03 Jun Beyond the Globalism/Nationalism Divide: The Rise of Cities and Corporations Seeking International Obligations
[Anthea Roberts is an Associate Professor at the School of Regulation and Global Governance, Australian National University.]
In withdrawing from the Paris Accord, President Donald Trump emphatically rejected globalism in favor of nationalism. “As president, I can put no other consideration before the well-being of American citizens,” he explained. “I am fighting every day for the great people of this country. Therefore, in order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord.” But might this strong endorsement of nationalism exacerbate divisions within the state, leading sub-state actors (like cities) and non-state actors (like corporations) to seek to undertake international obligations beyond the state?
The old domestic political divide between left and right, liberal and conservative, is giving way to a new division between globalists and nationalists. As White House advisers H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn recently explained of Trump and his America First policy:
The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural, and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.
Similar rhetoric has emerged in other domestic confrontations, such as in Marine Le Pen’s description of the battle in the French election as being one between “globalists” and “patriots.”
But focusing on the nationalist/globalist divide may encourage one to overlook how divided the “national” has become. In particular, cities are frequently more open, plural and cosmopolitan than their surrounding rural areas, and this is often particularly true of “global” cities like New York and London. Think of London’s vote to remain in the European Union as an example, or how votes are divided between the east and west coasts of America and much of the rest of America.
If many cities are more globalist than the nation states in which they are located, we may expect them to buck a return to nationalism. For instance, in withdrawing from the Paris Accord, Trump explained that: “I was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Pittsburgh’s Mayor Bill Peduto quickly took to Twitter to reject his city’s name being taken in vain: “Pittsburgh stands with the world & will follow Paris Agreement. As the Mayor of Pittsburgh, I can assure you that we will follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement for our people, our economy and future.”
Pittsburgh is not alone. A group of 30 mayors, three governors, more than 80 university presidents and more than 100 businesses are now trying negotiate with the United Nations to sign up to the Paris Accord. This effort is being led by Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor. Such an attempt is extraordinary given that international law is generally premised on obligations being accepted by states, not sub-state units or non-state actors. But it is also echoes McMaster and Cohn’s statement that the international system is one “where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”
The possibility of non-state actors or sub-state actors taking on international obligations is controversial, but not unheard of. Sandesh Sivakumaran and I have argued that certain non-state actors should be permitted to issue binding unilateral declarations through which they commit to international law obligations. There is some practice in support of such an approach. For example, Geneva Call, a Geneva-based organization, created a Deed of Commitment on anti-personnel mines that can be signed by “armed non-state actors.” The Deed largely parallels the commitments incumbent upon states parties to the Ottawa Convention on the Prohibition of Anti-Personnel Mines.
Such an approach might cross-apply to other non-state actors, like corporations. We did not consider whether a similar approach could apply to sub-state actors, like cities and states within a federal system. This approach may well be prohibited by the domestic laws of particular states that prevent sub-state entities from engaging in foreign relations. But perhaps, as a matter of international public policy, this approach should be permitted when non-state and sub-state actors seek to take on obligations in excess of those accepted by their state. This would surely be controversial, however, as states jealously guard their law-making powers as a key attribute of statehood.
Yet in a world in which many cities and some companies are more globalist and environmentally concerned than their states, perhaps pressure for this sort of action will begin to mount. Indeed, we are starting to see collaborations emerging among cities and mayors both within and across nation states to deal with global issues like climate change. Consider, for example, the climate alliance established by California, New York and Washington and the Global Parliament of Mayors. If this trend continues, we will not have a nationalist world or a globalist one but a far more complicated reality where states, sub-state actors and non-state actors collaborate and compete both within and across state borders.
Far from a strong assertion of nationalism resulting in the primacy of the state, a strong America First approach in these circumstances may actually undermine the pre-eminence of the state, leading to greater domestic divisions between globalist, cosmopolitan cities and more nationalist, parochial rural areas. If global cities find that they have more in common with each other than with their states, what will this mean for the stability of a neo-nationalist approach? It may well be that in reasserting the primacy of nationalism, Trump will end up kicking another own goal.