Subnational Diplomacy: A National Security Imperative

Engaging state and local actors in international diplomacy will help the State Department address the national security challenges of the 21st century.


Subnational diplomacy, the act of engaging state and local actors in foreign policy, is essential if we are to solve the increasingly complex national security challenges of the 21st century. Over the last decade, subnational actors have increased their footprint on important global issues, from pandemic response to climate resilience and refugee integration. Building more connective tissue between mayors and governors across the United States and bureaucrats in Washington, D.C., enables the State Department to also craft a more inclusive foreign policy, one that will resonate with more Americans.

To pave the way for a departmentwide subnational diplomacy strategy, advocates need to make the national security case for why that matters. As the concept gains institutional traction and buy-in, the department should start to mainstream subnational diplomacy into policies, programs and processes.

Last and most important, once coordination mechanisms are established, the department must sustain momentum by nourishing subnational networks and investing in the broader ecosystem.

Step 1: Make the National Security Case

The State Department’s existing tradecraft toolbox is largely limited to bilateral and multilateral diplomacy. Bilateral engagement, when regional bureaus and missions abroad interact with their ministry-level counterparts, is prioritized at the top. And multilateral diplomacy (which includes regional organizations) is only elevated to the forefront when there is a need for global coordination, whether it’s ensuring equitable vaccine distribution, setting sustainable development benchmarks, or responding to climate and conflict-induced waves of mass migration.

Subnational diplomacy, the less visible third instrument, is a powerful, omnipresent force, but one that is rarely leveraged, or even acknowledged. Sister Cities International is an extensive network connecting American and foreign cities around the world in mutually beneficial exchange programs since 1956. In the more recent period, with the rise of trans-subnational global networks such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, established in 2005 and currently chaired by Mayor of Los Angeles Eric Garcetti, subnational actors have become more active on the front lines of foreign policy issues. In the aftermath of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, the U.S. Conference of Mayors issued a bipartisan resolution calling on the Biden administration to resource refugee integration efforts, a rare moment of unity in a deeply polarized national political context.

In a decentralized democracy like the United States, mayors and governors have the power to set their own foreign policy agendas and are often first responders when global crises emerge. Sometimes their interests align with the federal government, sometimes they don’t.

As the Trump administration was withdrawing from the Paris Climate Agreement in 2017, for example, the governor of Hawaii departed from the president’s stance and signed the first subnational statute to support and align with the global treaty. The city of Los Angeles became a founding member of the Urban 20 (U20), a coalition formed to push G-20 leaders on progressive policies, particularly around pandemic response, compared to the Trump administration’s more insular agenda. The state of California, the world’s fifth-largest economy, signed an agreement in 2019 to establish a Trade and Services Desk to strengthen California-Mexico trade relations.

When there is alignment on policy, subnational diplomacy has the capacity to be a diplomatic force multiplier. And even when there is a divergence of thought, rather than view subnational diplomacy as a threat to the federal government’s power, the State Department needs to reframe this tension as healthy and potentially useful in strengthening and informing foreign policy at the national level.

Subnational diplomacy can also be a laboratory for creativity and experimentation where the stakes are lower if an idea fails, but a successful idea can scale up to the national and even multilateral level quickly. When I was posted in Pakistan, the embassy supported a multiyear, two-way, city-to-city entrepreneurship partnership benefiting the economies of Austin and Lahore.

Step 2: Mainstream into the Bureaucracy

To leverage subnational diplomacy effectively, the State Department needs to set up structures to better coordinate and engage in diplomacy with mayors and governors across the country, the way it already does with foreign counterparts around the world. We can do this in three ways:

1. Establish an Office of Subnational Diplomacy at State.

In 2019, Representative Ted Lieu (D-Calif.) introduced the City and State Diplomacy Act calling for establishment of an Office of Subnational Diplomacy at the State Department. This office, ideally led by a senior official who reports to the Secretary, would serve as a bridge between the department and subnational actors not only across the United States, but around the world. Existing networks—such as Strong Cities, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Urban20, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the National League of Cities, Sister Cities, the Resilient Cities Network and others—would be able to connect their work more effectively.

Subnational engagement at the State Department has historically been grounded in public affairs work, situated in the Office of Intergovernmental Affairs. This new Office of Subnational Diplomacy would broaden the scope of engagement beyond public diplomacy and people-to-people exchanges to core policy issues. U.S. diplomats posted at missions overseas could expand their rolodex of bilateral contacts to also include subnational actors and networks, integrating state and local engagement into reporting cables and other day-to-day work with U.S. foreign policy priorities seamlessly.

2. Expand the Pearson Fellowship program to all 50 states.

Another way to build more connectivity between the State Department and subnational actors across the country is to expand the Pearson Fellowship program. The Pearson Fellowship was the result of a bill introduced by Senator James Pearson (R-Kan.) in 1974 to expose Foreign Service officers to state and local governments as they advance in their careers. If there were State Department employees, either Civil Service or Foreign Service, embedded within a governor or mayor’s office (many now have international affairs offices), they could serve as reporting officers for the State Department and inform key national security priorities, complementing efforts like the Biden administration’s push to advance a “foreign policy for the middle class.”

The Pearson Fellows can also serve as site officers when foreign delegations arrive in cities and help ensure greater subnational-national alignment on foreign policy. And as Secretary of State Antony Blinken prioritizes building a State Department that looks like America, the fellows can be outreach ambassadors for the department, complementing efforts of existing diplomats in residence who are stretched thin and cover wide geographic areas.

3. Integrate subnational diplomacy into tradecraft.

Because subnational diplomacy actors across the United States represent an untapped, relatively unknown tool in the tradecraft toolbox, the State Department should find ways to integrate subnational diplomacy into training efforts. This could be accomplished through a standalone module on subnational diplomacy at the Foreign Service Institute or by integrating the concept into political, economic and public diplomacy tradecraft courses.

Step 3: Sustain Momentum

Once a Subnational Diplomacy Office is established, staffed and resourced, the next (and most important) step is to sustain momentum. The State Department should use its convening power and resources to nourish subnational networks, similar to our robust engagement in multilateral fora. By doing so, the department can become a leader in subnational diplomacy and create a space for sharing best practices, incubating new ideas and scaling up pilot initiatives that work.

As Secretary Blinken has said repeatedly, our nation’s diversity is what makes us strong. Leveraging subnational diplomacy to tap into greater geographic and demographic diversity across the country will make our foreign policy smarter, more creative and ultimately more effective in addressing the complex global challenges of the 21st century.

Maryum Saifee is a career Foreign Service officer and senior adviser in the Secretary’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Her overseas postings include Cairo, Baghdad, Erbil and Lahore. In Washington, D.C., she has served in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues, the Secretary’s Office of Religion and Global Affairs and the Bureau of International Organization Affairs. As a visiting senior fellow at the Truman Center for National Policy, she led the task force that produced the Truman Center’s March 2021 report, “Transforming State: Pathways to a More Just, Equitable, and Innovative Institution.”

The views in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of the State Department or the U.S. government.