Subnational diplomacy can bolster American soft power abroad

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In the wake of allegations that a suspected Chinese intelligence operative targeted American politicians at the local level, the Biden administration and Congress should prioritize engaging collaboratively with state and local officials on international affairs. This will help subnational officials pursue principled and informed – yet vigilant – global engagement.

Since the early 1970s, commercial and people-to-people exchanges helped the United States and China to build “trust and common prosperity through cooperation at the local level,” according to a 2018 report on Chinese influence and American interests by the Hoover Institution. Yet increasing attention is being paid to some of the challenges that accompany that engagement, particularly since the U.S.-China relationship has grown increasingly fraught in the years since the report was published.

For example, the Hoover Institution report highlights the “increased danger that independent state and municipal China policies will sometimes conflict with national interest and hinder the United States in its competition with China to shape global norms and practices.” Also troubling is that the officials and staff engaged in those efforts to engage internationally may not have received substantial training or have experience in international affairs, especially given the scope of subnational actors turning their focus globally. 

In a recent survey of 47 major cities conducted by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the University of Melbourne’s Connected Cities Lab, 93 percent of respondents noted that their city has a senior manager responsible for dealing with international relations, and 86 percent of respondents noted that their city has an official international office. Yet only 43 percent of respondents indicated that their staff working on international engagement underwent any relevant training for their position.

Those who received training noted that it tended to be informal or self-guided. Seventy-five percent of respondents in the survey had worked in their organization or role for five years or fewer. In addition, 58 percent of respondent cities would engage more in city diplomacy if they had better capacity building and training in international issues and negotiations. It should be stressed that the cities surveyed are major global cities, and smaller cities may have access to even fewer resources for their attempts at international engagement.

There are ways national and subnational governments could work together to encourage city diplomacy and international engagement while mitigating risk. An Office of Subnational Diplomacy at the U.S. Department of State would help city and state officials better understand and prepare for the risks and rewards associated with international engagement. Creating such an office would send a message that subnational diplomacy can be another successful tool to promote America globally provided that state and local officials are equipped with the resources and information to be successful.

Also, offering training opportunities to leaders and staff in subnational governments who manage international relationships will be important. Just as U.S. government foreign affairs professionals have access to educational opportunities at the Foreign Service Institute, where they can receive training in topics ranging from diplomatic tradecraft to area studies, subnational leaders would benefit from increased access to formal training and educational opportunities.

As municipalities work to rebuild from the damage inflicted on their economies during the COVID-19 pandemic, international trade and foreign direct investment can be attractive tools to bolster economic vitality, and dynamic global relationships can help to fully realize these potential benefits. Relationships that subnational officials form can reap rewards beyond just economic growth with cultural and educational benefits also possible for subnational actors.

Still, with those rewards come risks as was highlighted in the case of the alleged Chinese intelligence operative targeting subnational American officials. Foreign governments – both friendly and adversarial – will engage in efforts to obtain political intelligence and establish relationships with key elected officials. Just because a politician may not currently have access to sensitive information or have influence over a specific policy, does not mean he or she will not in the future. Keep in mind that four of the five people serving or about to serve as president of the United States in the 21st century previously held elected office at the state or local level.

Better training and coordination between officials at all levels of government will give subnational diplomacy the chance to bolster American soft power abroad while boosting trade and foreign direct investment at home. Yet without proper training and coordination, state and local officials risk sending mixed signals abroad and not fully understanding the intentions of the governments with which they engage. This in turn may undermine international initiatives led by the national government whether those initiatives involve collaboration, competition or confrontation with other countries.

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

Tags China China–United States relations Diplomacy Global politics International relations Paradiplomacy soft power United States Department of State

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