A New Act to Revitalize U.S. Diplomacy from the Ground Up

July 22, 2019
Photo Credit: Mark Van Scyoc / Shutterstock

Global alliances and partnerships with the United States are undergoing a major transition. Given the current political situation in the country and White House occupant, foreign partners, allies and friends are viewing engagement with U.S. governors and mayors as imperative to maintaining support for, among other issues, free trade, human rights, and climate initiatives. In these uncertain times, it is important that nonfederal actors are provided the opportunities and resources to become more involved in national security and foreign policy issues. The time has come to aggressively build 21st-century partnerships among elected leaders and officials below the national level in countries across the globe.

Representatives Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Joe Wilson (R-SC), members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, have introduced a bipartisan bill, the City and State Diplomacy Act, that would establish a permanent Office of Subnational Diplomacy within the Department of State to encourage state- and city-level international diplomacy. This office, to be headed by an ambassador-at-large for subnational diplomacy, would complement the current role the State Department plays in the federal government and allow U.S. states and municipalities to play a greater role assisting in broadening and enhancing the country’s bilateral relations. The office would generate exchanges and cooperation agreements between subnational U.S. leaders and their foreign counterparts as well as promote international trade and investments in the United States. Additionally, it would serve as the State Department’s lead interlocutor in generating, negotiating, and executing global subnational agreements with foreign countries, as well as maintaining international networks, identifying policy gaps, and coordinating resources, among other duties.

"It is important that nonfederal actors are provided the opportunities and resources to become more involved in national security and foreign policy issues."

The Office of Subnational Diplomacy would give subnational leaders such as governors, mayors, county executives, and other local officials the opportunity to work closely with the State Department’s bureau’s and missions, thus strengthening foreign investors’ awareness of economic and business opportunities available within their states and municipalities. This will have a positive effect on trade, environmental issues, and tourism, to name just a few areas that will benefit. The office will be advantageous for not only city and state actors but also businesses, entrepreneurs, and universities.

A recent example of successful subnational engagement occurred in May at the Fifth U.S.-China Governors Collaboration Summit, which was hosted by Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin in Lexington. The summit saw over 400 public and private stakeholders from the worlds of business, academia, and government from the United States and China commit to cooperate on initiatives ranging from economics to trade and education. The mission of the Office of Subnational Diplomacy would be to engage foreign entities to facilitate similar undertakings.

The proposed office would not be just a niche entity that supplements other parts of the U.S. government. By recognizing the interconnectedness of governments locally and globally, one can easily see that it would fill a need that has grown over the past few years. To work through numerous contemporary issues at home and worldwide, every possible outlet must be utilized. The power of subnational engagement has been underestimated, though there are advocates who realize its potential. The Office of Subnational Diplomacy proposed by Representatives Lieu and Wilson could be a productive entity for the United States to get all hands on deck regarding global cooperation.

A stronger emphasis on subnational diplomacy is required to meet the challenges and opportunities of the contemporary political and economic landscape. Thus, it is in the best interest of the United States to promote subnational engagements and leverage U.S. government resources to increase access to subnational leaders at the domestic and international levels to achieve foreign policy objectives. By passing the City and State Diplomacy Act, the United States can remedy the previously unaddressed issues that have spawned from a lack of subnational cooperation and establish a firm ground for national and global relationships in the modern world.