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First US Subnational Diplomacy Rep. Says ‘A Lot Can Happen at the Local Level’

January 20, 2023 by Kate Michael
First US Subnational Diplomacy Rep. Says ‘A Lot Can Happen at the Local Level’
Ambassador Nina Hachigian

WASHINGTON — From securing medical supplies for their residents to attracting foreign investment and manufacturing, cities, states and regions are taking a greater role in international affairs. The momentum is not unprecedented, but it is strong enough that the first-ever special representative of subnational diplomacy was introduced at the U.S. Department of State in late 2022.

That representative, Ambassador Nina Hachigian, reflected on her first months in office and discussed how countries might harness the international activities of cities to advance policy interests and foster economic relationships, technical cooperation, and progress on national and global policy agendas at a recent event co-hosted by the Center for Sustainable Development at Brookings and the Meridian International Center. 

“Cities are innovation labs for addressing our shared challenges,” Hachigian said. “While not every issue lends itself to subnational diplomacy, many do.”

Prior to her post, Hachigian had served as the Los Angeles, California, deputy mayor for international affairs under Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti since 2017, another groundbreaking position.

“It was not politically advisable, I would say, for Mayor Garcetti to appoint a deputy mayor and create a whole office of global engagement on behalf of the city … ,” she said. 

“The only people who cheered in 2017 when this happened were the 100 or so non-voting consuls general who finally knew where they could go if they needed something from the city. Over time, we delivered jobs, international experiences and skills for students [and] problem-solving.”

While international relations are generally handled by national governments, states, local governments and tribal governments are increasingly opening diplomatic channels for both economic prosperity and geopolitical stability. 

By 2022, no formal channel existed to leverage the international engagement of cities, since an earlier State Department program created in 1979, the ambassador-at-large for liaison with state and local government, was folded into other offices.

Subnational diplomacy continued through programs like Sister Cities International, an initiative founded by President Eisenhower to connect American cities with communities around the world, student exchanges and city-hosted international conferences. 

And while high-profile subnational diplomacy existed before COVID, it certainly came to the forefront when early pandemic decision-making was left to state and local municipalities, with governors and mayors bargaining on their own with international companies for medical and personal protective equipment for their constituencies. 

Now, Hachigian seeks to redefine diplomacy at the state and local level at a time when it is increasingly important.

“We see cities and states emerge as global actors in diplomacy, from trade and investment to business development and climate change,” Hachigian said.

“In the United States, these endeavors are not yet seen as inherent responsibilities of good local leaders, but of course, I think they are or should be,” she said. 

“Mayors and governments are the boots on the ground, the innovators, the keepers of knowledge,” she said. 

These areas have knowledge of their own unique demographics and can be quicker to respond to challenges. She also offered that diaspora communities want to know from their leaders what’s happening in their countries of origin, and local leaders hold much power in the global competition to see where the headquarters and facilities of multinational companies land. 

In just the first three months of Hachigian’s team at the State Department, they have started working as a conduit to local leaders in the U.S. to ensure the department can connect them to tangible benefits of foreign policy, which includes job creation, foreign direct investment, trade and international opportunities for young people. 

Her “small but mighty” team is working with the Office of Foreign Missions, as well as looking to restart an old program that detailed foreign service officers to local governments and building capacity themselves, of course — such as bringing on a data scientist so that progress can be analyzed for actionable insights.

The office encourages and supports U.S. local leaders to engage internationally, but Hachigian said the creation of her office also had the effect of causing the State Department to think in general about engaging subnational actors wherever they are in the world to advance foreign policy and national security objectives. 

“By 2050, 80% of humanity will live in cities; that’s up from 50% now,” she said. “Even with a national leadership that might be resistant … a lot can happen at the local level.”

Kate can be reached at kate@thewellnews.com

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