Local governments are increasingly becoming major actors in the emerging global legal order. The United Nations, the World Bank, the European Union (“EU”), and other international and transnational institutions are beginning to view local governments as vehicles for the advancement of policies on a global scale. Local governments are transforming into objects for international regulation and are increasingly used as a means for disseminating and implementing global political programs, financial schemes, and governance strategies. The traditional legal focus on state actors is shifting on to local governments, giving them independent legal status in the new global order. Local governments are obtaining international duties, powers, and rights; enforcing international standards; forming global networks involved in the creation of international standards; and becoming objects of international regulation. It has indeed become impossible to understand globalization and its legal ordering without considering the role of localities: They have become prime vehicles for the dissemination of global capital, goods, work force, and images.
The evolving global status of local governments manifests itself in international legal documents and institutions, transnational arrangements, and legal regimes within many countries. To date, however, there has been almost no academic account of this significant legal transformation. International legal theory has remained captive to the centralist and unitary conception of local governments, according to which they are mere subdivisions of states and thus undeserving of any theoretical analysis. And while international legal theorists have analyzed the extension of international law over nonstate entities such as private persons, non-governmental organizations (“NGOs”), and transnational corporations, those same theorists have ignored the profound transformation of localities into independent actors in the international arena. Likewise, local-government scholars have ignored the impeding global pressures on localities, treating the interaction of localities with global and international norms and institutions only sporadically.
In contemporary international legal practice and policy making, however, localities are already being recast as independent semi-private entities, no longer mere state agents subsumed by their national governments. United Nations agencies, the World Bank, and various transnational institutions emphasize both the need to delegate and devolve power to local entities and the potential of localities to act like private corporations or other components of civil society. As such, localities’ ability to generate wealth and economic growth, their need to be financially viable and self-reliant, and their capacity to promote good governance are given prominence over other traits of local governments. With this reshaping of localities comes a new set of ideas about the desirable relationship between state and local governments, including the ideal level of local autonomy, the ideal division of power between national and local levels, and the amount of flexibility that should exist to adjust that division of power.
Many of the legal changes accompanying the new global vision of local entities are only beginning to appear. The activities of a special U.N. agency aimed at formulating a World Charter on local self-government have not yet given rise to a binding international legal document. Regional treatises and transnational agreements such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (“NAFTA”) and membership in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (“GATT,” now the World Trade Organization (“WTO”)) have only started to affect localities and local-government laws, while states’ and local governments’ compliance with emerging international standards is slow and far from complete. Nonetheless, it is possible to predict the results of this transition as well as to analyze its justifications and normative ramifications.
This Article attempts to formulate preliminary lines of investigation into consequences of an emerging global regime that expands the role of localities, while also analyzing the normative underpinnings of the role localities could have in a world governed by a multitude of jurisdictions, some territorial, others less so. Part I traces recent changes that demonstrate the new role of localities in international law. Part II analyzes the normative justifications often used to legitimate the transformation of localities into prominent global actors: economic efficiency, democratic potential, and localities’ unique role as normative mediators between communities and states. Finally, Part III sets forth a normative and theoretical analysis of the role localities could and should have in the emerging global legal order.
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