Comparative Reflections on Foreign Relations in Federal Countries

Comparative Reflections on Foreign
Relations in Federal Countries
H A N S J . M I C H E L M A N N
Foreign policy has traditionally been the responsibility of central governments.
In countries with a unitary system of government this state of affairs
is relatively unproblematic since most powers accrue to, and most public
policy is conducted at the national level. In federal countries, however,
constitutional powers and responsibility for the conduct of public policy
are shared between the federal government and those of constituent units
– states, provinces, cantons and so on, with each level responsible for a set
of functions. But here also, foreign policy has traditionally been the constitutional
responsibility of the central government because this function
was seen as transcending the division of powers due to the need to present
a common front toward foreign states.
That is not to say that constituent units of federal countries have not been
involved in trans-border, foreign relations in the past. These were mostly
interactions with neighboring polities involving practical matters such as
cooperation in transportation, flood and pollution control and even the
sharing of services – matters of low politics, conducted primarily in a very
limited geographical context. However the scope and nature of constituent
unit involvement abroad, whether with other polities, international organizations
or with private organizations, have grown as the volume of international
transactions increased dramatically in the last half century in part
due to the development of high speed communications and faster, more efficient
transportation. These changes led, in turn, to ever-growing international
commercial transactions and cross-border human contacts. As a result, constituent
units in many federal countries have become more engaged in international
activities because the exercise of their constitutional responsibilities
has been increasingly affected by globalization. The chapter on the United
States discusses how these developments have affected foreign relations in
the US, and that country’s experience is mirrored in various degrees in other
federations. Globalization, in other words, has prompted constituent units to
become players, even if relatively minor players, on the international stage.
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4 Hans J. Michelmann
Globalization has not, of course, had a uniform impact on all federations
nor has the reaction been similar in each country. The form of international
relations in which constituent units have engaged, as well as their
scope and intensity, vary considerably across federal countries and, for that
matter, within them. The twelve federal countries presented in this booklet
have had different experiences. Certain major factors have affected the
conduct of foreign relations in these and other federal countries, however.
One crucial factor in understanding constituent unit foreign relations
is the constitutional context in which they are conducted. The extent to
which the jurisdiction over foreign relations is clearly specified in constitutions
varies considerably as do the powers, if any, that are formally
assigned to constituent units. At one end of the spectrum, for example, are
Canada and Australia, in which constitutional conventions and court
rulings define the terrain and allow constituent units significant scope
for action. In other countries, including India, Malaysia and South Africa,
the constitution explicitly assigns powers over foreign relations only to the
federal government. In these countries there is limited scope for constituent
unit foreign relations. At the other end of the spectrum are countries whose
constitutions assign them explicit powers: Argentina, Germany, Switzerland
and Belgium, in ascending order of constituent unit empowerment.
The power over treaty-making and their implementation are of particular
importance when considering constitutional factors. To state the matter
succinctly, even in countries where the federal government is assigned the
lion’s share of, or exclusive, treaty-making powers, the implementation of
the resulting agreements is often the responsibility of constituent units
because it affects matters over which they have jurisdiction. Hence it is
clearly expedient for the federal government to take into account the
interests of its constituent units since implementation could be jeopardized
were they to be uncooperative, with all of the consequences that
would arise from failing to meet commitments made to foreign partners.
The management of relations between the two levels of government in
this regard takes on surprisingly different forms. For example, in Australia
judicial interpretation has given the Commonwealth government powers
to implement treaties even in areas under state jurisdiction, although consultation
structures and processes have been created in an attempt to forestall
such heavy-handedness. In Germany, South Africa and the United
States, where legislatures must ratify some treaties and upper houses have
constituent unit representation, national executives have institutional
reasons for taking into account the need for their assent. The German,
Swiss and Belgian constitutions have provisions that require consultation
of constituent units by the central government, insofar as treaties affect
their interests. These countries have developed structures and processes
that provide predictability to the consultation process. In Canada, consultation
practices vary across policy sectors and are governed by informal
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Comparative Reflections 5
agreements that in some sectors have nonetheless become highly institutionalized.
In the US, consultation is minimal and observers have expressed
concern that this state of affairs may well hurt the country’s international
interests. India, Argentina and South Africa are working on the development
of consultation procedures as provinces and states gradually become
more engaged in foreign relations.
Only a limited number of constitutions, among them the German, Swiss,
and Belgian, assign constituent units treaty-making powers, with those in
Belgium having the strongest powers to enter into treaties in areas of their
jurisdiction. In Argentina also, states are empowered to sign agreements
with foreign partners. But even where such powers are not explicitly granted,
constituent units often sign numerous agreements with international
partners which, though perhaps not called treaties, nonetheless connect
them with these partners in a wide range of commercial, economic, cultural,
and other relations. A frequent observation in the chapters that
follow is the need for strong cooperation between the two levels of
government to ensure that the conduct of foreign relations works in the
best interests of the whole country.
Constitutional and legal provisions are clearly not the only factors affecting
the conduct of foreign relations in federal countries. In India, for example,
the complex partisan relationships between the states and the Union
Government and national authorities’ reliance on political support from
regional power brokers to maintain office allows some state political leaders
considerable say in foreign relations, even though states are not constitutionally
granted powers in the field. In South Africa, participation by
provinces in foreign relations is limited not only for constitutional reasons
but also because of a lack of institutional capacity and political experience
in provincial governments. In Malaysia, the domination of an authoritarian
central government rules out practically any meaningful foreign relations
role for the states. Malaysia dramatically demonstrates the importance of
domestic political factors for the conduct of foreign relations. Argentina
and Spain are also examples of this, as the evolution from authoritarianism
to liberal democracy allowed constituent units to engage in foreign relations
that were not open to them previously. In India, fundamental changes in
political orientation leading to a much more liberal regime in foreign economic
policy provided the rationale and impetus for the gradual increase
in state foreign relations.
What other factors affect the nature and intensity of constituent unit
foreign relations? Clearly geography matters. Australian states do not have
international land borders and thus have a more limited range of international
relations than their counterparts elsewhere. Relations are often
problematic between India and the countries it shares borders with. By
contrast, Germany shares peaceful borders with nine countries and
Länder adjacent to these countries have built networks of relations with
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6 Hans J. Michelmann
their constituent unit or regional governments to cooperate in matters
ranging from maintaining transportation infrastructure to economic
In Europe, regional influences blend into political factors as the five
European federal countries considered in the following chapters, Austria,
Belgium Germany, Spain and Switzerland, are either members of or, in the
case of Switzerland, closely affiliated with the European Union (EU). The
dense intra-Union political relations that are a hallmark of EU membership
engage constituent units in a multitude of relations with its institutions
and with their counterparts in other states, as well as national governments.
Regional integration among the Southern Common Market (MERCOSUR)
countries has also encouraged increasing provincial foreign relations
in Argentina, and in India, provinces have become involved in a
number of nascent South Asian integration projects that have led some of
them to increase their international economic ties. In all three contexts
economic motivations are crucial for understanding constituent unit
regional activity.
Economic motivations are central for understanding the foreign relations
of constituent units. These relations include activities such as foreign
travel by political leaders and officials to promote exports and tourism and
to seek foreign investment. Some Canadian provinces and American states
have set up offices abroad to promote commercial ties. Constituent units
also seek to be consulted on or participate in international trade negotiations.
They may seek foreign investment through such domestic measures
as offering development of infrastructure and tax breaks. Measures that
impede foreign competition for domestic firms are more controversial,
such as erecting or maintaining non-tariff barriers, and government procurement
practices favoring domestic firms.
More altruistic motives can also play a role. Constituent unit governments
have the expertise in such policy areas as education and health care
delivery that is absent in the public service of many federal governments,
and thus undertake aid projects in the less developed countries, sometimes
as agents of their federal government. Such aid can also take the
form of government capacity-building by training public servants and
providing policy advice.
Ethnic and cultural factors are important in some countries. Quebec
in Canada, Catalonia and the Basque country in Spain, and the Belgian
communities and regions are among the most active constituent units
internationally as they seek not only to serve their economic interests but
also to create links with ethnically or linguistically and culturally-related
communities abroad. In most cases such activities are not politically
charged as they help forge strong human links across international frontiers.
But at times they have been used to serve, or have been interpreted
as serving, separatist goals and have thus become highly controversial at
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home. Quebec’s foreign relations under the separatist Parti Québécois is
an extreme example of such actions.
It is indisputable that politicians, while engaged in promoting the interests
of their constituent units abroad, enhance their political profile at
home and partisan political considerations may well play a role in undertaking
such journeys. These are matters of minor importance even if they
may raise objections at home. Overtly political actions that stray into the
realm of foreign policy are much more controversial. Constituent unit
politicians have been known to make statements, even while abroad, on
politically charged foreign policy issues that are the concern of the federal
government. In the US, states have become involved in symbolic or much
more aggressive actions that seek to put the spotlight on what domestic
lobby groups consider objectionable government or private sector practices
in foreign countries. And the economic, ethnic, cultural and other
interests of one or more constituent units may well clash with the interests
of the country as articulated by the federal government.
The challenge, then, in each federal country is to ensure that the foreign
relations of constituent units and the foreign policy articulated by their
federal governments do not clash. Both orders of government can contribute
to developing an effective foreign presence. Constituent unit governments
have a detailed understanding of the interests and concerns of
private sector actors who are or wish to become engaged internationally,
and much relevant technical expertise. Federal governments can bring
greater experience to bear in dealing with the international environment
and wield greater political and economic clout than can individual or
even groups of constituent units. Their cooperation requires consultation
through durable and adequately conceptualized institutions of intergovernmental
relations and it requires the willingness to make compromises.
Effective cooperation is essential as effective foreign relations become
increasingly important for success in a highly interdependent world.
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