On a New Approach to City and State Diplomacy

The FSJ Editorial Board offers thoughts to kick off an important policy discussion.


It is surely a good thing that the conduct of U.S. foreign policy is the “primary responsibility” of the executive branch. Article II, Section 2 of the U.S. Constitution limits the president’s role as commander in chief to command authority over the Army, Navy and state militias, while also giving him or her the power to “make Treaties” and “appoint Ambassadors” (with the advice and consent of the Senate, of course). This fact ensures a minimum of coherence and unity of national purpose in our diplomatic engagement and prevents a potential kaleidoscope of conflicting interests and contradictory approaches from coming into play.

Imagine having 535 separate foreign policies, and that’s just for starters before we throw state and municipal-level representatives into the mix. It wouldn’t necessarily end there, either.

At the same time, the true power and resilience of our federal system is often attributed not just to checks and balances, but to the numerous levels and “sublevels” of government—a dense patchwork of political organization that extends up, across and down to the state, county, municipality, community, neighborhood and even school. Of these, the federal government is the level furthest removed from the realities, needs and interests of actual people. So finding a concrete way to ensure that the interests of all Americans are reflected in the nation’s foreign policy seems like a commonsense idea.

This idea becomes more compelling in light of the increasingly global nature of diplomatic challenges in a more and more interconnected world, whose effects (it turns out) are often most acutely felt and experienced at local levels—in states, cities, towns and rural communities. Never has it seemed so important to be able to think globally while acting locally, and to build actual bureaucratic structure—or “connective tissue”—around that idea.

Into this seeming breach strides a new—or perhaps not so new—plan to do just that. Proposed legislation called the City and State Diplomacy Act seeks to establish a State Department Office of Subnational Diplomacy, led by an ambassador-at-large, to facilitate the engagement of governors and mayors with their foreign equivalents for the benefit of their residents, and to leverage these subnational efforts for broader U.S. foreign policy gains.

While the plan has existed since before the current administration came into office, President Joe Biden’s vision to craft “a foreign policy that works for middle-class Americans” has given the prospect an extra boost. Several recent reports, including from the Truman Center for National Policy, the Brookings Institution and the German Marshall Fund of the United States, have pursued this subnational diplomacy recommendation, as well.

The articles in this month’s focus argue for the adoption of subnational diplomacy and establishment of such an office in the State Department. The authors—state, city and local representatives and officials (one of whom is a former Foreign Service officer) and one current FSO—are enthusiastic proponents of this idea. They’re all in. We welcome their constructive approach, their passion and their seriousness of purpose. And we wholeheartedly agree that the work of diplomacy should benefit American citizens throughout the country. The ideas put forth in these pieces merit serious consideration.

We wholeheartedly agree that the work of diplomacy should benefit American citizens throughout the country.

We see this focus as an opening volley in what we hope will be a meaningful policy discussion rather than the complete story or the final word. The issue of subnational diplomacy is complicated. In the past, there have been concerns in Congress about the State Department directing U.S. foreign policy messages at the American people. For example, legal provisions like the 1948 Smith-Mundt Act erected firewalls to limit products produced for foreign audiences from reaching domestic audiences for fear of propagandizing them. The Smith-Mundt Modernization Act of 2012 eased some of these restrictions, but the hesitation to mingle foreign policy objectives with domestic audiences remained.

How do we deal with that sensitivity in the current context? States, cities, community groups and even individuals have long engaged in informal diplomacy for a variety of purposes, from the commercial to the humanitarian. The State Department and the other foreign affairs agencies have many programs—from exchanges and diplomats in residence to economic and commercial diplomacy—that engage localities in international affairs. What is new or different about this idea for an Office of Subnational Diplomacy? If one answer to this question is “to give formal structure to a dynamic that had been largely informal and unmanaged before,” that, too, would raise another set of questions.

Exactly what purpose would such an Office of Subnational Diplomacy serve? Would its objective be to coordinate state, city and local diplomatic engagements to ensure that these comport with federal aims and policies? If so, would this entail an overt effort to “federalize” state, city and local efforts, or a more implicit attempt to leverage these on federal policy’s behalf?

If this is not the purpose, how can State be useful without adding bureaucratic layers to city and state overseas engagement? Would this initiative have new funding resources? If so, how will those resources be distributed?

How would the office address the problem of conflicting interests among different local constituencies? People around the country will inevitably have conflicting views of the United Nations’ role in family planning, for example. Indeed, when State or any federal agency gets involved in subnational diplomacy, it would need to, in fact, “think locally but act globally,” not the other way around—and that is no easy trick.

More broadly, what happens when U.S. foreign policy interests—as defined by the administration in office at the time—openly conflict with the interests of a particular U.S. state, city or region? Politics are complicated, and policy is controversial in part because the risks and rewards, impacts and benefits—for example, of measures on trade, energy, climate and the environment—are not distributed or felt equally by all in space or time. A “higher” mediating mechanism such as the federal government must be present to step in.

So we end where we began. Federal primacy in formulating and conducting foreign policy makes good sense. At the same time, participation in its formulation and conduct by the American people at every level should be actively encouraged and, to the degree possible, structurally enabled.

We offer these initial reflections and questions to help inform the dialogue and frame the broader discussion. With that, happy reading.