In My Opinion

Andres Oppenheimer: U.S. may join era of local diplomacy

The U.S. government’s recent signing of a first-of-its-kind bilateral deal with the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo makes me wonder whether Washington will start a new strategy in Latin America — by-passing not-so-friendly national governments, and signing agreements with more amicable local authorities.

It could be a game-changing policy, because many of the Latin American countries that are most hostile to the United States have their capitals or second-largest cities run by opposition leaders who would welcome more U.S. investments, trade and educational exchanges. The cities of Caracas, Buenos Aires, Guayaquil and Santa Cruz are just some of them.

The possibility that Washington may start circumventing not-so-friendly national governments in favor of more amicable local governments drew my attention after reading an article on Foreign Affairs magazine’s Web site by Sao Paulo state government foreign affairs chief Rodrigo Tavares, entitled “Foreign Policy Goes Local.”

According to Tavares, we’re entering a new world of “sub-national foreign relations,” in which governments will increasingly forge bilateral relations with city and state governments.

Earlier this month, Sao Paulo state — Latin America’s wealthiest state, and ruled by opposition leader Geraldo Alckmin — signed an agreement establishing “formal bilateral relations” with the United Kingdom.

In March, Sao Paulo state signed a similar deal forging “direct relations” with the United States, and the Brazilian state is planning to sign agreements of this kind with Canada, France, Germany and several Asian countries shortly, the Oct. 9 Foreign Affairs article says.

“With the strengthening of local power, the world’s major cities, states and provinces have adopted international policies previously reserved for national governments,” Tavares says.

“With globalization, these sub-national governments can no longer fulfill their constitutional responsibilities in education, sanitation, economic development, transportation, the environment, and other areas without interacting with the world. These local authorities rely on the international flow of capital, knowledge and people to successfully implement their governmental programs,” he adds.

In addition, national governments find it increasingly expensive and complicated to deal with local issues. It makes no sense for U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry to spend his time discussing international bids for a Latin American capital’s subway lines. He has neither the time nor the resources for that, Tavares argues.

What about the legal provisions included in most countries’ constitutions under which the federal government is in charge of signing agreements with other countries? That’s changing, too, Tavares says.

Last year, then Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota announced that the ministry recognizes “the new reality of federative diplomacy,” and the Sao Paulo state government passed a decree mapping a 54-goal state foreign relations plan.

“Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has supported Sao Paulo in these efforts, knowing that what is good for Sao Paulo is good for Brazil,” Tavares writes. Through sub-national diplomacy, Brazil has found a more creative and perhaps more effective way to become a global power, “and other countries should follow suit,” he wrote.

U.S. officials would not comment on the record, but sources familiar with the U.S.-Sao Paulo agreement told me that the U.S. State Department has set up the Office of the Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs in 2010 to help forge connections between U.S. and foreign local governments.

Washington has signed agreements with China in 2011 and with Brazil in 2012 to encourage deals between local governments, and it was under this umbrella that the U.S. Government signed a non-binding cooperation agreement with the state of Sao Paulo in March, the sources said.

My opinion: It’s not going to be easy for the U.S. State Department to engage in “sub-national diplomacy” in countries such as Venezuela, Bolivia or Ecuador, whose leaders embrace anti-Americanism as a state religion, and would never follow Brazil’s steps of considering that what is good for a local government, is good for the country.

But, whether governments like it or not, “sub-national diplomacy” is a reality, and may indeed gain ground in coming years. U.S. critics will have a hard time accusing Washington of foreign intervention for signing cooperation agreements with local governments, not only because it will be hard to criticize deals that benefit their population, but also because countries across the political spectrum are doing it all the time.

In July, Cuba’s national government signed a health policy cooperation agreement with the left-of-center government of Mexico City, and in 2011 signed a similar deal with Mexico City to help eradicate illiteracy. “Sub-national diplomacy” may be here to stay, and everybody is likely to take advantage of it.

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