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Empowering Local Officials on Foreign Policy Could Help U.S. Globally

May 28, 2021 by Daniel Mollenkamp
Eric Johnson

WASHINGTON- Local and state officials from around the U.S. are asking the federal government to bring their efforts at diplomacy under the federal framework which they say would empower them to meaningfully and positively shape U.S. foreign policy.

Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson and former U.S. Ambassador Jeanne Phillips, among others, argued for the creation of a new office within the U.S. Department of State to coordinate diplomatic efforts between non-federal officials and foreign dignitaries, during an event for the Center for Sustainable Development at Brookings Institution on Thursday.

The new office they seek to create, the “Office of Subnational Affairs,” would help to coordinate the diplomatic efforts of mayors and governors across the country by appointing an “Ambassador at Large,” they say. It would, for instance, allow cities with international reach to increase their influence while keeping them from working against the federal government’s priorities.

Vocal supporters of the office argue that the most immediate issues the country faces are best handled by governors and mayors who they describe as less prone to the gridlock of the federal government, and they say the diplomacy these officials offer does not fall into the exclusive powers of the federal government, such as the ability to declare war or make treaties. They argue that these officials offer a way of modernizing efforts in an increasingly global and interconnected world.

In an opinion piece earlier this year, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson expressed his support for the idea. Johnson has argued, for example, that cities did most of the work in getting through the coronavirus closures, and that the size of some American cities makes them similar to actual nations in terms of international potential.

“The plan acknowledges the reality of today’s world. For example, the Dallas region already is a global player. If we were a country, the Dallas/Fort Worth area, home to about 8 million people, would have a top 25 economy in the world,” Johnson said.

It’s clear, he said, that “cities need a more prominent seat at the international table.”

Bills to establish this office were introduced in 2019 to the House as H.R. 3571 and in 2020 to the Senate as S. 4426, under the general title the City and State Diplomacy Act. In June 2019, the U.S. Conference of Mayors also put out a resolution asking for the passage of the act.

The proposals have some bipartisan support, and vocal opposition is hard to locate. A GovTrack report that assessed the political viability of these bills said that they were “unable to locate any explicit statements of opposition.” 

Supporters hope this will translate into success for the proposal in the near future.

A press release from Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., issued when S. 4426 was introduced, also lauded the office as a means for checking China’s growing influence.

“If we want to keep up with China’s growing global reach, we need to get creative in the ways we wield our soft power,” Murphy said. 

“We’re seeing Beijing foster their own subnational diplomacy through opaquely funded cultural exchange programs, coordinating outreach to U.S. mayors, governors and state legislatures, and touting its local leaders’ responses to COVID-19.”

Subnational diplomats, the term often used by advocates, refers to elected officials that do not operate at the federal level but are engaged internationally, such as governors and mayors. Subnational diplomacy is nimbler, proponents have said.

“In the United States, cities and local governments, because of their networks and implementation power, have proven nimbler than the federal government in their response to certain global challenges such as climate change or pandemics,” according to a paper from the RAND Corporation.

Global cities, in particular, have already embraced similar practices. Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York have established a Mayor’s Office of International Affairs for diplomacy efforts, according to RAND.

Supporters of the office took it as a good sign that then President-elect Joe Biden pledged to work with mayors in a virtual meeting with the U.S. Conference of Mayors last November. Brookings summarized Biden’s commitment as a pledge to build “new partnership between local and federal governments as part of his Build Back Better” initiative.
Brookings Institution, a DC-based think tank, has previously supported the idea as part of its “Blueprints for American Renewal and Prosperity,” which stresses “innovative, implementable federal policy ideas” that they believe would help American society successfully deal with the challenges it faces. The event can be viewed here.

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