Subnational Leaders step into the Void Left by Trump’s Paris Pull Out
President Trump’s decision last Thursday to withdraw from the Paris climate accord has been described around the world as a blow to American credibility and leadership, the final death knell of the American century. Yet Trump’s withdrawal does not represent the decline of American presidential leadership internationally. It represents its absence. In its place, American subnational leaders have stepped into the vacuum, potentially redefining international leadership. Thirteen state governors, over 200 city mayors, and scores of business leaders have pledged to uphold U.S. commitments to reduce carbon emissions. U.S. leadership is nonexistent in the White House and foreign leaders across Europe must shift their strategies and refocus efforts on working subnationally across the United States.
President Trump’s withdrawal from Paris has been condemned worldwide, especially in Europe. Germany, France, and Italy quickly signed a joint declaration opposing the U.S. exit. “Climate change is not a fairy tale,” asserted EU Parliamentary President Antonio Tajani, urging Europe to capitalize on Trump’s move and attract clean energy investment away from the United States. “The EU and China are joining forces,” EU climate commissioner Miguel Arias Canete responded. Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, joined with Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang at the end of an EU–China summit in Brussels to issue a joint statement of cooperation, maintaining that “China and Europe have demonstrated solidarity with future generations and responsibility for the whole planet.” Meanwhile, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker declared that it is the “duty of Europe” to send Trump a message: “that is not how it works.”
Yet it is precisely— “how it works”— that is undergoing a profound shift. American leaders were just as quick as their European counterparts to condemn pulling out of the Paris Agreement. The governors of California, New York, and Washington announced that they would uphold U.S. commitments. The 13 state governors opposing Trump’s move include two Republicans. These governors, over 200 city mayors, and 19 state Attorney Generals have signed “America’s pledge,” a counter-initiative led by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, currently the UN secretary general’s special envoy for Cities and Climate Change. Together these leaders represent a population of over 52 million. Combined, their economies would be the third largest in the world.
Business and other leaders have followed suit, with 80 universities and 260 corporations signing on, including Facebook, Apple, Ford, Microsoft, and Walmart. “On behalf of an unprecedented collection of U.S. [leaders], I am communicating to the United Nations and the global community that American society remains committed,” asserted Bloomberg. This type of initiative on climate is not new. The U.S. Mayors Climate Protection Agreement and the C40 initiative date back to the Bush administration. But the Trump effect is boosting the legitimacy of subnational leaders. This “silver lining” message is much more pronounced in the mainstream U.S. press coverage of the withdrawal compared to overseas, perhaps because the morale boost here is so sorely needed. But leaders abroad would do well to take heed, and shift the focus of their U.S. bipartisan work to the subnational level.
“Subnational” leadership —sometimes called “para-diplomacy” – refers to international relations pursued by subnational entities that circumvent national frameworks. Spurred on by economic deregulation and globalization during the 1970s, the term began to circulate in the 1980s. Scholars Panavotis Soldatos, Ivo Duchacek and others deepened analysis, examining the myriad ways global issues and local concerns intersect with and amplify each other. During the Obama administration, the State Department regarded subnational diplomacy as a tenet of U.S. foreign policy, instructing the Office for Global Intergovernmental Affairs to work with subnational leaders on a variety of issues. In 2013, California broke new ground by brokering an agreement with China’s National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), which oversees China’s economic growth strategies. That same year, the United States, Britain, Canada, France, and Germany bypassed the Brazilian government and formalized bilateral relations with São Paulo. Indian states like Gujarat and Punjab are now conducting international investor summits to forge similar ties. California just announced its own climate deal with China. The implications are clear: issues like climate that require multilateral support will not be held hostage by the GOP leadership in Washington.
European and other foreign leaders are right to condemn Trump. As are the thousands at the grassroots level who rallied last week to protest the withdrawal. These actions are vital to ensure we do not become inured to Trump’s reckless cynicism. Yet leaders both in the United States and abroad must also ensure they are not distracted by debates about the “American Century” and its supposed decline —debates themselves artefacts of the fading 19th and 20th centuries, the heyday of the very modern idea of the nation-state. Leaders must forge working alliances across regions, in their own countries, and abroad. Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and climate denier, has repeatedly invoked the term “states’ rights” — with its unsettling echoes of the Civil War-era defense of slavery — to justify deregulation of environmental protections. Subnational leaders across the United States are redefining “states’ rights” and, in the process, they are redefining American leadership.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.