Should foreign policy be the exclusive dominion of the executive branch and Congress?
Many of the 21st century’s most pressing political issues, from infectious disease spread to terrorism, primarily affect cities. But many state or local leaders increasingly feel that their polarized and gridlocked national government is unable to effectively respond.
This criticism predates the Trump Administration; many state and local governments divested from South Africa during the Reagan-era apartheid years in the 1980s. But the concept has taken on increased prominence in the Trump era. For example, a coalition of 25 governors — representing more than half the population and well more than half the U.S. economy — have agreed to abide by the Paris Climate Agreement, even as the U.S. pulled out in 2017 on a nationwide basis.
The federal government has the sole power to undertake certain actions in foreign affairs, such as make treaties or declare war. The Supreme Court held 7–1 in the 1968 decision Zschernig v. Miller that a state couldn’t intrude into the federal realm of foreign affairs.
But cities and states have increasingly been taking other actions that aren’t solely in the federal government’s realm of foreign affairs. These include “negotiating and signing trans-border agreements, forming international coalitions, and lobbying for certain policy changes at the United Nations,” writes the Rand Corporation.
Many U.S. governors and mayors have increasingly been extending their global outreach. Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York City have all created a Mayor’s Office of International Affairs.
As this practice becomes increasingly common, should there be a federal office to help coordinate and facilitate? Supporters argue that federal legislation could help more proactive and nimble states and cities extend their global reach, while making sure they don’t interfere with any of the federal government’s exclusive prerogatives.
What the legislation does
The City and State Diplomacy Act would establish an Office of Subnational Diplomacy within the State Department, to help and facilitate governors and mayors interacting and engaging with their foreign equivalents.
The office would be appointed by an “Ambassador at Large,” to be appointed by the president and subject to Senate approval. Five State Department “Ambassador-at-Large” positions require Senate approval: Counterterrorism, Global Women’s Issues, human trafficking, War Crimes Issues, and International Religious Freedoms.
Generally, they get much more bipartisan buy-in than the Secretary of State. For example, current Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was approved by the Senate in a partisan 57–42 vote, but four of those five current Ambassadors-at-Large were approved by voice vote with no recorded opposition.
(Sam Brownback for International Religious Freedom, on the other hand, was approved in a squeaker 50–49 vote — actually a 49–49 tied vote broken in Brownback’s favor by Vice President Mike Pence.)
The House version was introduced on June 27, 2019 as bill number H.R. 3571, by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA33). The Senate version was introduced more than a year later on August 4, 2020 as bill number S. 4426, by Sen. Chris Murphy (D-CT).
What supporters say
Supporters argue the legislation assists internationally-minded cities and states in furthering their relationships and potential influence, while simultaneously dissuading their currently-independent activities from contradicting any of the federal government’s priorities too much.
“If we want to keep up with China’s growing global reach, we need to get creative in the ways we wield our soft power,” Sen. Murphy said in a press release. “We’re seeing Beijing foster their own subnational diplomacy through opaquely funded cultural exchange programs, coordinating outreach to U.S. mayors, governors and state legislatures, and touting its local leaders’ responses to COVID-19.”
“And that’s exactly why we need legislation to establish a federal infrastructure that helps our own mayors and governors engage with foreign counterparts and strengthen connections between U.S. citizens and the foreign policy process,” Sen. Murphy continued. “Marshaling all our foreign policy tools — including mayors and governors who are increasingly connected to the world — is a vital complement to boots on the ground, and this legislation helps us play the long game in competing with Beijing on the world stage.”
What opponents say
GovTrack Insider was unable to locate any explicit statements of opposition. At a House Foreign Affairs Committee hearing, about several bills include this one, nobody spoke up in opposition. In a Washington Post article on the legislation, the State Department itself didn’t weigh in, in either direction.
Would this legislation undercut the State Department? No. Rather, it would fold existing nascent attempts at state and city diplomacy — and potential future ones to come — into the existing State Department apparatus. As the Rand Corporation wrote, “This could create more opportunities for the global interests of the local communities in the United States to be pursued internationally, not despite the federal government, but through the support of the State Department.”
Odds of passage
The House version has attracted 16 bipartisan cosponsors: 10 Democrats and six Republicans. It was approved by the House Foreign Affairs Committee on December 18, and awaits a potential vote in the full chamber.