The international strategy of subnational actors: The case of Quebec

Subnational governments have become increasingly relevant on the international scale and contribute to the rise of a multilevel governance of cultural diplomacy.

They are actors under the authority of a national government. In federal states, they can be states or provinces. Regions and municipalities are other examples of subnational governments. Some countries have additional levels of governments.

Although they are not traditionally recognised as legitimate actors within the framework of diplomacy, they do play a role in international relations. Two approaches are possible to analyse their role. One is to view it as para-diplomacy, which entails that state relations and subnational governments’ relations operate in separate and parallel worlds. Another approach considers state diplomacy and subnational governments’ diplomacy as intermingled, with different types of actors being involved.

The case of Quebec

Quebec is the only Canadian province where French is the only provincial official language. The province strives to assert its distinctiveness, as shown by the declaration voted in 2003 by the National Assembly of Quebec, which states that Quebec constitutes a “nation”. In the 1960s, the province went through the so-called “Quiet Revolution”, which led to independence referenda and to the adoption of laws aiming to preserve the French language.

It is in this context that the international strategy of Quebec took off, with the opening of the Quebec house in Paris in 1961 and the adoption of the Gérin-Lajoie doctrine in 1965 (named after the then vice-president of Quebec) that claimed Quebec’s “determination to take the place that it deserves in the contemporary world”. In 1967 Quebec created a Ministry of Intergovernmental Affairs, which became the Ministry of International Affairs in 1984 and later changed name several times.

Over the years, Quebec has opened numerous representations abroad: New York (1940), Paris (1961), London (1962), Dusseldorf (1970), Brussels (1972), Tokyo (1973), Mexico (1980), Seoul (1991). More recently, it opened also offices in Berlin (2006), Mumbai (2008), Dakar and Qingdao (2016). Such representations serve a number of functions: support entrepreneurs and cultural and educational institutions; collect strategic information; promote Quebec with investors, tourists and students.

Quebec also developed bilateral and multilateral actions. In 1965, a France-Quebec cooperation agreement was established in the field of education and three years later, a French-Quebecois Office for the Youth was inaugurated. In 1980, Quebec made an agreement with the People’s Republic of China to collaborate in the field of education. It conducted also international missions, and received delegations of foreign heads of states.

In addition, Quebec developed relations with other subnational governments. In 1989, it developed exchange programmes with Bavaria (in Germany). In 1996, it developed cooperation with Catalonia in fields like education, science, technology and public administration. In 2002, a multilateral cooperation was launched with the regions of Bavaria, Shandong, West Cape and Upper Austria.

The report of the Quebec Ministry of Foreign Affairs stresses its complementarity with Canadian diplomacy: “The government ensures that Québec’s interests are taken into account in the formulation of Canadian foreign policy and conducts its own actions in a manner compatible with overall Canadian foreign policy positions. Canada’s international influence is greater when the federation’s constituent parts—the main expression of its institutional diversity—are well represented.”

The case of Quebec shows how a subnational government can deploy an autonomous international strategy. Quebec argues that its action is complementary with the state’s diplomacy, but is also trying to convey a specific agenda: asserting its voice within the national agenda on international relations, as well as affirming its distinctiveness.

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Cultural Diplomacy

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