Unbundling the nation state

The Economist on Government-to-government trade: “NIGERIAN pineapple for breakfast, Peruvian quinoa for lunch and Japanese sushi for dinner. Two centuries ago, when David Ricardo advocated specialisation and free trade, the notion that international exchange in goods and services could make such a cosmopolitan diet commonplace would have seemed fanciful.
Today another scenario may appear equally unlikely: a Norwegian government agency managing Algeria’s sovereign-wealth fund; German police overseeing security in the streets of Mumbai; and Dubai playing the role of the courthouse of the Middle East. Yet such outlandish possibilities are more than likely if a new development fulfils its promise. Ever more governments are trading with each other, from advising lawmakers to managing entire services. They are following businesses, which have long outsourced much of what they do. Is this the dawn of the government-to-government era?
Such “G2G” trade is not new, though the name may be. After the Ottoman empire defaulted on its debt in 1875 foreign lenders set up an “Ottoman Public Debt Administration”, its governing council packed with European government officials. At its peak it had 9,000 employees, more than the empire’s finance ministry. And the legacy of enforced G2G trade—colonialism, as it was known—is still visible even today. Britain’s Privy Council is the highest court of appeal for many Commonwealth countries. France provides a monetary-policy service to several west African nations by managing their currency, the CFA franc.
One reason G2G trade is growing is that it is a natural extension of the trend for governments to pinch policies from each other. “Policymaking now routinely occurs in comparative terms,” says Jamie Peck of the University of British Columbia, who refers to G2G advice as “fast policy”. Since the late 1990s Mexico’s pioneering policy to make cash benefits for poor families conditional on things like getting children vaccinated and sending them to school has been copied by almost 50 other countries….Budget cuts can provide another impetus for G2G trade. The Dutch army recently sold its Leopard II tanks and now sends tank crews to train with German forces. That way it will be able to reform its tank squadrons quickly if they are needed. Britain, with a ten-year gap between scrapping old aircraft-carriers and buying new ones, has sent pilots to train with the American marines on the F-35B, which will fly from both American and British carriers.

No one knows the size of the G2G market. Governments rarely publicise deals, not least because they fear looking weak. And there are formidable barriers to trade. The biggest is the “Westphalian” view of sovereignty, says Stephen Krasner of Stanford University: that states should run their own affairs without foreign interference. In 2004 Papua New Guinea’s parliament passed a RAMSI-like delegation agreement, but local elites opposed it and courts eventually declared it unconstitutional. Honduras attempted to create independent “charter cities”, a concept developed by Paul Romer of New York University (NYU), whose citizens would have had the right of appeal to the supreme court of Mauritius. But in 2012 this scheme, too, was deemed unconstitutional.
Critics fret about accountability and democratic legitimacy. The 2005 Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, endorsed by governments and aid agencies, made much of the need for developing countries to design their own development strategies. And providers open themselves to reputational risk. British police, for instance, have trained Bahraini ones. A heavy-handed crackdown by local forces during the Arab spring reflected badly on their foreign teachers…
When San Francisco decided to install wireless control systems for its streetlights, it posted a “call for solutions” on Citymart, an online marketplace for municipal projects. In 2012 it found a Swiss firm, Paradox Engineering, which had built such systems for local cities. But though members often share ideas, says Sascha Haselmayer, Citymart’s founder, most still decide to implement their chosen policies themselves.
Weak government services are the main reason poor countries fail to catch up with rich ones, says Mr Romer. One response is for people in poorly run places to move to well governed ones. Better would be to bring efficient government services to them. In a recent paper with Brandon Fuller, also of NYU, Mr Romer argues that either response would bring more benefits than further lowering the barriers to trade in privately provided goods and services. Firms have long outsourced activities, even core ones, to others that do them better. It is time governments followed suit.”