Subnational Diplomacy: The Key to Strengthening U.S. International Relations

Representative Ted Lieu*

I. INTRODUCTION

When SARS-CoV-2 (“COVID-19” or the “coronavirus”) began spreading in the United States in early 2020, it quickly became apparent that we were facing a global crisis with consequences for our local communities. The Trump White House decided early in the pandemic to cede most decision-making to the states and local municipalities.1See Kevin Liptak, Kristen Holmes & Ryan Nobles, Trump Completes Reversal, Telling Govs “You Are Going to Call Your Own Shots’ and Distributes New Guidelines, CNN (Apr. 16, 2020), https://www.cnn.com/2020/04/16/politics/donald-trump-reopening-guidelines-coronavirus/index.html [https://perma.cc/CPC5-LCD2].

That approach was not illogical. Community health departments and local governments have a good grasp of the unique demographics in their areas and can be quicker to respond to challenges as they arise. But for that strategy to work, state and local governments needed significant support. Unfortunately, the hands-off, uncoordinated approach from the federal government meant local governments did not have the time and resources they desperately needed to crush the virus.2 For example, Senior White House Advisor Jared Kushner famously referred to the national stockpile of medical supplies as “our stockpile” and not one belonging to the states. See Nicholas Wu, Jared Kushner Makes Coronavirus Briefing Appearance, Draws Backlash for ‘Our Stockpile’ Comment, USA TODAY (Apr. 3, 2020), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2020/04/03/coronavirus-jared-kushner-draws-backlash-our-stockpile-comment/2938648001/ [https://perma.cc/5JFU-26C4].

In confronting a pandemic that did not care about geographic boundaries, local officials were often forced to improvise without help from the federal government. States opted to coordinate with each other3 See Pennsylvania Joins New York, New Jersey and Connecticut’s Regional Coalition to Combat COVID-19, N.Y. STATE (Mar. 18, 2020), https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/pennsylvania-joins-new-york-new-jersey-and-connecticuts-regional-coalition-combat-covid-19 [https://perma.cc/YN3R-8N6C]. and with foreign counterparts.4 See Brakkton Booker, Maryland Buys 500,000 Test Kits From South Korea, Drawing Criticism From Trump, NPR (Apr. 21, 2020), https://www.npr.org/sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/04/21/839919655/maryland-gets-500-000-test-kits-from-south-korea-drawing-criticism-from-trump [https://perma.cc/H956-7KDA]. Some states struggled to track down adequate personal protective equipment (“PPE”) for healthcare workers5 See Irena Hwang, The PPE Crisis Didn’t Go Away: Across the U.S., Grassroots Supply Networks Are Trying to Fill the Void, STAT (Dec. 1, 2020), https://www.statnews.com/2020/12/01/the-ppe-crisis-didnt-go-away-across-the-u-s-grassroots-supply-networks-are-trying-to-fill-the-void/ [https://perma.cc/7CY9-FXAH]. while others pleaded for federal and international help to expand testing.6 See P. Kenneth Burns, Coronavirus Update: Murphy Says Widespread Testing Needed Before Reopening, WHYY (Apr. 14, 2020), https://whyy.org/articles/coronavirus-update-n-j-tax-deadline-officially-to-be-extended/ [https://perma.cc/N9C7-VNQ9]. In many ways, the pandemic demonstrated that the national government cannot always be as nimble as city and state governments can be when it comes to responding to crises.

While international relations is mainly the responsibility of national governments, diplomacy can be practiced at every level of government. Crises such as COVID-19 and difficult global issues like climate change present opportunities for subnational diplomacy—diplomacy conducted by officials at various levels of government below the national level—to overcome barriers that have national governments stuck in the mud. From governors to mayors to tribal leaders, relationships between officials at the subnational level have and will continue to open multiple diplomatic channels.

At the height of the pandemic, the lengths to which local leaders were willing to go to secure supplies for their communities was staggering. In April 2020, Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker coordinated a secret charter plane to bring PPE from Shanghai, China. Governor Pritzker’s plan was meant to circumvent the Trump administration’s alleged seizing of PPE shipments from abroad.7 See Michelle Mark, Illinois’ Governor Organized Secret Flights to Bring Masks and Gloves from China Out of Fear Trump Would Seize Them, BUS. INSIDER (Apr. 18, 2020), https://www.businessinsider.com/illinois-reportedly-organized-secret-flights-bringing-masks-from-china-2020-4 [https://perma.cc/4WYG-7BD3]. A hallmark of the desperation and supply chain challenges at the time, the state of Illinois was forced to hand million-dollar checks to intermediaries in parking lots to get more masks, gloves, and gowns for healthcare workers.8 See id.

Perhaps the most high-profile example of subnational diplomacy on the fly occurred in Maryland. Governors like Larry Hogan, who were left on their own to address the ever-worsening crisis, were desperate to build up testing and contact-tracing programs. At the time, testing was considered the key to containing the pandemic.9 See Larry Hogan, Fighting Alone: I’m a GOP Governor. Why Didn’t Trump Help My State with Coronavirus Testing?, WASH. POST (July 16, 2020),  https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/07/16/larry-hogan-trump-coronavirus/?arc404=true&itid=lk_inline_manual_23 [https://perma.cc/U6JU-N3RU]. The initial flaws in the federal Center for Disease Control’s tests set the country back by months in terms of containment, and South Korea had a far more effective testing apparatus than the United States. Hogan and his wife made a direct ask of Korean President Moon Jae-in, touting the “special relationship between Maryland and the Republic of Korea.”10 See Full Remarks: Governor Hogan Announces State of Maryland Acquires 500,000 COVID-19 Tests From South Korea’s LabGenomics, MARYLAND.GOV (Apr. 20, 2020), https://governor.maryland.gov/2020/04/20/full-remarks-governor-hogan-announces-state-of-maryland-acquires-500000-covid-19-tests-from-south-koreas-labgenomics/ [https://perma.cc/F6RQ-F3T4]. When the tests arrived in Maryland, the Governor called it “Operation Enduring Friendship” and touted his diplomatic efforts to secure 500,000 COVID-19 tests from South Korea.11 A state audit would later find that Hogan did not follow state regulations when he secured the tests, which ended up going completely unused. See Steve Thompson, Audit Criticizes Maryland’s $9 Million Purchase from South Korean Company of Coronavirus Tests That Had to Be Replaced, WASH. POST (Apr. 2, 2021), https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/md-politics/korean-coronavirus-tests-audit/2021/04/02/9c456726-9342-11eb-9668-89be11273c09_story.html [https://perma.cc/Q2M9-HTP3].

Meaningful, high-profile subnational diplomacy existed well before the pandemic.12 See Anthony F. Pipa & Max Bouchet, Partnership Among Cities, States, and the Federal Government: Creating an Office of Subnational Diplomacy at the US Department of State, BROOKINGS (Feb. 17, 2021), https://www.brookings.edu/research/partnership-among-cities-states-and-the-federal-government-creating-an-office-of-subnational-diplomacy-at-the-us-department-of-state/ [https://perma.cc/5XBP-JU4C]. For example, during the Cold War, communities around the country used their local political power to vocalize opposition to nuclear armament.13See BENJAMIN LEFFEL, USC CTR. ON PUB. DIPL., SUBNATIONAL DIPLOMACY, CLIMATE GOVERNANCE & CALIFORNIAN GLOBAL LEADERSHIP 2 (2018),
https://uscpublicdiplomacy.org/sites/uscpublicdiplomacy.org/files/useruploads/u39301/Subnational%20Diplomacy%2C%20Climate%20Governance%20%26%20Californian%20Global%20Leadership%20-%20Benjamin%20Leffel_0.pdf [https://perma.cc/P2ZT-28HS].
In the 1980s, upwards of 4,000 communities in seventeen countries, including the United States, declared themselves “nuclear-free zones” in response to escalating tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union.14 See id. In 1987, 700 United States mayors and city council members gathered at the National League of Cities Congress in Las Vegas and signed onto the Nevada Declaration, which called for a national ban on nuclear testing.15 Michael H. Shuman, Ban Nuclear Testing, 2 BULL. MUN. FOREIGN POL’Y 2, 3 (1987).

Today, over fifty-five percent of the world’s population live in cities.16 See 68% of the World Population Projected to Live in Urban Areas By 2050, Says UN, U.N. DEP’T ECON. & SOC. AFFS. (May 16, 2018), https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/2018-revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html [https://perma.cc/BL59-F7EE]. That number is expected to climb to sixty-eight percent by 2050.17 See id. Some local leaders oversee economies comparable to those of entire countries. Large cities and counties are claiming more and more economic power in the United States, with one percent of counties in the United States accounting for one-third of the country’s gross domestic product (“GDP”) in 2018.18 See Andre Tartar & Reade Pickert, One-Third of the U.S. Economy is Jammed Into Just 31 Counties. L.A. is the Biggest, L.A. TIMES (Dec. 19, 2019, 1:05 PM), latimes.com/business/story/2019-12-19/los-angeles-largest-economy [https://perma.cc/9W7D-GYKA]. Los Angeles County, for example, has an output of $710.9 billion GDP, the equivalent of Saudi Arabia.19 See id. The state of California is the fifth-largest economy in the world, making its GDP larger than that of the United Kingdom and Russia.20 Pat Evans, 16 Mind-Blowing Facts About California’s Economy, MKTS. INSIDER (Apr. 26, 2019, 8:02 AM), https://markets.businessinsider.com/news/stocks/california-economy-16-mind-blowing-facts-2019-4 [https://perma.cc/5ACL-ZU2U].

Rural jurisdictions and states with rural areas have also benefitted from subnational diplomacy. Foreign officials routinely visit agricultural areas and ink contracts for various agricultural products.21 See e.g., New Trade Relationship With Ecuador Benefits Texas Ranchers, TEX. DEP’T AGRIC. (May 20, 2015), https://www.texasagriculture.gov/NewsEvents/NewsEventsDetails/tabid/76/Article/2781/New-Trade-Relationship-With-Ecuador-Benefits-Texas-Ranchers.aspx [https://perma.cc/BW2D-A68Z] (“The Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) recently hosted a delegation of agriculture leaders from Ecuador and the United States to facilitate the trade of cattle between the two nations.”). When the Director General of the Hebei Provincial Agricultural Department visited the United States to discuss agriculture and animal husbandry, did he visit the State Department in Washington, D.C.? No, he went to Kansas and met with the Kansas Department of Agriculture and Kansas Department of Commerce.22 See Kansas in Spotlight as Chinese Delegation from Hebei Province Visits Kansas, KAN. DEP’T AGRIC. (May 8, 2015), https://agriculture.ks.gov/news-events/news-releases/2015/05/08/kansas-in-spotlight-as-chinese-delegation-from-hebei-province-visits-kansas [https://perma.cc/A3ZP-BJK7].

When subnational actors join forces, they can have an undeniable and far-reaching impact. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, a coalition of 97 cities from around the world committed to addressing climate change currently chaired by the Los Angeles Mayor, represents more than 700 million people and a quarter of the global economy.23 See C40 CITIES, https://www.c40.org [https://perma.cc/67VU-YNSR]. This subnational effort to address climate change represents a large movement by local leaders to find commonality with foreign counterparts to advance shared goals, even in the face of stalled efforts at the national level. We have seen these principles apply to local responses to the pandemic as well.

The COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates in the starkest terms what happens when local governments do not have the federal support to address a crisis. It also shows us that states and local governments are already coordinating with foreign counterparts and will continue to do so. What is missing is direct and explicit federal support to help achieve shared goals. In the case of COVID-19, coherent federal support in the diplomatic space would have meant local governments would have had access to information and potentially resources from allies abroad contending with outbreaks in their communities. That type of knowledge-sharing may have saved lives and offered valuable insight into the United States’ COVID response. Instead, the patchwork of local responses left our communities vulnerable to outbreaks. There is much that cities and states can—and already do—learn from other countries through diplomacy, and the federal government has the tools, knowledge, and resources to expand those efforts.

While subnational diplomacy has become increasingly prevalent in United States cities and states as mayors and governors recognize the power of international cooperation for their constituents, the federal State Department has no dedicated structure to support these local efforts to engage with the international community. In 1979, the State Department created an Ambassador-at-Large for Liaison with State and Local Government.24 See CHRIS MURPHY, THE CITY AND STATE DIPLOMACY ACT ONE PAGER, https://www.murphy.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/City%20and%20State%20Diplomacy%20Bill%20One%20Pager.pdf [https://perma.cc/V3LE-CU9A]. But since then, these functions have been folded into a parade of temporary stand-alone offices or into the Bureau of Public Affairs.25 See id. This lack of focused federal support for city and state governments is the reason for the City and State Diplomacy Act,26 City and State Diplomacy Act, H.R. 4526, 117th Cong. (2021). which will support state and local diplomacy with counterparts abroad. The bill will establish an office of city and state diplomacy at the State Department, which will coordinate overall United States policy, programs, and resources in support of city and state engagement with foreign governments and officials. This is a vital tool for our democracy because it ensures a coordinated effort between local officials and the State Department, thereby streamlining and strengthening both federal and local diplomatic aims.

The pandemic has provided a lens through which to view the value of subnational diplomacy. It does not undermine national level diplomacy but rather enhances it. By leveraging federal resources to support cities and states, the State Department can advance foreign and domestic policy goals relating to economic prosperity and geopolitical stability—and help local governments reap the full benefits of foreign engagement in the process.

The City and State Diplomacy Act also provides two other benefits. It helps us push back on near-peer competitors like China that use a whole of government approach to achieve their objectives, by giving United States state and local leaders the tools and knowledge needed to navigate pressure and exploitation by foreign officials. And it helps diversify and increase the actors involved in our nation’s foreign policy. Instead of just having one federal department with a limited number of overworked foreign service officers and ambassadors (with relatively few minorities),27 See Ryan Heath, The State Department Has a Systemic Diversity Problem, POLITICO (Mar. 16, 2021, 12:55 PM), https://www.politico.com/news/2021/03/16/state-department-diversity-problem-476161 [https://perma.cc/9FHS-EETD]. we can leverage the expertise, talent, and energy of tens of thousands of city, county, and state officials from around the country who are going to be engaged abroad with or without federal support.

II. THE VALUE OF SUBNATIONAL DIPLOMACY WITHIN THE UNITED STATES

The aforementioned examples of how governors from Maryland and Illinois handled a global pandemic at home speak to the wide possibilities of strong strategic engagement with foreign counterparts during moments of crisis. Local leaders are the ones with their fingers on the pulse of their communities. Their political prospects hinge on delivering tangible support for the communities they serve. That is why city and state leaders will look abroad for resources, knowledge-sharing, and economic support, particularly when federal support is limited.

It was the foundational relationships local leaders in the United States had built with foreign counterparts before the pandemic that created the space for collaboration during the COVID-19 outbreak. Take the city of Los Angeles: Mayor Eric Garcetti has chaired the C40 Cities since 2019.28 See About C40, C40 CITIES, https://www.c40.org/about-c40/ [https://perma.cc/WE5T-ZYQF]. C40 is a coalition of cities founded in 2005 to find common ground on solutions to climate change.29 See id. Currently, ninety-seven cities from around the world have joined C40 to commit to bold solutions to climate change.30 See Green & Just Recovery Agenda, C40 CITIES, https://www.c40.org/what-we-do/raising-climate-ambition/green-just-recovery-agenda/#:~:text=In%20October%20of%202020%2C%20the,’high%2Dcarbon%20recovery’. [https://perma.cc/S76T-T5J3]. Those city-to-city relationships proved invaluable during the pandemic when Mayor Garcetti and his C40 counterparts launched the Global Mayors COVID-19 Recovery Task Force to create shared goals for a post-pandemic recovery that would span the globe. In an impressive feat of global collaboration, more than forty leaders from cities around the world agreed to ensure recovery efforts were inclusive, green, and equitable.31 See id. 

This kind of collaboration is paramount as we address problems that arose from or were exacerbated by the pandemic. Local governments can provide deeper insight on issues that matter around the world. From inequity in public health and the pandemic response, to environmental racism and climate justice, cities and states contend with these issues firsthand. While the United States is an economic juggernaut, it is still marred by inequality that was worsened by the pandemic.32See Ian Goldin & Robert Muggah, COVID-19 is Increasing Multiple Kinds of Inequality. Here’s What We Can Do About It, WORLD ECON. F. (Oct. 9, 2020), https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/10/covid-19-is-increasing-multiple-kinds-of-inequality-here-s-what-we-can-do-about-it/ [https://perma.cc/BG26-FQWU].

According to a Save the Children survey of families from thirty-seven countries, three out of four households suffered from a decline in income due to the pandemic. Of those households, the poorest among them were the hardest hit.33 See JESS EDWARDS, SAVE THE CHILDREN INT’L, THE IMPACT OF COVID-19 ON CHILDREN’S LIVES 8 (2020). In the United States, forty-four million people lost their jobs in the beginning months of the pandemic.34 See Goldin & Muggah, supra note 32. The coalition of C40 cities strove to tackle the inequities that city leaders were seeing firsthand. Having a coalition like the C40 cities sign on to principles like “the recovery must address issues of equity that have been laid bare by the impact of the crisis” sends a clear signal that this is a shared priority among the global community.35 See Press Release, C40 Cities, “No Return to Business as Usual”: Mayors Pledge on COVID-19 Economic Recovery (May 7, 2020), https://www.c40.org/news/taskforce-principles/ [https://perma.cc/MK36-PT8P].

The value of subnational diplomacy spans beyond the pandemic and can serve as a vital asset in our efforts to combat pressing issues like climate change. In 2019, California signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Israel on energy and water cooperation.36 Memorandum of Understanding On the Establishment of a Strategic Partnership for Joint Innovation, Exchanges and Cooperation, Cal.-Isr., Mar. 5, 2014, https://www.energy.ca.gov/sites/default/files/2019-12/MOU-Israel_ada.pdf [https://perma.cc/MT75-ZPNX]. The basis of the agreement was to create a framework in which Israel and the state of California could collaborate on initiatives related to industrial research and development and economic cooperation.37 See id. This is one of many agreements the state has implemented with other countries.

Additionally, in 2013 California became the first subnational government to sign an agreement with China’s National Development and Reform Commission to combat climate change.38 Memorandum of Understanding to Enhance Cooperation on Low Carbon Development, China-Cal., Sept. 13, 2013, https://www.energy.ca.gov/sites/default/files/2019-12/2013-09-13_MOU-NDRC_China_ADA.pdf [https://perma.cc/F7JW-WPV4]. California has always been a leader on environmental policy within the United States, so a natural extension of that would be engaging with foreign counterparts on climate issues. In the same year, Quebec linked with California’s cap and trade program, which allows emissions offsets to be traded between the two, thereby reducing the cost of compliance for businesses in California and Quebec.39 See California Cap and Trade, CTR. FOR CLIMATE & ENERGY SOLS., http://www.c2es.org/content/california-cap-and-trade/#Revenue [https://perma.cc/Y9LT-8YLA]. California achieved a thirteen percent drop in emissions from 2004 to 2015, an incredible accomplishment given that it has not hindered economic growth in the state.40 See Alex Pfeifer-Rosenblum, California’s Cap-and-Trade Program Has Proven Effective – Now Let’s Make It Equitable, BERKELEY PUB. POL’Y J. (Apr. 10, 2020), https://bppj.berkeley.edu/2020/04/10/californias-cap-and-trade-program-has-proven-effective-now-lets-make-it-equitable/ [https://perma.cc/CTE2-83WU].

These city and state-level engagements can serve not only local interests but our national goals as well. Some challenges, such as global climate change, are increasingly rooted in city, state, and civil society action. The United States will depend on state action to meet its climate commitments. The U.S. Climate Alliance, for example, is a coalition of Governors from twenty-four states that have committed to meeting the goals outlined by the Paris Climate Agreement and was formed after President Trump withdrew from the Paris Agreement in 2017.41 See About Us, U.S. CLIMATE ALL., http://www.usclimatealliance.org/about-us [https://perma.cc/H5WW-H6DZ]; U.S. CLIMATE ALL., FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS 1 (2019). Although efforts to address climate change are far more robust under President Biden, the U.S. Climate Alliance has maintained its commitment to achieve emissions reductions and other anti-pollution benchmarks established during the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (“COP 21”).42 See generally U.S. CLIMATE ALL., http://www.usclimatealliance.org/ [https://perma.cc/ZH7H-637Y]; see also U.S. CLIMATE ALL., FACT SHEET 1-2 (2022). Similarly, 200 cities, states, and companies charted a “parallel pledge” forward on climate change by submitting a plan to the United Nations committing to meeting United States greenhouse gas emissions targets under the Paris Climate Accord.43 See Hiroko Tabuchi & Henry Fountain, Bucking Trump, These Cities, States and Companies Commit to Paris Accord, N.Y. TIMES (June 1, 2017), https://www.nytimes.com/2017/06/01/climate/american-cities-climate-standards.html [https://perma.cc/X8M6-BL28].

Beyond specific policy goals, there is also a clear economic incentive for states and local leaders to look abroad for foreign engagement. California creates nearly 15 percent of the United States’ agricultural output and has sold nearly $2.3 billion in agricultural products to China in recent years.44 Gabriella Canon, In California, Trump’s Trade War Threatens Permanent Damage to Some Agriculture Markets, USA TODAY (Aug. 27, 2019, 5:28 PM), https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/2019/08/27/trump-china-trade-war-hurts-could-permanantly-hurt-california-farms/2092434001/ [https://perma.cc/4DWB-X5S6]. As a result, the state was slated to be one of the biggest losers of a drawn-out trade war with China, a hallmark of the Trump administration’s foreign policy agenda.45 See id. In Michigan, foreign trade is the largest driver of the economy.46 See Mark J. Perry, How Important Is International Trade to Each US State’s Economy? Pretty Important for Most US States, AM. ENTER. INST. (Mar. 9, 2019), https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/how-important-is-international-trade-to-each-us-states-economy-pretty-important-for-most-us-states/ [https://perma.cc/X29Q-ZGF7]. Last year, Michigan’s trading activity with Mexico and Canada represented nearly $134 billion, primarily driven by the cross-border supply chains needed for automobile manufacturing.47 See id. 

In addition to trade, some state economies rely on tourists to anchor local prosperity. Florida is investing in attracting more international travelers following a challenging tourism environment due to pandemic travel restrictions. The Sunshine State is spending $50 million in 2021 on marketing to attract foreign visitors and encourage travel to the state.48 See Visit Florida Looks To Boost International Tourism, WFSU PUB. MEDIA (May 26, 2021), https://news.wfsu.org/state-news/2021-05-26/visit-florida-looks-to-boost-international-tourism [https://perma.cc/RCG9-GYLY]. In 2018, the United States received more foreign travel dollars than any other country, with foreign tourists spending $215 billion.49 See Top 3 U.S. States International Tourists Visit, SHAREAMERICA (Oct. 22, 2019) https://share.america.gov/top-3-u-s-states-international-tourists-visit/ [https://perma.cc/PWJ2-YGY8].

States and local leaders have clear incentives to engage with foreign leaders at the national and subnational level. There are spaces where local leaders can succeed at international engagement, but where the support of the federal government would be a value-add or saving grace. Addressing issues like climate change and the pandemic requires commitment from local communities, as well as buy-in from national and international leaders. Similarly, economic stimulus from foreign sources, be they tourists or companies, can be a success or failure for local communities depending on federal policies and support. A commitment from the federal government in the form of a dedicated team of professionals working on subnational diplomacy may not correct all these challenges, but it could provide local leaders with professional insight that would ultimately create more opportunities to benefit the United States as a whole.

III. LOCAL GOVERNMENTS ARE ASSETS TO DIPLOMACY AND UNITED STATES FOREIGN POLICY GOALS

Local communities can benefit from taking part in diplomacy, and that engagement has the power to shape and improve the United States’ overall standing among foreign nations and to improve foreign policy goals. Ultimately, local governments are an asset in building trust between foreign governments and the United States because they are often the face of American ideals and industry and are unencumbered by federal bureaucracy. When President Trump made good on his campaign promise to pivot America’s policy agenda inward, many of America’s allies were left in the lurch.50 See Pete Buttigieg & Philip H. Gordon, Present at the Destruction of U.S. Power and Influence, FOREIGN POL’Y (July 14, 2020, 1:50 PM), https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/07/14/trump-biden-foreign-policy-alliances/ [https://perma.cc/4WDV-EU5V]. During his tenure, President Trump withdrew from the Paris Climate Accord, the Iran Nuclear Deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the World Health Organization, and several other treaties and international obligations.51 See Michael R. Lehnert & Richard L. Kelly, Opinion, Trump’s Dangerous Isolationism Weakens USA and Strengthens Our Adversaries: Retired Generals, USA TODAY (Oct. 26, 2020, 5:00 AM), https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2020/10/26/trump-international-relations-danger-isolation-policies-column/3726323001/ [https://perma.cc/T5LJ-ZBYH]. Perceptions of America and Americans from the international community plummeted during the Trump administration, with confidence in the United States President at seventeen percent at the end of his term.52See RICHARD WIKE, JACOB POUSHTER, LAURA SILVER, JANELL FETTEROLF & MARA MORDECAI, PEW RSCH. CTR., AMERICA’S IMAGE ABROAD REBOUNDS WITH TRANSITION FROM TRUMP TO BIDEN 4 (2021), https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2021/06/10/americas-image-abroad-rebounds-with-transition-from-trump-to-biden/ [https://perma.cc/M4NX-WEWW]. These shortcomings only highlighted the inherent value of having de facto diplomats at the subnational level to counter the narrative that the United States had abandoned the international stage.

Subnational diplomacy offers a chance for local officials to forge strong relationships and generate goodwill with their foreign counterparts and demonstrate that the United States values strong international relationships. There are numerous examples of exchange programs and opportunities to this end. The Strong Cities Network is a multinational network of over 120 cities working together to combat hate, polarization, and extremism at the local and global level.53 See STRONG CITIES NETWORK, https://strongcitiesnetwork.org/en/ [https://perma.cc/SNK5-F46Q]. They help local leaders by crafting local legislation, sharing best practices from around the world, and connecting local leaders with their international counterparts.54 See id. 

Another example is Sister Cities International, a nonprofit founded by President Dwight Eisenhower to connect cities, counties and states in the United States with communities around the world.55 See About Us, SISTER CITIES INT’L, https://sistercities.org/about-us/ [https://perma.cc/HY69-4T6Y]. These partnerships have created opportunities for cultural exchange and philanthropic support. Recently, the City of San Antonio donated $10,000 to its sister city, Chennai, to help with COVID-19 relief efforts when the virus was ravaging India.56 See City of San Antonio Donates $10k to Chennai Sister City for COVID Relief, SISTER CITIES INT’L, https://www.sistercities.org/2021/06/11/city-of-san-antonio-donates-10k-to-chennai-sister-city-for-covid-relief/ [https://perma.cc/QTQ3-7Z77]. The village of Cap-Pele in Canada sent thousands of masks to its sister city, Broussard, Louisiana at the beginning of the pandemic.57 See Christina Mulherin, Cap-Pelé Resident Donates Thousands of Masks, 919 BEND (Apr. 6, 2020, 7:08 AM), https://www.919thebend.ca/2020/04/06/cap-pele-resident-donates-thousands-of-masks/ [https://perma.cc/Z3Y7-ZG6L]. This act of kindness was in response to a year prior when the city of Broussard offered Cap-Pele its support following Hurricane Dorian.58 See id. The State Department itself agrees that cultural exchange programs like these deepen understanding of international relationships, make lasting international connections, and increase awareness of the global community.59 See Why Participate?, BUREAU EDUC. & CULTURAL AFFS. EXCH. PROGRAM, https://exchanges.state.gov/non-us/why-participate [https://perma.cc/AH2Q-RW2U].

The Biden administration has underscored its belief that United States credibility and leverage in the world—especially on issues of democracy and human rights—requires upholding values of democracy and human rights at home.60 Press Release, White House, Summit for Democracy Summary of Proceedings (Dec. 23, 2021), https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/12/23/summit-for-democracy-summary-of-proceedings/ [https://perma.cc/D37V-A4WB]. Americans have more interaction with subnational entities in their everyday lives, making subnational engagement on international issues important in connecting with the rest of the world. Cities like New York, Atlanta, and Los Angeles already have international affairs offices that help connect the global to the local.61 See Sohaela Amiri & Rafiq Dossani, Commentary, City Diplomacy Has Been On the Rise. Policies Are Finally Catching Up, RANDBLOG (Nov. 22, 2019), https://www.rand.org/blog/2019/11/city-diplomacy-has-been-on-the-rise-policies-are-finally.html [https://perma.cc/R8KC-QE9T]. Los Angeles has established several programs focused on cultural exchange and mutual benefit. The Young Ambassadors initiative, which gives youngsters the chance to learn about international career opportunities and engenders a greater understanding of the international community, has provided nearly 130 students with these opportunities.62 See Mayor’s Young Ambassador Program, L.A. MAYOR, https://www.lamayor.org/mayor%25E2%2580%2599s-young-ambassador-program [https://perma.cc/H5SY-3DQY]. Additionally, the MEXLA program harnesses the strong cultural connection Los Angeles has with Mexico by fostering opportunities for collaboration across the border.63 See International Affairs, L.A. MAYOR, https://www.lamayor.org/international-affairs [https://perma.cc/A8DT-BER5].

When effectively implemented, subnational diplomacy can help the United States maintain its commitments, consistency, and trust around the world despite political changes domestically. Although favorability of the United States within the international community has improved since President Biden took office,64 See Eli Yokley, Biden’s Early Tenure Has Improved America’s Image Abroad, MORNING CONSULT (Apr. 27, 2021, 12:01 AM), https://morningconsult.com/2021/04/27/biden-100-days-global-views-america/ [https://perma.cc/57FE-HG79]. United States allies remain skeptical about whether American priorities will shift again.65 See Eli Stokols & David S. Cloud, Declaring ‘America is Back,’ Biden Tries to Regain Europe’s Trust, L.A. TIMES (Feb. 19, 2021, 11:58 AM), https://www.latimes.com/politics/story/2021-02-19/declaring-america-is-back-biden-tries-to-regain-europes-trust [https://perma.cc/ME3Q-CNNW]. Subnational diplomacy allows state and local leaders to reinforce the United States’ commitments to everything from democracy and rule of law to climate action, regardless of the federal government’s posturing. This matters for the long-term reputation of the United States on the world stage.

The downside of subnational diplomacy as it currently stands is that it is potentially haphazard or splintered from a policy perspective. This can and should be remedied with greater federal and local coordination and communication, and is why the State Department’s direct support of ongoing subnational diplomacy is a necessity.

IV. THE STATE DEPARTMENT CAN MAKE SUBNATIONAL DIPLOMACY BETTER

The State Department contains some of the smartest and most effective foreign policy experts in the United States. The Department has the experience and resources to help local leaders achieve their foreign policy goals. As more cities and states engage with foreign entities, the State Department’s role and expertise becomes even more important. The aforementioned City and State Diplomacy Act would combine a new Office of City and State Diplomacy with State Department detailees to city halls and state capitols to offer on the ground support.66 See City and State Diplomacy Act, H.R. 4526, 117th Cong. (2021). This reimagined approach to subnational diplomacy would be a natural extension of the work the State Department does to support American policy goals abroad and an investment in the underutilized tools we already have at our disposal.

Creating an Office of City and State Diplomacy creates fewer bureaucratic hurdles for localities looking for support on international issues. A dedicated office within the State Department can help establish international connections to efficiently ensure American communities have access to goods in times of need. Many communities learned during the pandemic that decentralized efforts to procure highly sought after goods like PPE can be too slow. Such an Office can help connect local firms and governments to United States embassies and consulates, and support local governments entering foreign markets to procure goods and services.67 See Reta Jo Lewis, Esq., Benjamin Leffel, Corey Jacobson, Luis Renta & Kevin Cottrell, It Is Time for the United States to Institutionalize Subnational Diplomacy, GERMAN MARSHALL FUND U.S. (Jan. 26, 2021), https://www.gmfus.org/news/it-time-united-states-institutionalize-subnational-diplomacy [https://perma.cc/UBH2-MB69]. Currently, the export assistance services of the United States Department of Commerce’s Foreign Commercial Service (“USFCS”) can assist United States based businesses by leveraging the connections of embassies and consulates.68 See Let Our Experts Help: Services for U.S. Exporters, INT’L TRADE ADMIN, trade.gov/let-our-experts-help-0 [https://perma.cc/LUC5-KAMS]. An Office of City and State Diplomacy could help coordinate state and city government foreign trade offices with the significant resources of the USFCS.

Currently, no formal channel exists to leverage the international engagement of cities and states to benefit United States foreign policy.69 See Anthony F. Pipa & Max Bouchet, Partnership Among Cities, States, and the Federal Government: Creating an Office of Subnational Diplomacy at the US Department of State, BROOKINGS (Feb. 17, 2021), https://www.brookings.edu/research/partnership-among-cities-states-and-the-federal-government-creating-an-office-of-subnational-diplomacy-at-the-us-department-of-state/ [https://perma.cc/YKK9-KH89]. This remains a problematic blind spot in American foreign policy; while state and local governments have proven nimbler than the federal government in their response to certain global challenges such as climate change or pandemics, they are often forced to do so without access to our nation’s premier diplomatic resources. An Office at the State Department that smartly supports these efforts would not hamper subnational diplomacy, but rather would help state and local governments improve their efforts. Improving international engagement and strategy could give local governments enhanced credibility, even though United States cities have no authority under federal law to negotiate treaties or trade deals.70 See Amiri & Dossani, supra note 61. With State Department support, cities could expand the United States’ leadership in the global geopolitical sphere.

Training is a significant area where the State Department could be helpful in the subnational diplomacy space. City and staff officials with training on international engagement is effective, but currently only a patchwork of opportunities exist for officials to get that experience. In a survey of forty-seven cities conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the University of Melbourne’s Connected Cities Lab, ninety-four percent of respondents stated that their city has a senior official responsible for dealing with international relations.71 See Matt Abbott, Opinion, Subnational Diplomacy Can Bolster American Soft Power Abroad, HILL (Dec. 11, 2020, 10:30 AM), https://thehill.com/opinion/international/529748-subnational-diplomacy-can-bolster-american-soft-power-abroad/ [https://perma.cc/VND8-GTJ8]. Yet only forty-three percent of respondents indicated that their staff working on international engagement underwent any relevant training for their position.72 See ANNA KOSOVAC, KRIS HARTLEY, MICHELE ACUTO & DARCY GUNNING, CHI. COUNCIL ON GLOB. AFFS., CONDUCTING CITY DIPLOMACY: A SURVEY OF INTERNATIONAL ENGAGEMENT IN 47 CITIES 11 (2020), https://www.thechicagocouncil.org/sites/default/files/2020-12/ccga_citydiplomacy_2020_0.pdf [https://perma.cc/2QHX-5VXC]. The same study found that, of the cities interviewed, fewer than half have designated funds to enable staff to travel internationally or attend conferences and other international events.73 See id. at 21. The lack of funding and resources are preventing local governments from pursuing subnational diplomacy to its fullest potential.74 See id.  Training and resources are what cities need to expand and enhance their diplomacy efforts.

Any Office of City and State Diplomacy would also serve to mirror efforts in subnational diplomacy that other countries have already undertaken. For example, Urban 20 (“U20”) is a network of city governments seeking greater representation in G20 decision making on a variety of issues, such as climate action, pandemic recovery, and international economic development.75 See Anthony F. Pipa & Max Bouchet, The Urban 20 (U-20): Seeking to Influence the G-20 Through City Diplomacy, BROOKINGS (Nov. 24, 2020), https://www.brookings.edu/blog/up-front/2020/11/24/the-urban-20-u-20-seeking-to-influence-the-g-20-through-city-diplomacy/ [https://perma.cc/5ZJ5-AHBR]. Having an Office within the State Department that could serve as a resource and champion of United States cities’ participation would only enhance these cities’ efforts to achieve their goals.

Much of this Essay has focused on positive, proactive, and mutually beneficial subnational diplomatic engagement. But a stronger coordination between cities and states and the federal government on foreign affairs is also a matter of national security. Cities and states can be vulnerable to intelligence gathering and it is important that they be equipped to handle those threats.

China, for example, has invested significant national resources in subnational engagement. In 2018, the Australian government dissolved a deal between the state of Victoria and the Chinese government on trade, financial and policy cooperation.76 See Tim Callanan, What is China’s Belt and Road Initiative and What Were the Four Deals the Federal Government Tore Up?, ABC NEWS (Apr. 21, 2021, 9:30 PM), https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-04-22/what-was-in-victoria-belt-and-road-deal-with-china/100086224 [https://perma.cc/PY49-V7K4]. The fear from Australia’s national government was that China was luring Victoria into debt trap diplomacy wherein China could seize control of goods or land should Victoria renege on its responsibilities.77 See Sean Mantesso, Are China’s Cheap Loans to Poor Nations a Development Boost or a Debt Trap?, ABC NEWS (Nov. 15, 2018, 2:37 PM), https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-11-16/are-china-cheap-loans-to-poor-nations-a-debt-trap/10493286 [https://perma.cc/UVP6-KJCW]. China also directly tried to influence United States politics at the subnational level in September 2018, when the government controlled China Daily newspaper ran a four-page supplement in the state of Iowa’s largest newspaper highlighting the impact of President Trump’s trade war on the state’s soybean crop.78 See Mark Niquette & Jennifer Jacobs, China Looks to Influence Iowa in Trade War Over Trump Tariffs, BLOOMBERG (Sept. 23, 2018), https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-09-23/china-looks-to-influence-iowa-in-trade-war-over-trump-tariffs [https://perma.cc/7ZV8-FBVP]. Through information sharing, access to expertise and resources, and personnel support, federal engagement can and should help United States cities and states navigate these kinds of threats.

Since 2019, the State Department has required Chinese diplomats to notify them before they meet with local or state officials, as well as educational and research institutions.79 See Edward Wong, Under New Rule, Chinese Diplomats Must Notify State Dept. of Meetings in U.S., N.Y. TIMES (Oct. 16, 2019), https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/16/world/asia/china-state-department-diplomats.html [https://perma.cc/6XDA-5VXU]. While this was a retaliatory decision made in response to tighter restrictions on American diplomats in China, it underscores the notion that the State Department presently has limited visibility into how subnational governments are engaging with even our strongest competitors.80 See id.  With an Office of City and State Diplomacy, the State Department can open up the channels of communication with cities and states and support their efforts, which could prevent any undermining of United States foreign policy similar to what happened in Victoria, Australia.

V. CONCLUSION

Subnational diplomacy has been occurring and will continue to occur. The federal government can either continue to ignore it or help it along. Our nation stands to benefit from federal subnational diplomacy support to states and local governments. America can leverage the thousands of energetic and diverse state and local officials to promote American values while helping state and local jurisdictions reap the benefits of international relationships. As the pandemic has shown, subnational diplomacy can achieve fast, impressive results. Our competitors, like China and Russia, have been employing a whole of government approach to diplomacy and achieving foreign policy goals. It is time American does the same.


*Member, United States House of Representatives (D-CA). B.S., Stanford University, 1991; J.D., Georgetown University Law Center, 1994. Congressman Lieu serves as Co-Chair of the House Democratic Policy and Communications Committee, in addition to serving on the House Foreign Affairs and Judiciary Committees. He is also a veteran.