Cities and states should engage in diplomacy too

Cities and states should engage in diplomacy too
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In a speech to the National Governors Association meeting on February 8, Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoThe Saudi-Russia oil fight is the last thing the economy needs in a pandemic US intel agencies conclude China has under-reported coronavirus cases, deaths: report Susan Rice scolds Pompeo for using 'Wuhan virus' term MORE issued a stark warning to American governors that the Chinese government was engaged in efforts to expand influence at the state and local levels in the United States.

Many cities and states already maintain robust international relationships with China and other countries. These relationships can be extremely beneficial for trade and investment. And subnational governments often wield a substantial amount of soft power that can help America’s image abroad. Even in the same speech in which Secretary Pompeo warned American governors about influence operations, he rightfully acknowledged that “…these economic ties are powerful. They’re important and good. They’re good for your state; they’re good for America.”

With subnational governments playing an increasingly significant role in global affairs, it is imperative that the federal government coordinate closely with state and local governments as they engage with their peers abroad. A lack of coordination between national and subnational governments risks sending mixed messages abroad and could potentially undermine U.S. foreign policy.

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The potential disconnect between national and subnational governments is particularly acute when one examines the trust gap between how Americans feel about the federal government and their local governments. Gallup polling reveals that only 35 percent of Americans trust the federal government as opposed to 72 percent who trust their local governments. 

Coupled with this, a potential problem arises when local leaders outside of the bubble of Washington, D.C. hear different messages from the federal government and their constituents about potential threats posed by foreign countries. A survey conducted last month by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that only 38 percent of Americans believe that China’s development as a world power poses a critical threat. 

Legislation introduced in the 116th Congress demonstrates that the federal government is aware of the realities that cities and states are involved in global conversations and give more weight to Secretary Pompeo’s words that “there are federal officials prepared to help you (subnational leaders) work your way through these (national security) challenges when they arise.”

The City and State Diplomacy Act has a bipartisan roster of cosponsors and would establish an Office of Subnational Diplomacy in the Department of State. This office would give elected officials at the subnational level, who have varying degrees of foreign policy experience, a critical and centralized resource to make informed decisions that will benefit their constituents. 

We should encourage trade and investment, people-to-people exchange and robust educational and cultural partnerships, especially at the subnational level. As a participant in exchanges organized by foreign governments (including China) and think tanks, I can attest to their value. Exchanges can afford participants a deeper understanding of the host country’s history, politics, economy and culture. They can help build mutual respect between participants and their hosts.

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This is particularly critical with countries, such as China, with which we seem to be entering an era of increasing competition. Given our vastly different political systems and strategic goals, there will inevitably be issues on which our leaders will never see eye to eye. Yet having constructive and positive relationships at both the national and subnational levels will give countries the chance to collaborate on areas of mutual interest while reducing the risk of conflict over areas of disagreement.

The City and State Diplomacy Act would be one step toward mitigating risks to our national security without sacrificing our values of being an open and accepting society. In a globalized world in which countries will always vie for influence, there is no way to fully eliminate all the national security risks that exist from influence operations. But ensuring our leaders at all levels of government have access to information and tools that will help them make informed decisions will be one step toward protecting our national security.

Matt Abbott is director of government and diplomatic programs at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. The views represented in this article are his own and do not represent any institutional positions.