Foreign policy goes local

State capitals are adopting their own international relations and trade

In the US Supreme Court, Massachusetts is defending a state law that bans trade with the nation of Burma.

In Arizona, Gov. Jane Hull is hoping to test a new temporary work visa for Mexican laborers.

And here in Texas, state leaders have stepped up regular meetings with officials of the four Mexican states along Texas's border, to turn the border region into a single economic entity.

From one coast to the other, America's states are increasingly acting like the Greek city-states of antiquity, determining their own foreign policy and routes of trade. And like modern-day Spartas, their behavior is being driven by a less-centralized notion of "nation" at home, as well as a broader view of the world and its economic forces.

This new brand of federalism has its detractors, who see a state-by-state approach to trade policies as a hardship for business. But with globalization creating greater competition worldwide, and courts so far endorsing the trend, it's only going to continue, experts say.

In the very long term, "it's now possible to imagine a world where the United States does not exist as it has in the 20th century," says Peter Spiro, a law professor at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y. "States are very intent on pursuing their distinct international interests, and if you're saying international interests, it makes a big difference whether you're sitting in Minnesota or New Mexico."

Nowhere is the growing power of states more obvious than along the US-Mexico border, especially in Texas, which accounts for 80 percent of the surface transportation of products between America and its neighbor to the south. There, under the influence of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), state officials are meeting regularly with Mexican counterparts to hammer out the daily details of free trade, from water quality along the Rio Grande to truck emissions.

"The daily interaction along the US-Mexican border dictates some degree of local control, since it is we who are living our lives within the framework of NAFTA," says Eliot Shapleigh, a state senator from El Paso.

These days, Senator Shapleigh says he finds himself working more closely with officials in the Mexican state of Chihuahua than with officials from Arkansas. And new laws are encouraging more cross-border cooperation.

One bill allows state money to pay for environmental projects on either side of the border. To improve air quality, for instance, Texas money can now be used to buy a polluting Mexican brick kiln and put it out of business.

In many ways, the closeness of the border areas dates back to 400-year-old trade and migration patterns established by the Spanish conquistadors. "For the US border states and the six Mexican border states, it makes perfect commercial and cultural sense for them to look to each other, rather than to their federal capitals," says Kelly Fero, a consultant for Austin's Public Strategies Inc.

His current client is Toms Yarrington, governor of the Mexican border state of Tamaulipas. "Texas is uniquely positioned to have its own foreign relationships, and hey, it's always considers itself to be an independent nation anyway," Mr. Fero says.

All this federal-to-state devolution of power might appear to threaten the unity of the Republic, but it bears the stamp of approval from Washington, particularly from the US Supreme Court. Legally speaking, states have the right to pursue their own policies, as long as they don't conflict with foreign policies set by the US.

"The US Supreme Court has set the standard for tolerance of bottom-up government," says Robert Stumberg, a law professor at Georgetown University in Washington. "What we're seeing in Texas is bread-and-butter economic development and law enforcement. It's the same old federalism, but it's in a new context of globalization."

But make no mistake, globalization is a wasps' nest of controversy, as the tumultuous World Trade Organization talks in Seattle demonstrated.

For Frank Kittredge, whose National Foreign Trade Council is fighting Massachusetts' boycott of Burma, the notion of having 50 different state foreign policies would be harmful to US businesses and exporters. He cites studies showing that various state sanctions have cost US businesses some $20 billion and 250,000 jobs in 1995 alone.

"The combination of state and local sanctions has made the United States out to be unreliable suppliers," says Mr. Kittredge. "Businesses like to invest in areas where they know it's stable. Members of the European Union ask us, 'How can we deal with 50 different secretaries of state?' "

To be sure, certain dangers accompany states' activity in world affairs. Consider Massachusetts' ban on Burma trade. Foreign countries could apply the same principle to American states, also for humanitarian reasons.

"You're in Texas, the capital for executing juvenile criminals," says Professor Spiro. "We're going to see other countries ... say, 'We just won't buy any Texas beef.' "

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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