Paralysis of nations is empowering cities

December 27, 2019
In The News

The Demolition of U.S. Diplomacy.” “The Long Rise and Sudden Fall of American Diplomacy.” “Diplomacy, Disrupted.” A cursory tour of recent headlines paints a less than rosy picture of the state of American statecraft. The impeachment and impending trial marks the starkest example of what happens when diplomacy is mismanaged.

Partisan gridlock, ideological inflexibility, growing distrust and polarization have essentially paralyzed traditional nation-states — rendering them often unwilling or unable to solve our increasingly urgent problems. Inaction on climate change has become another popular — and near constant — reminder that this growing trendline is not going to reverse itself. The recently completed COP25, which was held in Madrid, is only the most recent example of nations failing to take any real action or to commit to any substantive agreements on the issue of climate. What happens, though, when the people and places with the potential to fix parts of our broken system are not empowered to do so? 

When it comes to solving global crises, cities, states, NGOs and even corporations are stepping up to fill the gap countries are leaving behind.


Cities in particular are taking diplomacy into their own hands: They’re setting up offices of international affairs, and global city networks are coalescing to tackle issues like migration, human rights, inclusivity, terrorism and healthcare.

Cities are home to over 50 percent of the global population, a number that will skyrocket to nearly 70 percent by 2050. Cities produce over 80 percent of Global GDP and oversee the global supply chain, global trade, and global banking. They are also the greatest global producers of knowledge and creativity. Cities are arguably more accountable than nation-states, more closely connected to their constituents, more aware of the everyday problems that confront everyday people, and as a result, comparably adept and motivated to get things done quickly, efficiently and without a big fuss. Cities should be on the frontlines of diplomacy.

Official Washington is not built to handle this type of diplomacy — despite its growing importance. Treaties are exclusively negotiated, signed, and enforced by national leaders (and their legislative branches), and in general, international relations and international law are the domains of nation-states alone. Subnational entities are viewed as mere appendages of their nation-states, which are expected to represent them at the global level in all international affairs. Indeed, we can’t even talk about international diplomacy without employing the word “nation.”

The City and State Diplomacy Act, a new bipartisan bill proposed in the House would allow U.S. cities and states to have a greater voice in U.S. diplomacy. Co-sponsored by Reps. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) and Joe Wilson (R-S.C.), the bill would establish a permanent Office of Subnational Diplomacy within the State Department. It would create more opportunities for formal cooperation between America’s state and local leaders and their counterparts around the world. It would also serve as the State Department’s lead interlocutor in generating, negotiating, and executing agreements with foreign countries, as well as maintaining international networks, identifying policy gaps, and coordinating resources. 

Supporters of the bill expect that this office would have a positive effect on trade, environmental issues, and tourism, among other areas. This would also provide much-needed support when it comes to coordinating subnational commitments on greenhouse gas emissions reduction. 


It would also benefit U.S. business. The U.S. corporate sector is proportionally less internationally-connected than foreign counterparts. Corporations in Germany, France, the UK, Japan and many other leading national economies have markedly more international branches than domestic. Those in the U.S. have proportionally more domestic than international branches. American firms must be empowered to compete. A Subnational Diplomacy Office would provide the latitude needed to do just that. 

A recent example of successful subnational engagement occurred in May at the Fifth U.S.-China Governors Collaboration Summit, which was hosted by former Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin in Lexington. Despite tense relations between Washington and Beijing, 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. Five months later, the State Department announced that Chinese diplomats would be required to notify authorities before holding meetings with U.S. officials — a response to “level the playing field” for long-standing restrictions on U.S. diplomats in China. The mission of the Office of Subnational Diplomacy could help to navigate this type of diplomatic row and facilitate more productive interactions.

When the federal and local governments inevitably disagree on foreign policy, there needs to be a conflict resolution mechanism. According to original research by sociologist Benjamin Leffel, declassified archives show President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of State George Schultz pressuring U.S. local leaders to not divest from South African apartheid — and local leaders defying him in turn. This is just one example where a dedicated office at State was needed to provide a space to negotiate disagreements on foreign policy, and this need will only grow over time.

The concept isn’t a new one. During the Obama administration, the U.S. Special Representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs (a position held by co-author Reta Jo Lewis) was the first office dedicated to subnational diplomacy efforts. And the need for such an office dates back decades. According to Leffel’s research, in the 1980s, several U.S. embassies abroad sent cables to the State Department asking for a federal office to “assist local government officials and groups to plan their overseas visits in order to optimize their chances of meeting their trade, investment and tourism goals.”

National governments should harness the power and ambition of their local leaders to help solve global challenges. The power of subnational engagement has been underestimated, though there are advocates who realize its potential. The Office of Subnational Diplomacy could be a productive way for the United States to get all hands on deck regarding global cooperation.

Cities and states are increasingly relevant, indeed critical, to solving the global challenges that confront us today. National governments can choose to work with the current or against it. History proves that cities and states will move forward and upward with or without them.