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date: 26 March 2017

The Foreign Policy of Sub-State Territories

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. Please check back later for the full article.

Sub-national 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 sub-state territories to act in global affairs and has been aided by advances in transportation and telecommunications. Scholars are paying attention to how control of foreign policy has permeated the boundaries of national governments, particularly with increasing globalization.

Beginning in the 1950s, sub-national governments such as Australian states, Canadian provinces, and U.S. states sought to influence foreign policy. Sub-national leaders began traveling outside their national borders to recruit foreign investment and promote trade, opening offices to represent their interests around the world. By the 1980s, sub-national governments in Belgium, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Spain, and others were taking part in constituent diplomacy. Today there are new levels of activity within federal systems such as Brazil, India, and Nigeria, but also in unitary systems, such as China. Sub-national leaders now receive ambassadors and heads of government and can be treated as heads of state when they travel abroad to promote economic and cultural linkages.

Not only has constituent diplomacy spread to sub-national governments across the world, but the breadth of issues addressed by sub-national legislatures and leaders is far beyond foreign economic policy, connecting to domestic issues and global challenges related to energy, the environment, immigration, public health, and security. Shared national borders led to conferences and associations being formed decades ago, and these institutions have increased in number and specialization. New levels of awareness about global interdependencies means that sub-national leaders today are more likely to see opportunities and threats from globalization and then seek to represent their citizens’ interests.

Foreign policy in the 21st century is affected not only by transnational actors outside of government, such as multinational corporations, but also by transgovernmental actors within national and sub-national governments. The extent to which sub-state governments participate in foreign policy depends on variables such as constitutional frameworks and division of power, geography, economic interdependence, political culture, political ambitions of sub-national leaders, and partisanship. These activities have influenced the expectations and roles of sub-national leaders and created varying degrees of institutionalization. Degrees of autonomy allowed for Flanders, or even Bavaria, are not found in the United States, and national courts have sometimes limited constituent diplomacy. Whereas most sub-states do not have formal roles in international organizations, or a ministry devoted to international relations, these can be found in some Canadian provinces, such as Québec. Thus, dynamics of federalism and intergovernmental relations are evolving and remain important to study.

Scholars should more fully examine sub-national governments and their foreign policy leaders to better understand how leaders’ roles evolve, how the identity of sub-state territories can be examined, and how autonomy and power can be better conceptualized, particularly since there is less deference to national-level policymakers in foreign policy.