New Pieces on the International Chessboard

An Internationally-Active Sub-State: A Neglected Effect of Globalization?

Nicholas Gordon

Many important questions have been raised with the Scottish National Party’s recent electoral successes, but a question with repercussions beyond the United Kingdom concerns how a more autonomous Edinburgh will be treated by the international community. Even as independence is ruled out, greater Scottish authority is almost certain. And, with that local authority, will come greater international prominence.

But the United Kingdom is not the only place where a sub-state can have, or has had, an international impact. The past few years have seen crises that involve autonomous sub-state units as major players, from Catalonia and Crimea in Europe, Iraqi Kurdistan in the Middle East, and Hong Kong in East Asia. In all of these areas, significant and exceptional autonomy has allowed these units to act on the international stage. In addition, all of these regions interact with the international system without relying on state institutions—they are independent actors, at least in part.

It has been argued that globalization is transforming the state, as they become more disaggregated and its power is expressed across multiple institutions. Others argue that the state is being replaced with other kinds of actors, be it the non-territorial multinational corporation, non-governmental organization or terrorist group, or the supranational regional institution.

Globalization is transforming the state, as it becomes more disaggregated and its power is expressed across multiple institutions

But one class of political unit is often left out of these discussions: the sub-state, or those territorial political units that lie (or are recognized to be) within a state’s sovereign jurisdiction. As the international system becomes more connected, the sub-state can more easily and noticeably engage with the international system – be it through short-term political engagement, or longer-term institutional engagement. Increasingly global problems requires sub-states to engage with the international community to fully exercise their domestic authority, and the ease of international communication and travel means that sub-states can solve these problems without involving the state.

It is understandable why theoretical attention would go elsewhere. Supranational institutions can be seen as composites of sovereign members, even if they become actors in their own right, while MNCs and NGOs seem to exist “beyond” traditional sovereignty by virtue of being non-territorial. In contrast, sub-state units are decidedly not sovereign, by existing in a hierarchy with the state.

We can see this tension when looking at those units commonly called “de facto states”. Somaliland is a de facto state by virtue of Somalia’s complete collapse; while Taiwan’s and South Ossetia’s independence are bolstered by American and Russian protection respectively.  As sovereignty is seen to be intrinsically good in all cases, sub-states can only gather sovereignty against the state’s will, either from failed capacity or foreign protection.

However, this binary view ignores the avenues through which a sub-state can become an international actor. Take Hong Kong, whose autonomy is very much not a story about a lack of Chinese power. Two examples stand out: the Manila Hostage Crisis of 2010 (political engagement) and Edward Snowden’s 2013 escape to the city (institutional engagement).

Hong Kong’s response to the Manila hostage crisis was a deliberate attempt to effect change in a foreign country. In retaliation to a perceived botched response, Hong Kong placed sanctions on Filipino officials and a travel warning on the whole country — for a time, Hong Kong officially deemed the Philippines more unsafe than Syria. What fueled the government’s anger was a perceived snub by President Benigno Aquino who, rather than speaking directly to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, instead summoned the Chinese Ambassador.

In contrast, Snowden’s escape to Hong Kong reveals more institutionalized engagement. Every step of Snowden’s escape to Hong Kong was facilitated by Hong Kong’s independent ‘foreign policy’. Snowden escaped to Hong Kong through its visa-waiver program with the United States; upon his arrival, Washington called on Hong Kong to honor its extradition treaty. Neither of these agreements exists between Washington and Beijing, arguably, do not exist between Hong Kong and Beijing.

Hong Kong, although quite extreme in its level of autonomy, is not the only example of a sub-state with international connections. Another, more complex, case is Iraqi Kurdistan, whose path to autonomy is a mix of foreign protection, a weakened state, and more efficient local capacity. Irbil has built strong economic and security links with surrounding countries. Most important of these is Turkey. Whereas Ankara initially refused to support any American intervention in Iraq if it led to an independent Kurdistan, it is now the biggest foreign investor in Iraqi Kurdistan and works with Irbil on security concerns.

The barriers preventing sub-states from engaging with the international system are slowly eroding

Many of these foreign connections — such as Irbil’s independent negotiation of oil rights — are developed in spite of Baghdad. However, it is also true that Kurdistan has yet to make a serious push towards independence beyond hypothetical statements. It is likely that Kurdistan’s international connections would vanish upon independence; it would be a certainty for Turkey, which is currently resolving its own Kurdish insurgency. Surprisingly, Kurdistan may be able to do more in practice if it remains a   highly autonomous part of Iraq than what it could do as an independent state.

It is this observation that points us towards the future. Kurdistan is not the only sub-state that has realized that both local authority and international engagement can be gained in spite of a lack of statehood, as Taiwan and Nagorno-Karabakh have come to similar conclusions. This is not to deny the real benefits and symbolic appeal of independence, but rather to argue that the structure of the international system allows sub-states to do a lot more now than they could before.

The barriers preventing sub-states from engaging with the international system are slowly eroding. There were initially few reasons why a sub-state would need to have an international presence, as few problems were global. Even when a sub-state needed to engage with the international system, the difficulty and expense of travel and communication meant that the sub-state would rely on state mechanisms. Combine this with a more absolutist view of the state, and sub-states had little ability, or need, to engage internationally.

Why would a state government suppress a sub-state’s attempts at economic diplomacy if it actually serves to bolster economic development?

Contrast this to today. International travel is cheap; international communication significantly more so. Problems and, more importantly, the solutions to those problems have an international dimension. It is not that the state is becoming less relevant, or is less capable of doing this work. Instead, it is easier for a sub-state to engage on its own, without needing to rely on the state.

Greater sub-state engagement will happen for all the same reasons that the world is supposedly becoming more globalized: easier communication, cheaper transportation, the spread of the international economy and the rise of truly global problems. As transnational networks grow, there are more avenues for a sub-state to engage with the international system. It also means that the benefits of allowing a sub-state to have this authority grows: why would a state government suppress a sub-state’s attempts at economic diplomacy if it actually serves to bolster economic development?

This is not to say that we will see an “explosion” of sub-state diplomacy, or that the state will disappear as a central actor. What we commonly understand to be diplomacy — leader-to-leader diplomacy and major diplomatic summits — will still likely be done on a state-to-state basis. But underneath that, where the nitty-gritty of day-to-day authority is expressed, will lie a whole panoply of connections, involving both state and sub-state.