The rise of states and cities as independent global actors has introduced a new strand in diplomacy: governors, mayors, and local legislators who increasingly connect with their counterparts internationally. This trend has an economic emphasis: local officials now seek international investment, tourism, education, and trade ties to grow their economies. Fast-growing markets with large populations, such as China and India, have become countries of focus for state and city leaders as a result. In addition, shared problems such as counterterrorism and climate change have also landed on this local international agenda through new networks involving cities all over the world. In some countries, the national or federal government explicitly oversees the international interactions of subnational governments—to guide priorities, prevent miscommunications, or guard against missteps. But in the United States, the State Department is not structured to fully support or leverage subnational diplomacy for ongoing federal priorities. The growing involvement of governors, state legislators, and mayors on the international scene requires attention. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to restructure the State Department for the new “mission” requirements of the twenty-first century; with the increase in subnational international activity, the United States should create an appropriately staffed office within the State Department to serve as a facilitator. This achievable bureaucratic reform would enable the U.S. government to appropriately facilitate activity already underway, enlist city and state leaders as allies in U.S. diplomacy, and prevent policy confusion.
The Local International Agenda Needs the State Department
The State Department is not structured to maintain awareness of all the subnational international activity now underway. In a worst-case scenario, lack of coordination could result in a delegation of local leaders abroad sending mixed signals on a matter of importance to the U.S. government. Greater awareness of local leaders’ international plans would allow the State Department to clarify and deconflict messages to foreign governments, should the situation arise. There are opportunity costs, too: without substantial awareness of the multiplicity of interactions, the State Department cannot fully harness the talent and expertise of state and city governments to advance national diplomatic goals. As a foreign affairs agency, the State Department looks abroad instead of back home; its embassies and consulates track developments in foreign countries. To be sure, governors, state-level legislators, and mayors taking delegations abroad often request meetings with U.S. embassies and consulates, which can help close the loop.
The Barack Obama administration briefly experimented with this function through a short-lived Office of the Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs, a position supported by a handful of staff. The role created new international exchanges, such as that between U.S. and Chinese governors. But it was left vacant during the second term. Currently, two State Department employees track and support subnational diplomacy through an informal network as best they can; just one focuses full-time on local outreach, and staff across the department mobilize on an ad hoc basis.
Without a focus on developments in subnational diplomacy, the State Department will continue to exist in response mode, unable to adequately ward off potential problems and unable to fully support U.S. local officials and leverage this growing arena of interactions to advance national priorities. A closer link for American local governments with U.S. diplomacy should also appeal to an administration that campaigned on the divide between Washington and the American heartland.
Structural Models for an Office of Subnational Diplomacy
The special representative for global intergovernmental affairs helped fill, for a few years, a clear need. But it lacked both size and permanent staff, which deprived it of the infrastructure enjoyed by other functional offices, such as the Office of Private Sector Exchange, which administers the exchange visitor program and coordinates among universities, corporations, and nongovernmental organizations. Just as the State Department facilitates exchange and supports U.S. companies abroad, it should institutionalize coordination with U.S. states and cities on their international agendas.
Some U.S. government agencies coordinate internationally among cities and states on specific subjects. The Department of Homeland Security facilitates police exchanges on counterterrorism—for example, between the Boston Police Department and the Mumbai Police. The U.S. Agency for International Development and the International City/County Management Association created CityLinks to share American cities’ best practices and urban management expertise. The Department of Defense facilitates state-level National Guard deployments abroad for humanitarian and crisis response training. The Treasury Department’s Office of Technical Assistance provides targeted financial expertise on infrastructure finance, drawing experts with backgrounds in state-level public finance. The Department of Commerce promotes U.S. exports through its 108 U.S. Export Assistance Centers and commercial service officers worldwide. An added benefit of an institutionalized State Department office of subnational diplomacy would be enhanced interagency coordination for the multitude of subnational activities other U.S. agencies facilitate abroad.
The Donald J. Trump administration should establish a fully staffed office of subnational diplomacy within the State Department to serve as a dedicated information hub, support resource, and strategic planning center. This can be done through an executive order and the reallocation of positions from other offices within State. A small office of eight to ten staff, housed within the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs or Educational and Cultural Affairs, will suffice.
Establish an Information Bank
An information bank tracking the ongoing international pursuits of states and cities—trade delegations, sister-city linkages, and networks—will enhance coordination within the U.S. government and across local governments. An information bank can also raise awareness—within the U.S. government, as well as publicly—of the increased ties that U.S. states and cities now maintain with counterparts abroad. At present, this function takes place in an ad hoc manner and without any single point of consolidation across the U.S. government. A dedicated office should proactively maintain regular contact with state and city governments across the United States as a service to them. The office should not impose any obligations on these governments. Making information on subnational exchanges publicly available on a searchable website—as the Office of Private Sector Exchange does—would provide a direct knowledge link and models to consider for states and cities crafting their own international strategies. City and state officials could more easily learn what others are doing abroad, match notes if desired, and refine their agendas as they learn from their counterparts.
Provide Support to Local Government Leaders
The second function should be advisory support for exchanges, including aiding American local governments with foreign delegations traveling to the United States and providing briefings and advice on meetings. States and cities often seek briefings from the U.S. embassy or consulate in the country they plan to visit. This practice should continue, and an office of subnational diplomacy could expand capacity to provide early advice to local government officials as they begin to compose their foreign travel plans or prepare to host a foreign delegation. Recommendations, meetings to seek, or institutions to consider for potential partnerships could expand the possibilities for subnational officials to explore. The support function would not create requirements for U.S. local governments but would instead provide advice and assistance, including videoconferences or phone briefings for state and city officials in the early planning stages. Cities and states would benefit from the advice and allow the State Department to leverage their efforts toward national goals. Given the potential for possible overload alongside the desire to assist all geographies, the service should be available to all U.S. state governments and legislatures, and initially to major U.S. cities (such as the top twenty largest plus a major city from each state not covered by the top twenty list, as would be the case for the less-populous Midwest).
Think Strategically to Advance National Goals
The greater visibility afforded by the information bank and support work will enable strategic planning to advance U.S. diplomacy by connecting—and showcasing—American state- and city-level expertise relevant to bilateral diplomatic relationships. A State Department more linked to local U.S. governments would be better positioned to leverage those relationships in diplomatic priorities. For example, the United States has begun to draw upon municipal expertise to assist with urban development needs in emerging markets, including Africa and Asia, but can do much more. American state-level leaders could be plugged into diplomatic dialogues, such as on higher education, counterterrorism, or energy, where their expertise could offer lessons. If U.S. diplomats abroad received requests for advice on infrastructure or crisis relief training, the State Department could provide successful U.S. examples and could link officials for peer discussions.
Benefits and Feasibility
This reform will allow the State Department to coordinate better with states and cities on their growing linkages overseas, thus warding off mixed policy messages abroad. It will also help states and cities advance their international priorities, and involve states and cities in U.S. national diplomatic priorities where appropriate. Without this reform, the State Department will remain an ad hoc responder just as state and local governments are increasing their international pursuits. Some will question whether establishing a new office at a time of cutbacks is realistic. Expenses would consist of personnel costs and could be established with just eight to ten staff positions reallocated from elsewhere within State. Recent history suggests that the resources do exist. During the George W. Bush administration, State repositioned staff from heavily resourced U.S. missions in Europe to Asia and emerging markets; U.S. missions in Europe remain comparatively overstaffed. The Obama administration created an unprecedented number of special representatives and envoys; some are no longer required. Reallocating from currently existing roles should not be difficult. Moreover, supporting priorities generated by state and local governments would be a better use of State’s resources than overlapping envoys or large legacy staffs designed to implement programs that have already shrunk. Given the direct and visible benefit to U.S. local governments, the value of such an office should appeal to Republicans and Democrats alike.
This Policy Innovation Memorandum is a product of the Asia Studies Program and was made possible in part by the Starr Foundation’s generous support for the program. The Council on Foreign Relations takes no institutional positions on policy issues and has no affiliation with the U.S. government. All views expressed in its publications and on its website are the sole responsibility of the author or authors.