When German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier journeyed to the US last month to talk transatlantic cooperation, he skipped the White House completely. His destination? Sacramento, California—and some face-time with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Many in Germany have reacted with amusement to their foreign minister’s sit-down with the Governator, but the meeting was on topics of international importance: the two talked of cooperating on policies to combat global warming, and Steinmeier invited Schwarzenegger to the October EU climate conference in Lisbon. More serious is the realization that it was the first time in fifty years that a German foreign minister has visited the West Coast of the United States.
California’s economy is one of the ten largest in the world, with a gross state product higher than Spain or Canada’s GNP. Speaking in San Francisco after conferring with the governor, Steinmeier stressed that EU states are the “biggest investors and trading partners” in California. So why don’t he and other diplomats drop by Sacramento more often?
They certainly should. In this new globalized world, states like California have an important role to play in international relations. Individual states’ policies are often conspicuously divergent from those of the executive and legislative branches of the United States federal government. California, for example, has had more restrictive automobile emissions standards than the rest of the US—and Europe—since it was first given special dispensation in the 1990 amendment to the US Clean Air Act for its excessive smog. Those same tighter standards have been adopted by fourteen other US states, including heavyweights New York and Florida.
In the past, this pioneering spirit in California and others has usually led only to copycat policies across state lines, as recently as 2006. But now we are facing unprecedented global challenges, combined with advances in communication technology and a decline in violent conflicts across the planet. International heads of state, particularly Europeans, have the ability and the motives to engage a much broader range of representatives than in the past. Civil society organizations and regional authorities are influencing world politics as never before—witness the non-governmental efforts at Gleneagles and Heiligendamm that helped put development and environmental concerns on the G8 agenda. When it comes to issues like climate change and energy security, we are all stakeholders, and Steinmeier’s recent visit to Sacramento shows that European leaders are willing to look beyond a nation’s capital city for solutions.
Their citizens should also follow this example. Too often in Berlin, Brussels, Paris and London, the US is reduced to two places: Washington for the politics, and New York for finance and culture. California is eight hours behind Greenwich Mean Time; New York is five. Choosing to visit Los Angeles instead of Washington DC will add six hours onto your transatlantic trip. Is it geographic distance that gives Europeans this selective amnesia when it comes to the existence of other US states?
Perhaps we need a new name for this reinvigorated relationship between Europe and North America, one that includes state governments and heads of state alike. Or it could be that we must simply broaden our conception of this continuum between Europe and North America, this Atlantic Community. The Atlantic Ocean is a bridge between two continents, and the connection between the two has grown to encompass a bigger portion of those regions since 1989. Let’s make it even bigger.
It’s not just the Cold War paradigm that’s over; it’s the notion that borders and established, respectable governments take precedent over federal states, civil society organizations and new EU members. The Enlightenment-era ideals that hold Europe and America together exist in other places besides those that we have too long considered as the traditional West—and it shouldn’t take fifty years to find them.
Casey Butterfield is the editor-in-chief of the Atlantic Community. Ms. Butterfield studied comparative literature at the University of California, Berkeley, and holds a master’s degree in international relations from the University of Cambridge. She is a former Fulbright scholar and has worked as an editor, writer and translator in Spain, Great Britain and the United States. She grew up in Los Angeles.
Related Materials from the Atlantic Community:
- Will Nuland on Transatlantic Trends 2007
- Karsten Voigt Declares That Transatlantic Relationship Is More Than Godless Europe vs. God-Fearing America
- Katherina Reiche Says US and EU Should Cooperate on New Energy Technology
- Bertelsmann Study Finds Europeans and Americans Want More Transatlantic Cooperation