WASHINGTON — When Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull arrives in Washington this week for consultations with President Donald Trump, he won’t be traveling solo.
Turnbull is bringing the most senior Australian political and business delegation ever to visit the United States in a trip aimed at building stronger relationships with America’s governors. While he’ll talk trade and security concerns with Trump, Turnbull will spend the weekend courting U.S. governors at their annual gathering.
Turnbull, a Goldman Sachs executive-turned prime minister, is the latest world leader to extend outreach to U.S. governors and big-city mayors in the age of Trump’s “America First” policies. It’s an end run — or at least a shift in focus — around Washington, as foreign leaders react to Trump’s unpredictability and occasional lack of interest in the sort of global cooperation they’re seeking.
Trump, after all, has announced plans to pull the U.S. out of the Paris climate accord, exit the Trans-Pacific Partnership and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement and other trade deals.
“On certain issues like climate change, these foreign leaders can’t go to Washington anymore,” said Nicholas Burns, a top State Department official during the Bush administration who also served as U.S. ambassador to NATO. “This is happening more frequently because the Trump administration is pulling back on a number of its commitments.”
Turnbull isn’t the only world leader to see the benefit of direct talks with American governors and municipal leaders.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s recent trip to the U.S. included trade and tourism talks in Illinois with Gov. Bruce Rauner and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a stop in the San Francisco Bay area for meetings with California Gov. Jerry Brown and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom, and a visit to Los Angeles, where he explored the city’s hiking trails with Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is planning an extensive U.S. tour in the coming weeks, with expected stops in several U.S. cities.
During last fall’s U.N. climate talks in Bonn, Germany, Brown and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took a starring role, representing a group of U.S. states, cities and businesses that argued they are still committed to curbing global warming even if Trump pulls out of the Paris accord.
The group, which calls itself “America’s Pledge,” notes that its collective alliance has an economy larger than Japan and Germany combined and can take steps to reduce emissions by promoting renewable energy use and climate-friendly transportation systems.
It’s hardly unprecedented for heads of government and state to make stops outside Washington on visits to the U.S. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu frequently visits New York and Los Angeles, and Trump welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida last year.
But governors and mayors say there’s been an uptick in the interest of foreign leaders in reaching out to them since Trump’s election.
“It’s political and it’s practical. On the political side, a lack of engagement, strength and leadership from Washington and the White House,” Garcetti said in an interview. “But the practical aspect is the world demands integration and work on these things.”
In Los Angeles, Garcetti designated Nina Hachigian, a former U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations during the Obama administration, to serve in a new position of deputy mayor for international affairs. Hachigian oversees the city’s international portfolio, from the city’s dozens of foreign consulates to trade, climate and tourism issues and the city’s hosting of the 2028 Olympic Games.
Trump’s election and the nontraditional makeup of his Cabinet and administration proved that “the political leadership of America over the years is not going to come exclusively from” Washington, said Joe Hockey, the Australian ambassador to the U.S. “But these days, relationships have to be deeper. They need to be more thoughtful. They need to be broader. And they need to be inclusive.”
Turnbull and Ghana President Nana Akufo-Addo will address the National Governors Association this weekend and the prime minister is bringing most of Australia’s territorial premiers, who will attend a joint program with their American counterparts Saturday morning. The Australian government and the NGA have partnered to bring a joint group of CEOs to Washington this weekend as well.
“Certainly, there’s some change in policy at the national level with this administration creating a bit of change and foreign governments are wanting to interpret that,” said Scott Pattison, the NGA’s executive director and chief executive officer. He said it has resulted in an increased interest on the part of U.S. governors to forge direct ties with foreign officials.
“This really is about interaction, economic development. There is no desire on the part of governors — they know their role — there’s not a desire to get involved in foreign policy,” Pattison said.
But local leaders and their foreign counterparts are finding new ways to make end-runs around Washington, particularly on economic development and environmental policy.
Last week, the NGA launched a new international cooperation arm, called NGA Global, designed to strengthen ties between governors and foreign governments.
At the last NGA meeting, held July in Rhode Island, Trudeau became the first foreign leader to address the NGA in its history. Last year, NGA brought governors to Germany and Switzerland to study how those countries used apprenticeships to better prepare their workforces — a test-run for the new office.
NGA is also hosting a summit of North American governors and premiers in Phoenix in May, a partnership they launched with their counterparts in Mexico and Canada in 2015.