Interview with Dr. Rodrigo Tavares Over Paradiplomatic Trend
Mayors, governors, and business leaders from around the globe met in a high-level conference in San Francisco this week (Sept. 12-14) to discuss climate change efforts. The Global Climate Action Summit, convened by Gov. Jerry Brown, billed itself as “a moment to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of states, regions, cities, companies, investors and citizens with respect to climate action,” and to take cooperation among these actors to the next level. The summit is part of a growing trend in which the governments of cities, states, and provinces participate in international affairs.
These efforts, often called paradiplomacy, only recently went no deeper than ceremonial sister-city agreements. Today, the deepest and most motivated cooperation deals with climate change. This became an urgent priority for subnational leaders after President Trump declared in 2017 that the United States would exit the Paris climate deal. However, paradiplomacy has become a key feature of international cooperation in issues ranging from trade and investment to culture and municipal services, and has become commonplace across the globe.
To better understand paradiplomacy, IR INSIDER spoke to Dr. Rodrigo Tavares, who ran the São Paulo State Government’s Office of Foreign Affairs between 2011-2014. Additionally, he worked and consulted with the United Nations, World Economic Forum, and is the CEO of Granito & Partners. In 2016, Dr. Tavares wrote Paradiplomacy: Cities and States as Global Players, perhaps the authoritative guide on the subject. The Interview was conducted via email earlier this year.
IR INSIDER: What inspired you to write a book about paradiplomacy?
Dr. Rodrigo Tavares: I tried writing the book I couldn’t find when I first stepped into government. When I took office as head of foreign affairs of the state government of São Paulo my prompt reaction was to educate myself on paradiplomacy, but I could only find literature that linked the conduct of international relations at subnational level with sovereignty disputes, as we could find in Scotland, Quebec or Catalonia. That was not the path we were aiming to take in Sao Paulo. I was eager to get my hands on a book that provided clear guidelines on what our global peers were doing and on the legal, operational and organizational outlooks of paradiplomacy. But the literature was not there yet.
IRI: In researching your book, what – if anything - surprised you about paradiplomacy?
RT: The sheer size of the phenomenon. The book covers data from around 200 subnational governments, but it would, in fact, be reasonable to say that the overwhelming majority of cities and states with over 1 million inhabitants have some experience with external relations. The scale of paradiplomacy is inversely proportional to the level of the debate. It’s poorly discussed. That still surprises me.
IRI: You go into detail about the incentives for subnational units to engage with sovereign states and the state-centric international system. On the other hand, what incentives do countries have to engage with foreign provinces and cities? Similarly, do you think there is any connection in multilevel governance concerning levels below the sovereign state and levels above the state? In other words, have international institutions and norms that diminish unconditional state sovereignty “from above” paved the way for challenges “from below?”
RT: Global relations are not state-centered. We are enmeshed in a thick web of risks and opportunities that are spearheaded by a wide range of different players, from states to private companies, from individuals to subnational governments. Power stems from connectivity, not from walls, armies or demography. In this light, sovereign states are incentivized to reach out as widely as they can and to diversity their portfolio of partners and allies. For instance, last year France and Denmark appointed formal Ambassadors on technology to expand relations with private tech companies. As cities and states are centers of economic gravity – nearly half of the world’s largest economies are subnational states, not countries – then it is just inevitable that independent countries engage with subnational players.
IRI: You noted cultural differences in which many Western cities have moved past sister-city and other ceremonial arrangements in favor of substantive ties while some East Asian cities continue to value such arrangements. Do you anticipate a change in the near future, whether it is the Asian cities following the path of the West or town-twinning coming back into vogue in the West?
RT: I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that town-twinning is slowly being extinguished in the West. It is actually becoming common for municipalities and local members of parliament to vote to end that type of agreements or for governmental officials to adopt tighter criteria for their adoption. Sister-state agreements have a ceremonial and shallow nature, and often do not pave the way for clear opportunities. There are exceptions, but that has sadly been the rule. I’m not sensing a similar trend in the East.
IRI: What are some differences in the international engagement strategies of cities versus states, provinces, or regions?
RT: Very little. Variations depend on resources, not on the administrative shape (a city versus a federated state). Paradiplomacy is about internationalizing domestic competences. If a city is by law responsible for public safety, environment or culture, those are the areas that will fall within their international remit. The same logic would apply to states, provinces or regions.
IRI: What lessons can the world learn from the paradiplomacy of the São Paulo State?
RT: In São Paulo I had the privilege of working with a Governor that gave me leeway to create. We had little resources, no team and several administrative hurdles when we started. But we were able to bring together a phenomenal team of political entrepreneurs that kept pushing boundaries. We began by adopting one of the world’s first foreign affairs strategies at the subnational level, which set our course and laid out quantitative and qualitatively the targets we had to achieve. That sort of commitment was uncommon in the Brazilian political system. And then we worked hard to deliver. In a 4-years mandate we received 1,595 foreign delegations (including 22 heads of state and government), organized 234 missions abroad, signed 234 international agreements (none sister state MoU), managed 150 international cooperation projects, organized 104 international events, and maintained relations with 116 countries. All governmental departments – education, healthcare, culture, energy etc. – were equipped to have external relations. At some level, the whole government was breathing internationally. My team was instructed not to centralize foreign affairs activities, instead we were encouraging the different players across government to courageously seek opportunities abroad. We were the conductors of a fairly large orchestra, more than 100 people.
IRI: In any kind of global analysis of primary subnational units, the United States takes center stage. Not only are American States some of the biggest and richest SBU’s but the US
was where the concept of federalism was developed. And yet, from your book it seems that US paradiplomacy has some ways to go. Why is this, and what recommendations would you make?
RT: I’m not sure that was the idea I wished to have portrayed. All American states (including the ones with lowest GDP) and the majority of largest cities conduct foreign activities. The bulk of the work is on generating economic growth and stimulating job creation through foreign trade and FDI. Climate change and environmental issues are also up in the priority list of some subnational governments. Los Angeles, for instance, has a deputy mayor for international affairs. Approximately 40 US states have a rough total of 250 representations abroad. Pennsylvania operates the most overseas offices (15), followed by Missouri (14), Florida (13) and Georgia (11).
IRI: We’ve seen what feels like unprecedented paradiplomatic activity in the US dealing with climate change due to President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. What do you expect to see in US – and world – paradiplomacy in the age of Trump?
RT: President Trump has been the most efficient ambassador of the paradiplomacy cause. By disengaging the US from international agreements he inadvertently opens up opportunities for cities and states. Take the Paris Agreement as an example. If cities create over 70% of global CO2 emissions they have a natural legitimacy to ask for a seat at the negotiation table. But only now the US national seat has become vacant resulting in new opportunities for them to seize. The same on trade. Amid international trade tensions between the US and China, Missouri just revamped its overseas trade offices.
IRI: In many countries, the relative power and privileges of different subnational units is or was an area of contentious debate. City dwellers often receive better services and hold more political influence, which may be a challenge as millions continue to migrate to cities each year. What would you say to the assertion that paradiplomacy increases this disparity by giving the richest and most powerful subnational units additional influence?
RT: Paradiplomacy is not carried out only by the largest and richest cities and states. I always get surprised to see small cities, of a few hundred people, conducting external initiatives. But that is mainstreaming too. In Brazil there are hundreds of small-scale cities, most of them in very low GDPs, that are member of international networks and are exposed to international opportunities at a very low cost.
IRI: As you mention nearly every country in the world has not just permitted but embraced and encouraged PD- even countries that can seem more centralized and authoritarian.
RT: All these central governments share an interest in keeping their power and not giving up any competencies. How would you respond to someone believing that if none of these state actors feel threatened, then PD can’t truly be as significant and disruptive as you claim?
Paradiplomacy is not a parcel of power that countries are giving up to cities or states. In the same way that subnational players are constitutionally impeded from dealing with international statecraft issues that are within the remit of countries only, also countries are impeded from taking the responsibility of executing the foreign affairs of subnational governments. It’s not a zero-sum game. In the optics of a country, having more players – cities and states – joining the international front and bringing value inwards is ultimately beneficial to all levels of government.
IRI: You have described paradiplomatic engagement as often more pragmatic, opportunistic, and human-centric than state diplomacy. Could you explain why?
RT: Human centric in the sense that paradiplomacy deals with the issues that are at the people’s visual level, that are directly related to them. Infrastructure, transportation, housing, healthcare are target issues for paradiplomacy and immediate drivers of people’s welfare. And as paradiplomacy is still shaping up practices there is an inherent vitality, creativity and experimentalism to it. Diplomacy is more compliant, more ceremonial, more crystalized.
IRI: Finally, to many students interested in international politics subjects like sanitation, healthcare, and education, which are not as “sexy” as traditional diplomatic concerns like peace and security and human rights, why should we be interested in these areas of local competency?
RT: I can share with you my personal experience. I’ve worked with foreign affairs at the UN, in academia, in NGOs. All positive experiences. But nothing has been more fulfilling than realizing that when you work in a city or in a sub-state then foreign affairs can directly affect change at an individual level. The causal relations between policy and effect are immediate and very rewarding. When I was in office a low- income mother of a student in a public school called me in tears to thank us for the fact that her daughter, who never had the chance to even cross the boundaries of the state of Sao Paulo was given the opportunity to study English in Canada. It was a free of charge program given to thousands of public school students. And then I thought, my god, this came from us, from the very first idea to implementation. We impacted positively. This is a small example. But how could I stay indifferent to this?