Paralysis of nations is empowering cities

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. 

NOTE: This post has been updated from the original to correct an error: Cities will be home to nearly 70 percent of the world’s population by the year 2050.

Chrystie F. Swiney is a political scientist, legal scholar, and international attorney, and currently serves as the Doctoral Fellow for the Global Cities Initiative at Georgetown University. She writes about the role of sub-national actors, including cities and civil society organizations, in international politics and law. She serves as the lead author of Global Trends in NGO Law, an expert consultant for the Global Parliament of Mayors, and a research fellow for Georgetown LabGov. Follow her on Twitter @chrystie_swiney

Reta Jo Lewis is a senior fellow and director of congressional affairs at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Previously, she served as the State Department’s first-ever special representative for Global Intergovernmental Affairs, under secretaries of state Hillary Clinton and John Kerry from 2010-13. Lewis led the office charged with building strategic peer-to-peer relationships between the U.S. Department of State, U.S. state and local officials and their foreign counterparts. Follow her on Twitter @RJLewisGMF

Sheila R. Foster is the Scott K. Ginsburg Professor of Urban Law and Policy at Georgetown University. She holds a joint appointment with the Law School and the McCourt School of Public Policy. Professor Foster’s work focuses on the intersection of law, policy and governance with a specific focus on urban communities and cities. Foster has been involved on many levels with urban law and policy. She is the chair of the advisory committee of the Global Parliament of Mayors and sits on the Advisory Board of the Marron Institute for Urban Management at NYU. She recently completely a three-year term on the New York City Mayor’s Panel on Climate Change and has been a member of the Aspen Institute’s Urban Innovation Group. At Georgetown, she is the faculty director of the Georgetown Project on State and Local Government Policy and Law (SALPAL) and lead researcher for the Georgetown Global Cities Initiative’s City Diplomacy Project. Follow her on Twitter @SheilaRFoster

Benjamin Leffel, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of California Irvine specializing in the sociology of climate change mitigation, contributed. Follow him on Twitter @BenjaminJLeffel

Tags Climate Change Foreign policy of the United States Global politics Hillary Clinton Joe Wilson John Kerry Paradiplomacy Public Diplomacy Science diplomacy Ted Lieu

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