Foreign Policy Goes Local

How Globalization Made São Paulo into a Diplomatic Power

A view of São Paulo, the largest city in Latin America, April 5, 2011. (Paulo Whitaker / Courtesy Reuters)

Last week, the United Kingdom made a new friend. Hugo Swire, the British Minister of State at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, came to Brazil to sign an agreement establishing “formal bilateral relations” with São Paulo, Latin America’s wealthiest state. In late March, the United States signed an identical agreement -- the first time that the U.S. State Department forged “direct relations” with a subnational government in the southern hemisphere. Canada, France, Germany, and a handful of other countries in Europe and Asia will soon sign their own agreements with São Paulo. Why are national governments making formal relations with cities and states, and what does it mean for the future of diplomacy?

It’s about time that diplomacy adapted to modern times. Information is no longer privy only to embassies. Today, many private intelligence firms, think tanks, and NGOs have better access to quality sources than experienced diplomats do. And the idea that diplomats should exclusively represent their governments in other countries is now obsolete. Government leaders regularly dispatch their trusted aides on strategic missions instead of relying on career diplomats whom they may not know personally. These new emissaries often eschew choreographed, ceremonial diplomacy for immediate results; they favor foreign investment instead of foie gras. Taxpayers around the world raise their eyebrows at the costs of certain trappings of diplomacy, and they demand more restraint than is evidenced in many traditional diplomatic rituals -- such as those in Japan and Sweden in which ceremonial horse-drawn carriages still transport newly appointed foreign ambassadors to meet Emperor Akihito and King Carl XVI Gustaf, respectively.

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