July 10, 2017 9:00 am JST
Ian Bremmer

World snubs Trump in favor of America's mayors, governors

Cities, states go it alone to forge their own agreements with other nations

After Washington pulled out of the Paris climate accord, Chinese President Xi Jinping, left, and California Gov. Jerry Brown discussed their own climate policy.

A new study from Pew Research offers unsurprising news that many countries have a low opinion of U.S. President Donald Trump. The survey of 37 countries found the percentage of those with confidence in the president has fallen from 64% at the end of the Obama presidency to just 22% under Trump. Some 62% say Trump is "dangerous," and 74% have "no confidence" in him. Fewer than one in three support his bid to block citizens of some majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S. Fewer than one in five approve of his trade and climate policies.

The fall is steepest among some close U.S. allies. From 2015 to 2017, the percentage of those with "confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing regarding world affairs" fell from 66 to 24% in Japan, 76 to 22% in Canada, 83 to 14% in France, and 73 to 11% in Germany.

Yet, officials in other countries know they can't ignore or isolate the U.S., which is still the only country that can extend political, economic and military influence into every region of the world. There are a host of international problems and challenges that demand U.S. cooperation, if not leadership.

Defying Trump

The good news for those who want more from the U.S. is its decentralized federal system. Much power lies with state governors and big city mayors to enact and enforce laws that don't exist at the federal level, even when these laws conflict with the president's priorities. The most dramatic conflict between the national Republican Party -- which now controls the White House and both houses of Congress -- and local-level politicians is over immigration policy.

Trump has tried, so far unsuccessfully, to impose a ban on immigration from several majority-Muslim countries. But years ago, many local governments established "sanctuary" status for people living in the country without legal permission, and that process continues. Sanctuary cities refuse to cooperate with federal immigration laws and bar local police from questioning an individual's immigration status. According to The Center for Immigration Studies, a non-profit that advocates a more restrictive immigration policy, about 300 cities, counties or U.S. states have some form of sanctuary policy. On same-sex marriage, legalization of drugs, and even voting rights, laws vary considerably from state to state.

States and large cities in the U.S. also have real economic heft. For example, California's economy is larger than France's or India's. Texas' is larger than Canada's or South Korea's. New York's economy is larger than Russia's or Mexico's while Georgia's is larger than Nigeria's, which has the largest economy in Africa.

There is a wide variety of attitudes across U.S. states toward Donald Trump -- and public demand within some -- to establish independent foreign policies. Mayors and governors, particularly in states where Trump is deeply unpopular, can score political points by defying him and pursuing their own agendas. They can also benefit their states and cities by attracting more investment, more foreign students and more tourism.

Independent agendas

No issue better illustrates the power of U.S. states to set their own agendas than climate change. Here is a "problem without borders" that can't be addressed without cooperation from the United States, which remains the second largest emitter of greenhouse gasses after China. A few days after Trump withdrew U.S. support from the Paris Accord on climate, China's President Xi Jinping welcomed California Governor Jerry Brown into the Great Hall of the People with the sort of pomp traditionally reserved for visiting heads of state. The two leaders then discussed climate policy. "California's leading, China's leading," Gov. Brown declared during a news conference covered extensively by China's state-controlled media.

California has established a cap-and-trade market that allows companies to buy and sell allowances on greenhouse gas emissions, a policy that finds little support at the federal level. Brown, who has promised to set ambitious emissions targets in California whatever Trump says, then signed agreements on clean energy technological development with local Chinese officials.

Canada, far more dependent on the U.S. economy than China, is adopting a similar approach to courting local U.S. officials. Early efforts to court Trump stalled when the president began complaining about unfair Canadian trade practices. Without needlessly provoking the U.S. president, officials in Justin Trudeau's government have since begun building on already close ties between Canadian provinces and U.S. states.

In fact, the day after Trump explained his decision to withdraw from the Paris Accord with a reminder that he "was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris," Canada's transport minister held a meeting on climate change policy with the mayor of Pittsburgh. Ontario will soon join Quebec in a cap-and-trade partnership with California. Canada's federal government is also building relationships with officials in Florida, Texas, Michigan, New York and other states. "The United States is bigger than the [Trump] administration," said Canada's environment minister recently. She's right.

There's nothing new, of course, about other nations -- particularly U.S. allies -- forging political and commercial relations with U.S. states and cities. But the Trump administration's "America First," often rejectionist, approach to the rest of the world has given these ties new urgency. The U.S. president has considerable power, particularly on foreign policy. But more governments are discovering the benefits of using the decentralized structure of the U.S. to get what they want. And they'll find a growing number of U.S. governors and mayors waiting to embrace them.

Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and author of "Superpower: Three Choices for America's Role in the World." He is on Twitter as @ianbremmer and Facebook as Ian Bremmer.

Get Insights on Asia In Your Inbox

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Get your first month for $0.99

Redeemable only through the Subscribe button below

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

Once subscribed, you can…

  • Read all stories with unlimited access (5 articles per month without subscription)
  • Use our smartphone and tablet apps

To read the full story, Subscribe or Log in

3 months for $9
SUBSCRIBE TODAY

Take advantage of this limited offer.
Subscribe now to get unlimited access to all articles.

To read the full story, Update your account

We could not renew your subscription.
You need to update your payment information.