative powers and/or have constitutional arrangements that allow them to be more assertive. He notes, “although the foreign networks of regions are still modest in comparison to their respective central governments,” subnational governments “expand and deepen further the existing cooperation with third parties beyond the level of ‘classical’ diplomatic relations” (p. 63).

Opportunity variables include geography (shared borders by a subnational government with another country), economic interdependence (moves toward regionalization and globalization), kinship (ties to ethnicity and/or religion), as well as partisanship and the ambition of subnational leaders. McMillan (2012) and Schiavon (2017b) find that shared borders play a large role in determining the level of international engagement that subnational governments have. Michelmann (2009) contends that economic wealth is a significant factor such that the greatest degree of activity occurs in Belgium, Germany, and Canada as opposed to India, Nigeria, and South Africa. Scholars have found that ethnic and cultural differences that provide a sense of identity also give opportunity toward identity paradiplomacy or protodiplomacy, a term Duchacek et al. (1988) describe as “diplomatic preparatory work for a future secession and for the international diplomatic recognition of such an occurrence” (p. 22). Separatist movements or politicized paradiplomacy is a part of the history of Quebec in Canada, Catalonia, and the Basque Country in Spain, Scotland in the United Kingdom, Tatarstan in Russia, and Transnistria in Moldova (Cantir, 2017; Cornago, 2010; Fry, 1998; Paquin, 2010; Tavares, 2016).

Political culture is a variable related to both autonomy and opportunity. It represents the realm of possibilities because of the norms placed upon subnational governments and their leaders. Political culture has been studied by federalism scholars for decades, which is another reminder of the importance of their input into studies of paradiplomacy. As Kincaid (1990), Fry (1998), Sager (2002), and others have noted, federalism also shapes intergovernmental relations—a key variable in explaining internationally oriented activities of subnational governments. Behavioral in nature, intergovernmental relations are also affected by paradiplomacy (Fry, 1998; McMillan, 2012; Paquin, 2010). Thus, dynamics of federalism and intergovernmental relations are evolving and remain important to study.

Variables of autonomy and opportunity need to be better ascertained and measured. Michelmann (2007) notes that foreign relations activities of subnational governments varies significantly, in part because globalization did not have “a uniform impact on all federations” nor the same reaction by the leaders and electorates in these countries (p. 4). Again, this variation is a reminder that political culture sets up legal norms and expectations. Quebec’s work since the 1960s has been willing to challenge Ottawa on all sorts of issues, particularly in the realm of international negotiation (Cantir, 2017; Criekemans, 2010a; Paquin, 2010).

Future Directions for Research

The study of subnational governments and foreign relations remains relevant not only because of the number of subnational governments engaged in world politics but also because scholars need to assess the costs and benefits of how globalization creates both integration and fragmentation. Questions for future research fall into six categories: (a) roles of subnational leaders and political impacts of paradiplomacy; (b) democratization; (c) diffusion and new policy areas; (d) nationalism and identity; (e) domestic and international law; and (f) political economy.

The first category lies within the arena of foreign policy analysis because it is primarily concerned with pushing against the state-centric nature of foreign policy, carefully examining the roles of subnational government leaders, and in better measuring the political and diplomatic impacts of paradiplomacy. Scholars should better ascertain the degree to which national foreign policy is externally oriented whereas subnational foreign policy is internally oriented with a domestic base (Tavares, 2016), recognizing that this is not a binary distinction. Differences in partisanship at the national and subnational level are correlated with higher degrees of paradiplomacy (McMillan, 2012; Michelmann, 2007) and should continue to be examined as a political variable. Scholars should also better understand triangulating relationships between subnational governments, national governments, and international organizations (Cantir, 2017; Setzer, 2015). Political impacts are difficult to measure because, as Tavares (2016) explains, “Not all political entities that hold a diplomatic apparatus are, or wish to become, independent countries, but all independent countries hold a diplomatic apparatus” (p. 37).

More attention to measuring political leadership of subnational leaders is needed because ambition is a variable that drives subnational foreign policy initiatives. U.S. governors have power rating schemes, such as those from Beyle (2000) that can be applied to studies of political leadership (see McMillan, 2012). Burke (2005) takes the first step in applying Beyle’s governors’ institutional powers (GIP scores) and governors’ personal powers (GPP scores) to the Westminster model so that analysis can be conducted on Canadian provincial premiers. With greater attention to measurement of autonomy and opportunity variables, hopefully scholars within foreign policy analysis, international relations, comparative politics, and federalism and intergovernmental relations can build cumulation on these questions.

The second category of questions revolve around democratization and, to a lesser extent, the market economy. Democracies in Europe and North America were the pioneers of paradiplomacy and have continued to wrestle with its effects—debating constitutional rules, dynamics of federalism and intergovernmental relations, and questions of power being decentralized. Therefore, as democratization has spread, paradiplomacy has increased. For Kincaid (1990), subnational governments with foreign relations activities are best labeled as constituent diplomacy. He labels states, provinces, cantons, Länder, municipalities, and port authorities as “constituent governments” and notes that these actors “may represent local or regional, and sometimes national public sentiment more accurately than the elected leaders of opposition parties and the unelected leaders of interest groups to whom democratic pluralism accords a policy role” (Kincaid, 1990, p. 66). Kincaid believes it is unfair for policymakers or the law to restrict the participation of constituent governments while welcoming the participation of interest groups and MNCs in foreign policy advocacy.

Not all subnational governments have enough experience with democratization to be able to fit into Kincaid’s vision of constituent units, so some scholars (e.g., Schiavon, 2004) are less enthusiastic about this labeling when compared with substate or subnational diplomacy. New democracies in Africa and Asia, particularly Nigeria, South Africa, and India, as well as China, are places where paradiplomacy is increasing. Countries that have lessened democratic commitments and fallen into authoritarian settings, such as Russia, have also experienced paradiplomacy and cannot be ignored. Schiavon (2017b) explains how paradiplomacy has been affected within Latin American regimes with authoritarian histories or in those countries that are experiencing political instability, such as Brazil. In a globalized world with information available, the legitimacy of subnational leaders affects their receptions by business and political elites. And changing perceptions of subnational leaders are evolving.

The third category of future research concerns diffusion. Scholars (e.g., Fry, 1998; Kincaid, 1984; McMillan, 2012; Soldatos, 1990) have shown how activities and tactics spread from one subnational government to another, both within one country and across national borders. Examples include U.S. governors travelling in search of foreign direct investment to Europe in the 1960s and 1970s, to Japan in the 1970s and 1980s, and then to emerging markets, such as China and India. Diffusion also occurs on policy issue areas such that politically ambitions leaders can and will challenge their national leaders on foreign policy issues—whether about trade agreements and the World Trade Organization (Hayes, 2005; Kline, 1999), use of the armed forces (McMillan, 2012), or environmental policy (Chaloux, 2017b). More subnational governments and their associations have formed around environmental policy in recent years, and this is likely to be enhanced with the Paris Agreement, particularly because some subnational governments are more committed to environmental protection than their national governments. It is possible that the next arena of collaboration in public health. Even with these studies, more sophistication is needed to better measure and understanding diffusion of paradiplomacy.

The fourth category of questions for scholars to study is identity and nationalism. Identity relates to how separatist movements inspire paradiplomacy. Subnational governments sometimes seek to connect to diasporas, highlight connections with their ethnic and religious communities, and use kinship to connect to different interests (Cantir, 2017; Lecours, 2002). Questions remain about how subnational identity compares to national identity and how this serves as a variable that conditions paradiplomacy. Cross-national identity issues are also prevalent and should be better studied by scholars.

The fifth category concerns questions related to domestic and international law. Some scholars, such as Criekemans (2010a) and Setzer (2015), have examined domestic legal boundaries, but scholars need to examine subnational governments’ actorness in international law as well. Treaty-making powers for subnational governments are rare and are reserved for subnational governments in Belgium, Germany, and Switzerland (Michelmann, 2007). Countries have different legal rules related to how treaties are applied (as self-executing or not) and how decisions of the International Court of Justice apply to subnational governments. For example, the Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that neither treaties nor World Court decisions can bind U.S. states to legal obligations (McMillan, 2012, pp. 215–216). Subnational governments in Canada and the United States have challenged free-trade agreements and WTO rules, but only national governments have personality within international law under the 1933 Montevideo Convention and the Charter of the United Nations. Yet, subnational governments (including those at the municipal level) have voluntarily bound themselves to environmental protocols even when the national governments do not. As Lequesne & Paquin (2017) explain, “Westphalian state diplomacy is finding it increasingly difficult to cope with the proliferation of ad hoc and informal arrangements that bind noncentral governments” (p. 183). Thus, the place of subnational governments in domestic and international law needs more research.

Finally, greater study is needed regarding subnational governments and political economy. This relates to WTO rules and agreements because subnational leaders and legislatures sometimes reject trade agreements due to concerns about human rights, environmental protection, or market access (Hayes, 2005; Public Citizen, 2007). Flows of trade and foreign direct investment are also highly related to subnational governments because of economic paradiplomacy for so many years. With competition in opening new markets for exports and attracting foreign direct investment (Wilkinson, 2006), the roles of subnational governments in international political economy should be further acknowledged and studied.


Subnational governments across the world now seek to affect foreign relations and foreign policy. Their capacity to do so over the years has increased greatly. Their autonomy as well as their opportunity to do so varies significantly across types of political regimes and world regions, but scholars are paying more attention to the political, economic, and cultural shifts of world politics due to activities by subnational governments and their leaders.

Scholars from many disciplines have studied this subject and must continue to do so. Greater agreement on concepts, measurement of variables, and synthesis is needed, and more theory building must occur. Advances have taken place in recent works, such as Kuznetsov (2015), that help bridge different parts of political science and international relations and connect across other disciplines, as well as those that speak to academics and practitioners, such as Tavares (2016). Multiple methodological routes remain available. Many questions require further examination and exploration. The globalized world readily involves subnational governments as actors in global politics, economics, and culture, raising questions and pushing debates about democratization, nationalism and identity, political economy, and domestic law as well as international law.


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