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Local and state diplomacy is critical to US foreign policy

Antony Blinken
Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during The United States Conference of Mayors, Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors underscored the increasing role of subnational diplomacy in international affairs. Sustaining the deepening connectivity between American national, state and local leaders on foreign policy will be critical to bolstering national security in the future.

In his speech to the mayors gathered in Washington, D.C., Blinken stated “It’s precisely because foreign and domestic policy are so inextricably linked and mutually reinforcing that, in our judgement, we need to try to deepen the partnership between institutions like mine and yours.”

The nexus between foreign and domestic policy is evident given the state of subnational governments’ global engagement. A survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and the University of Melbourne’s Connected Cities Lab released in October 2020 of 47 cities around the world found that 93 percent of respondents’ cities had a senior manager working on international relations and 86 percent of respondents’ cities maintained an official international office.

Yet less than half – 43 percent – of cities’ staff responsible for international engagement received relevant training for their position, according to survey respondents. The survey also found that when training was received, it tended to be “informal or self-guided.”

This lack of training could be a liability for city and state officials in dialogue with foreign governments, particularly since subnational engagement is not always necessarily benign. In July 2022, the National Counterintelligence and Security Center (NCSC) issued a bulletin warning “…as tensions between Beijing and Washington have grown, the government of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) under President Xi Jinping has increasingly sought to exploit these China-US subnational relationships to influence US policies and advance PRC geopolitical interests.”

The bulletin from the NCSC also highlighted that “…it is important that US state and local leaders not cast blanket suspicion on all outreach from China.” This point is prudent and further highlights the complexity of international affairs to which state and local officials need to be attuned. Principled subnational diplomacy has the potential to deliver positive results whether that engagement is taking place with friends, foes or competitors.

Yet those positive results are often contingent on preparation and awareness of potential threats. These challenges can be mitigated by heeding NCSC’s advice that “In partnering with any foreign entity, US state and local leaders should exercise vigilance, conduct due diligence, and ensure transparency, integrity, and accountability are built into the partnership to guard against potential foreign government exploitation.”

The stakes for national security are high. The NCSC bulletin pointed out that “…what may seem good for your city, county, state, or business in the short-term could undermine strategic US interests over the long-term.”

As such, Blinken’s speech to the U.S. Conference of Mayors highlights the importance senior national officials are placing on engaging their subnational counterparts and aligning national and subnational priorities. Not only did it mark the first time a U.S. secretary of state addressed the group, but it also came on the heels of a series of outreach efforts the department has been conducting to subnational officials.

In October 2022, Blinken announced that the first special representative for subnational diplomacy would be joining the Department of State. Ambassador Nina Hachigian, the former deputy mayor for international affairs for the city of Los Angeles, filled this role to lead the department’s efforts to “engage local partners, foster connections among cities in the United States and abroad, develop solutions and partnerships to key issues facing local actors, and fundamentally strengthen the Department’s ties to our cities and communities.”

To ensure long-term success for cities and states that engage with international entities, it will be critical to sustain these efforts, make sure they are embraced across party lines and ensure subnational governments can access information and resources to conduct principled and prudent outreach abroad.

Matt Abbott is the 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 Antony Blinken Antony Blinken diplomatic relations Local government State governments of the United States US Conference of Mayors Xi Jinping

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