Biden’s State Department needs an office to help local governments

The leaders of America’s cities at times felt all alone in the world in the past year. The challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic often fell from the top levels of government and landed on mayors’ desks. Without much guidance from federal leaders, mayors did not have the luxury of playing politics. We had too many problems to solve, too many lives at stake, too many livelihoods that were endangered and upended.

Cities have demonstrated their ability to act decisively in the face of a global crisis. As mayors, we had to make tough choices to get through unprecedented times. We canceled large, popular events, restricted our businesses that generate tax revenue for critical city services, and told residents to stay at home. We became public health aficionados, test and vaccine distributors, and disaster coordinators.

This was a global group project, but cities did the bulk of the work. And as America returns to some semblance of normalcy, it is clear that cities need a more prominent seat at the international table.

Prior to the pandemic, in June 2019, the U.S. Conference of Mayors passed a resolution calling on the president and Congress to support local elected leaders’ international engagement by passing the City and State Diplomacy Act to establish an Office of Subnational Diplomacy within the State Department. In February, Brookings Institution published recommendations for the Biden administration to create this office as well. 

Such an office would serve as a direct channel for mayors and governors to help shape U.S. foreign policy. Diplomats would be placed with local governments around the country to benefit from their pragmatic hands-on approach to international relations.

This proposal deserves serious attention. It would pay dividends for our country. A Subnational Diplomacy office would allow resident diplomats and local leaders to exchange ideas and expertise. The office would be a means of bringing foreign policy into alignment with local needs and connecting foreign policy to American opportunity at the grassroots level. 

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. When I took the reins as the mayor of Dallas in June 2019, I had big plans to take Dallas to the next level as a major international destination for business and tourism by building on the solid work of leaders who came before me. 

We created and adopted our first Comprehensive Environmental and Climate Action Plan for the city to meet the standards of the Paris Agreement, even after the federal government withdrew from addressing climate change on the world stage. And in January 2020, I created a Mayor’s International Advisory Council, made up of five Dallas residents who are former U.S. ambassadors. They bring real-world expertise to inform our international agenda going forward. The group was just getting under way when the pandemic brought these international aspirations to a halt.

Even before pandemic-related lockdowns, the federal government had been trending toward a more isolationist, unilateral approach. In many ways, the pandemic accelerated this trend as international travel was severely curtailed or halted altogether.

Yet during the pandemic, residents, business leaders and mayors still found ways to interact and build their international relationships with counterparts overseas. People-to-people exchanges continued over virtual meeting platforms. As one who kept these international communications going, I was grateful to receive help from friends around the world. One of the first was a donation from our friends in Taiwan of much-needed masks to be distributed to homeless shelters and our county hospital. This might seem like a small matter, but it was a major boost during a difficult time.

In one of his first meetings after the election but before he took office, President Biden met virtually with mayors and pledged to work closely with them. The creation of a Subnational Diplomacy Office aligns strategically with the president’s “Build Back Better” agenda and would place pragmatic local leaders at the core of his administration’s proactive approach to return to global credibility. It also would help the effort to strengthen U.S. alliances, reinvigorate diplomacy, build a culture of cooperation in a fast-changing world, and set the stage for the prosperity of future generations.

The federal government needs local support and leadership more than ever. America’s cities, the engines that drive our nation’s economy, have led in the past year on the biggest global issue of our time. And after a year of lockdowns and isolation, it’s time for cities across the world to see each other again, because, as we mayors told our residents throughout the pandemic, we are truly all in this together.

Eric Johnson is the 60th mayor of Dallas.

Tags American cities COVID-19 pandemic International relations Joe Biden Local government

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