Make America More Competitive: Engage Subnational Leaders and the Private Sector
The Trump administration has largely abandoned the United States’ leadership role in the world, so it will now fall to mayors, governors, and local leaders to pick up the slack. These subnational, local actors will have an increasingly large role to play internationally, especially in the areas of economic development and job creation.
2017 has been a year of startling developments. The election of President Donald Trump and the strong showing of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party both point to a strong anti-globalization tide that is altering the political landscape at home and abroad. As these trends intensify, the approach to managing international relationships must evolve. Combatting the backlash against globalization requires new tools and a new approach.
In the age of Trump, it is time for subnational leaders to “go global.”
And some already have. After President Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, California Governor Jerry Brown traveled to China, where he signed agreements on clean energy with the regional capitals of Chengdu and Nanjing, and met with Chinese President Xi Jinping. It is a sign of the times; Xi is looking to Brown, a subnational leader, not Trump, a national leader, as his American partner to fight against climate change. Brown also met with Barbara Hendricks, German Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety, and discussed ways to foster sustainable economic growth and fight unemployment.
Some have seen this trend coming. Not long ago, General Electric Chairman Jeff Immelt spoke of his belief that global problems need local solutions. Private sector leaders like Immelt have understood that solving problems like providing access to health care in remote regions are also opportunities for the private sector to bring local and national levels of government together to solve local problems.
What leaders like Brown and Immelt understand is that the current wave of protectionist sentiment is posing a threat to long-term growth and stability. But subnational actors cannot combat this dangerous trend alone.
During my time as the special representative for Intergovernmental Affairs at the State Department, we actively engaged local officials around the world, focusing on trade, development, sustainability, and combatting climate change. Under President Obama, the United States established a series of cooperative frameworks for subnational engagement with China, Brazil, India, South Africa, and Russia to facilitate opportunities for state and local leaders to increase exports, foreign direct investment, and tourism to support job creation and global competitiveness.
Of course, things did not always go as planned. After the signing an agreement with Russia, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that Russia was expelling USAID (United States Agency for International Development) from their country. Yet these innovative subnational agreements allowed local leaders to form innovative partnerships to combat a variety of challenges.
The next generation of world leaders will likely come from the current generation of governors, mayors, and local leaders. Fostering international relationships among these individuals will do more than strengthen the current global system by bringing the local and global closer together. It will also improve relations between countries as these networks of subnational leaders advance to the national level.
The need for stronger and more visible local and state officials is more evident than ever. Industry leaders like Jeff Immelt have an important role, too. Multinational corporations like GE have the resources necessary to build bridges between subnational and national levels of government.
Immelt’s assessment of the need to localize is spot on, and gives hope that the private sector may be starting to understand the path forward. Localization need not be a retreat from globalization. Rather, it should serve as its complement. As Secretary of State Tillerson reorganizes the States Department, he would do well to embrace the subnational framework that was put in place by his predecessors.
Reta Jo Lewis, Esq. is a Senior Fellow and Director of Congressional Affairs at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and was the former first-ever, Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs at the Department of State. Views are of the author alone.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.