America’s partners around the world must have a serious case of whiplash. The past 20 years have seen American foreign policy move from unilateralism toleading from behindfrom America-first isolationism to an attempt to restore both our diplomacy and our global partnerships. Foreign policy priorities always change when the White House changes hands, but these fluctuations are now more pronounced and undermine the credibility of American engagements abroad. The polarization of American politics now includes our foreign policy.
That’s why one of America’s constant sources of strength—our cities and states—should be much more involved in the design and execution of foreign policy. Cities and states have less partisan turnover and their leaders generally have less time for political shenanigans: they have to provide tangible services to voters. Elevating the role of cities and states in diplomacy – or in other words, decentralizing diplomacy – will build more practical, collaborative and mutually beneficial diplomatic partnerships.
Cities and states across the United States are already engaged in diplomacy. They lead networks dedicated to fighting climate change and promoting gender equity, host visiting foreign delegations, organize major international events, and position staff overseas to support local economic development. , tourism and trade. Most of these activities take place independently, focusing on bilateral technical and cultural exchanges.
But without a connection to the US State Department, we lose an opportunity to leverage those relationships as a tool of our foreign policy. Neglecting the diplomatic channels created by cities and states also alienates diverse leaders and valuable information from their respective communities, and misses a chance to broaden the national stakes of our foreign policy. As global competitors invest heavily in supporting the international engagement of their cities and regional governments, we risk falling further behind.
Over the past five months, the Truman Center for National Policy has convened a Task Force on City and State Diplomacy. This effort, involving more than 30 elected officials, diplomats, academics and members of the Truman National Security Project, offers actionable recommendations for building a foreign policy informed by contributions from across the country.
The first step is structural: the State Department should immediately establish an Office of City and State Diplomacy. This office will strengthen communication and collaboration between the Department of State and city and state governments on foreign policy priorities. Legislation presented by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-California) and Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), two co-chairs of the Truman Center Task Force, authorizes the creation of this office; but the State Department can and should create the office itself. This office can also explore the integration of foreign service officers into city and state governments, determine how cities and states are already partnering globally, as well as establish a competitive grant program. to strengthen the diplomatic capacity of cities and states.
For their part, cities and states should invest in their diplomacy, starting with personnel. Only one US city, Los Angeles, has an Assistant Mayor for International Affairs (also co-chairman of the Truman Center Task Force). She has a staff of eight – tough by American standards. Compare that, for example, to Shanghai, which has about 100 people dedicated to international engagement. Cities and states should create dedicated international affairs teams and leverage resources within their communities to develop them, partnering with retired diplomats, academics, or nonprofits working in international affairs. ‘international.
There is another key benefit to elevating city and state diplomacy: more diverse voices informing US foreign policy. While the Biden/Harris administration has made progress in hiring professionals who better reflect America’s diversity, when Washington connects with diplomats from cities and states, a broader set of voices and perspectives informs our policy development process.
America’s global engagement will always fluctuate depending on who is in power. By investing in city and state diplomacy, we can reduce the costs of this volatility. City-state diplomacy persists across jurisdictions, in part because it is directly linked to community-level needs.
Devising ways to link our foreign policy to pragmatic, solutions-oriented international engagement led by cities and states provides a moderating influence and demonstrates that American leadership extends far beyond Washington.
Jon Temin is the vice president of policy and program at the Truman Center for National Policy. He was previously a member of the US State Department’s Policy Planning Team.