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It’s Time for Foreign Policy to Go Local

An argument for increasing American subnational diplomacy.

Words: Thomas Brodey
Pictures: Ian Baldwin

It’s no secret that most Americans feel disconnected from their country’s foreign policy. As Congress struggles to pass even the most routine legislation, the responsibility of diplomacy falls to the executive branch, currently occupied by a historically unpopular president, or the largely unelected foreign policy community. These foreign policy elites differ from most Americans in background — they are disproportionately “pale, male, and Yale” — and in policy, they are more likely to support military adventurism abroad while underfunding the diplomatic corps. Frustrated with a strategy crafted by distant officials, a near supermajority of Americans disapprove of their government’s foreign policy, and still more show signs of apathy

Diplomacy cannot function when it lacks credibility at home. Foreigners have little reason to collaborate with officials who are mistrusted by the very people they claim to represent. The United States urgently needs to restore the legitimacy of its foreign policy. A solution to this intractable issue is to democratize foreign affairs, taking it out of smoke-filled rooms and extending it into arguably the purest form of representative politics — state and local governments. 

Subnational Diplomacy

Giving state and local governments a role in international policy, a concept known as paradiplomacy or subnational diplomacy, is not a new idea. While the Constitution limits the diplomatic power of states, it still permits them to engage in substantive collaboration with foreign governments. In recent years, many governors and mayors have risen to the challenge. 

Texas is a particularly instructive example. With Congress deadlocked on immigration policy, Governor Greg Abbott has signed a series of agreements with Mexican governors to limit border crossings. Texas has also recently signed a major trade agreement with the United Kingdom, a useful alternative to politically infeasible country-to-country deals. 

States can also weigh in on some of the most controversial foreign policy issues. In the weeks after the Oct. 7 attack in Israel, Abbott, as well as California Governor Gavin Newsom and New York Governor Kathy Hochul, each traveled independently to Israel. While the trips appeared superficially similar, they differed on the specifics. Abbott declared “complete and total” support for Israel and announced $4 million in spending to bolster security for Jewish organizations in Texas. Newsom, on the other hand, expressed sympathy for innocents on all sides, and paired the trip with aid shipments to both Israel and Gaza. 

The visits show how subnational diplomacy can broaden and democratize diplomacy. When the federal government is overstretched (Biden spent less than eight hours in Israel) states can fill the gap. While the federal government tries to be everywhere at once, states are free to pick and choose issues that matter to their constituents. 

America’s cities are also taking diplomatic initiative. Many, from Atlanta to Los Angeles, have established a Mayor’s Office of International Affairs, which can facilitate foreign investment and encourage intellectual exchanges. Phoenix, for example, recently struck a $40 billion semiconductor deal with Taiwan. International city networks have also proven successful at fighting climate change and social extremism. Thanks to their local ties and higher public approval, city governments can connect foreign policy to people in a way that detached and dysfunctional Washington cannot match. 

Subnational diplomacy can unify the two halves of American foreign policy by raising a generation of experts and leaders who can connect foreign affairs to kitchen-table politics. 

The examples above underscore both the promise and contradictions of paradiplomacy. Local governments can democratize foreign policy, but they do so with a multitude of discordant voices. Opponents might liken subnational diplomacy to a hundred horses all pulling in different directions. 

That criticism, however, is not entirely fair. A uniform and unanimous foreign policy may be convenient, but it is also unachievable in a fractious and democratic country. The current system is paralyzed by internal fights over everything from Ukraine aid to even diplomatic appointments. Counterintuitively, a more decentralized foreign policy would (in aggregate) provide more consistency than a DC government that lurches this way and that with every election. Small-scale diplomacy that pursues local priorities can fill in the gaps when national diplomacy appears to prioritize nothing at all. 

The Future 

So far, the Federal government has done little to encourage subnational diplomacy. If it is to reach its full potential, however, paradiplomacy will require the federal government’s vast pools of experience and institutional knowledge. Moreover, unchecked paradiplomacy might prove vulnerable to savvy foreigners intent on pitting cities against each other or influencing key leaders. 

To maximize the benefits and minimize the risks of paradiplomacy, the State Department should encourage and coordinate the efforts of local governments. An office of subnational diplomacy, for instance, could train and advise local diplomats. Forming a Diplomatic Reserve Corps whose members alternate between federal and local postings would also spread experience while boosting diplomatic capacity. India — perhaps the closest analogue to America’s large, diverse, and federalized democracy — has already established a “States Division” aimed at helping lower levels of governments conduct their own diplomacy. 

Federal support, however, must not stifle the independence and initiative that are local diplomacy’s greatest strengths. Trying to enforce total conformity with the Federal Government line will turn paradiplomacy into just another organ of Washington. Instead, the foreign policy community must learn to accept contrary opinions as a natural outgrowth of the democratic process. 

Today, American foreign policy is largely crafted by two groups: experts who lack ties to local politics, and leaders without meaningful diplomatic experience. Given time, subnational diplomacy can unify the two halves of American foreign policy by raising a generation of experts and leaders who can connect foreign affairs to kitchen-table politics. 

A country’s diplomacy should reflect its political strengths. The United States is a vast, sprawling land with a diverse population and a multilayered network of state and local governments. Each local government is a diplomatic laboratory, able to represent its people both at home and abroad. Only by tapping into its federal system can the American government harness its most powerful tool: the trust of its people. 

Thomas Brodey

Thomas Brodey is a Peace Corps volunteer serving in Madagascar. His views do not represent the US Government. He has contributed to Inkstick, the Borgen Project, and the Wall Street Journal. He has also worked with the John Quincy Adams Society in the inaugural class of the Marcellus Policy Fellows. He graduated from Amherst College in 2022.

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