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As Trump abandons globalism, governors take to world stage

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As Donald Trump abdicates U.S. leadership and dismantles the democratic international order, prospects for global cooperation look bleak. Fortunately, America is more than Washington and the United States is more than the federal government. Around the nation, governors are going global. In states both red and blue, they are engaging governments abroad, partnering with foreign provinces, and promoting cross-border trade and action on climate change.

The White House may be in retreat, but statehouses are not about to turn their back on globalization. At the forefront of this activism is the National Governors Association (NGA), which begins its annual summer meeting today in New Mexico. The organization is a venerable body, founded in 1908 by Teddy Roosevelt, then governor of New York. Until recently, it focused overwhelmingly on domestic matters. That has changed because the international has become the domestic.

{mosads}Today, governors recognize that they cannot advance the interests of their constituents without a global perspective and global linkages. Beyond organizing trade and investment missions abroad and arranging visits from foreign delegations, they are lobbying the U.S. government and foreign governments to pursue policies to advance shared security, prosperity, and the well-being of the planet.

Beyond these “push” factors has been the “pull” from abroad in the wake of Trump’s election. Confronting a nationalist, nativist, populist, protectionist, and unilateral administration, foreign governments as well as foreign provinces and private corporations, have looked outside Washington for partners to do business with until America’s Trump fever breaks. At times, they have cultivated U.S. states as counterweights to the White House. A case in point is the tacit alliance that Canada and Mexico have crafted with border and exporting states to preserve NAFTA.

Much of this state activism is bipartisan. Few governors support Trump’s trade war with Europe and China, for example, fearing a retaliatory spiral that hurts consumers, producers, and workers. On other issues, partisan fissures emerge. When Trump renounced the Paris Accord, Democratic governors Jerry Brown of California, Jay Inslee of Washington, and Andrew Cuomo of New York announced the formation of a climate alliance, pledging to stay “in” the pact. Several days later, Brown traveled to China to explore “bilateral” cooperation to mitigate global warming, receiving a welcome from President Xi Jinping that was fit for a head of state.

In response to the surging interest of governors in international affairs, along with growing demands from foreign partners, NGA executive director Scott Pattison created a new office whose mission is to provide “opportunities for governors to convene and collaborate with their counterparts across the globe, including heads of state, global thought leaders and foreign executives.” As the NGA explains, “The time for governors to take a leadership role in international engagement is now.” The agenda for the New Mexico meeting reflects this new priority, devoting a third of its sessions to international themes, including how governors can conduct diplomacy with the world from their own desks and advice on strengthening economic ties to China.

Given all this ferment, should we expect each state to have its own foreign policy? On one level, one should not get carried away. The Constitution, after all, gives the federal government pride of place in foreign, security, trade, and immigration policy, notwithstanding those powers that the Tenth Amendment reserves to the states. While states can approve statutes with international implications, the supremacy clause means that federal law typically trumps state law when the two conflict.

Nevertheless, global activism by states, as well as cities, is vast and growing. In the past decade alone, note David Engstrom and Jeremy Weinstein of Stanford University, states across the nation have signed more than 200 compacts with foreign governments, ignoring requirements for Senate approval. Some of the most significant are regional cap and trade agreements linking American states to foreign governments and provinces. But state and municipal activism has also grown in areas of human rights, digital privacy, and immigration policy.

In a transnational world of webs and networks, we should not be surprised that U.S. international engagement increasingly comes from below the federal level. States have long been considered “laboratories of democracy,” in the famous phrase of Associate Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Today, they are emerging as engines of internationalism. Diplomatic purists may bemoan this trend, running athwart as it does the ideal of a unitary state capable of speaking with “one voice” abroad. What becomes of the coherence and consistency of U.S. foreign policy when there are competing American strands of global engagement?

A more optimistic perspective welcomes this cacophony as a sign of vitality within the American plural political system. The Constitution has been described as an “invitation to struggle.” This applies not only to the separation of powers among three coequal branches of government but to the pulling and hauling between national and state governments within the U.S. federal system. The doctrine of state rights has long been a rallying cry among conservatives. But in the age of Trump, we should not be surprised that progressives have also taken up the chant.

Stewart Patrick is the James Binger senior fellow in global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World.” He is on Twitter @StewartMPatrick.

Tags America Constitution Diplomacy Donald Trump Global Affairs Government

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