The current public kerfuffle about White House security clearances has focused the country’s attention on the sensitivity of federal government information and the potential vulnerability of federal employees to foreign intelligence activity. However, the federal government, while the most prominent target for foreign intelligence, is hardly the only one being singled out. Foreign state and non-state actors can benefit from targeting state and local governments, which are likely less savvy about national security threats but which still can have a significant impact on U.S. strategic interests. It is this lack of savvy that makes sub-federal governments such enticing targets for U.S. competitors and adversaries.
State and local governments are of interest not simply because they are more accessible but because they can help to shape U.S. political norms and policies. In recent years, state and local governments have become increasingly popular venues for federal policies to be challenged. One need look no further than the proliferation of marijuana decriminalization measures that municipal and state governments have adopted, permitting direct violation of federal law. This divergence also has implications for foreign policy and national security. For decades, various states have established trade and other relations with foreign governments – essentially taking foreign policy into their own hands. This provides countries – some, friendly, some hostile, others just opportunistic – with beachheads on U.S. soil while sometimes circumventing proper diplomatic channels.
At times, state governments – under the auspices of commerce – have ventured into activities that look remarkably like bilateral foreign policy. As early as 1985, the National Governors’ Association identified that states were moving into the area of international trade. Relationships often focused on allied or at least non-hostile countries. However, in 1994, Washington state, home to Boeing’s headquarters, opened a trade office in Vladivostok, Russia. At the time, there was arguably an opportunity for Russia to align itself with the West but it remained a volatile political and economic environment. California’s 10th trade office abroad was located in a similarly problematic location — Shanghai, China. The office closed, only to be re-opened in 2013 by Jerry Brown, who was California’s then-governor, as well as now. While states believe they are only creating opportunities for U.S. business, foreign governments may view this as a back door to diplomacy. For instance, China has indicated, it views economic, as well as cultural, and technological exchanges as stalking horses for full diplomatic relations.
Sub-federal relationships with foreign governments have, on occasion, suggested that U.S. state governments are intent on demonstrating their differences with Washington over foreign policy questions. For instance, Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia, courted ambassadors from multiple countries that held positions diametrically opposed to U.S. national security. These countries, welcomed by McAuliffe, included China and Cuba. If foreign governments can get a foot in the door with less guarded, sub-federal actors, they can potentially create pressure for changes in U.S. policy before Washington recognizes that the driving force behind the calls for new policies are actually the work of hostile entities.
Foreign governments have not been mere passive beneficiaries of the divisions internal to U.S. politics. Instead, they have calculatingly exploited states’ willingness to defy Washington. After President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris climate agreement, China wasted no time in using it as wedge between sub-federal and federal policymakers. Chinese President Xi Jinping positioned himself to partner with California Governor Jerry Brown, on climate change issues. Xi’s treatment of Brown as a bilateral counterpart effectively elevated Brown to the status of a national leader, snubbing Washington in the process. This not only undermines U.S. territorial integrity – by treating California as an independent entity — but also advances China’s efforts to establish new global norms. In July 2016, Xi suggested that there was a “China solution to humanity’s search for better social institutions.” California, in this context, became one more political entity that Beijing could point to as falling in line with China’s version of the world. Standing against climate change is a fair position – no one wants the California redwoods and coastlines to be irreparably marred – but Brown does not help this cause (and may actually discredit it) by appearing to take his position in league with Beijing.
Foreign governments may attempt to exploit the federal / sub-federal dynamic not only in overt appeals to sub-federal actors, but through surreptitious shaping of political developments at the sub-federal level. For instance, a U.S. Senate inquiry, into campaign finance irregularities during the 1996 U.S. elections, identified that the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles had funneled USD 3,000 to a Republican candidate who was running for the California state assembly. Furthermore, Chinese double-agent Katrina Leung contributed funds to California Republican gubernatorial candidates Richard J. Riordan – who served as the mayor of Los Angeles – and Bill Simon Jr. Creating good will (seemingly synonymous with providing campaign funds) among sub-federal politicians could be viewed as an effort to cultivate a climate of governance amenable to China’s interests.
The federal government’s investigation of the 1996 campaign finance scandal also identified that China intended to use sub-federal activities to gain access to national level policymaking. A Chinese government official devised an approach to manipulate the American political system, which entailed encouraging U.S.-based Chinese communities to identify candidates who could run for state and local political offices. From state and local offices, these candidates would become viable nominees – sympathetic to China – for federal positions. With apologies to former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, the compromise of U.S. national security – as well as politics – is local.
Foreign governments have even attempted to drill down to the municipal and community levels in search of sympathetic contacts. Vladimir Kryuchkov, the head of the Soviet KGB, encouraged officers to consult local police forces and emphasize the need for international cooperation. Similarly, Venezuela, when under the rule of virulently anti-American Hugo Chavez, fielded a diplomatic representative who expressed interest in learning more about the community services of Montgomery County, Md., with an eye toward providing foreign funding (in a ploy resembling Venezuela’s subsidizing heating oil in other U.S. locations). These examples should prompt a cautious approach to what may at first appear to be civic-minded initiatives, such as sister-city exchanges. While such cultural cross-pollination can have positive outcomes, it can also become an implement that foreign powers can cynically exploit to gain support at a grassroots level.
Although safeguarding access to sensitive information and monitoring opportunities for foreign influence at the federal level of government is essential, it should not overshadow the damage that can be done vis-à-vis sub-federal entities, where awareness of national security implications is less developed. Foreign actors have – as examples from history demonstrate – consistently attempted to exploit this soft underbelly of America’s political ecosystem. Opportunities for degrading the federal government through local action continue to proliferate (e.g. “sanctuary cities,” which have defied federal law enforcement in order to promote local cooperation and civil engagement with communities of undocumented immigrants, and, in the process, exerted political autonomy). A country fragmented by overheated rhetoric, political polarization, and extreme activism provides an environment conducive to foreign corrosion of national security at the most local of levels.
The views expressed in this essay are entirely the author’s own and do not represent those of the U.S. government or any U.S. government or other entity.