The COVID-19 pandemic has increasingly elevated mayors, governors, state legislators, and other local officials into global policy debates. As the virus started to spread around the world, regional coordination, even across borders – between Texas and Mexico, for example – became increasingly urgent. By necessity, state and local leaders have emerged as even more critical stakeholders on matters traditionally managed at the national level, from coordinating public-health best practices with global peers to swapping advice on how to secure personal protective equipment.

These connections aren’t new, however, and reflect an accelerating trend: many states and cities are taking it upon themselves to tackle transnational challenges that carry local significance, from the Council of the Great Lakes’ work on trade and infrastructure across the U.S.-Canada border, to the global networks of cities and regions coordinating policies and sharing data and effective practices – on climate change, emergency preparedness, poverty alleviation, and economic development.

To enhance their global reach in a constructive way, the United States needs a thoughtful federal structure to ensure that state and local officials are prepared to navigate decentralized global politics with the right tools, expertise, and support. States, regions, and cities are already on the frontlines; the traditional foreign policy community needs to think of them as players in our networked global future. Their voices are powerful American voices on the world stage.

Promises and Pitfalls

Empowering mayors and governors to straddle the world as global players will benefit communities, because many local issues increasingly require international solutions. Sometimes it’s ad hoc, like city leaders around the world communicating on chat platforms to discuss when and how to reopen businesses during COVID-19. Sometimes it’s about medium-term policy planning, like when Australian officials approach governments in western American states about strategies to prevent and fight destructive wildfires. And sometimes it’s much more grounded, such as when the California Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon launched a first-of-its-kind bilateral strategic dialogue with Mexico in 2018 (one of us organized and implemented that initiative). The dialogue offered state and local leaders from both California and Baja California – in the presence of federal officials from both countries – a sustained, structured platform to address cross-border water pollution between Tijuana and San Diego.

At the same time, as state and local officials pursue the promise of successful engagement around the globe, it is important to recognize that uncoordinated action can be counterproductive. As we’ve seen during the COVID-19 pandemic, when states are left to their own devices, the result is often policy confusion and a net loss for the states if they are forced to negotiate against each other. Efforts by regional groups of governors to coordinate policy are laudable, but they would be that much more effective if they were astutely coordinated by an inclusive federal government structure equipped to offer mayors and governors the necessary resources, guidance, access to the appropriate foreign counterparts, and global policy expertise.

Moreover, certain types of international engagement may be more appropriate than others. States and cities should be encouraged to focus on areas in which they have core competency, like the environment, public health, and trade. They should also favor technocratic cooperation with other regions and cities; trading data and best practices, for instance, is substantially different from promoting alternate policy agendas. A thoughtful federal government should encourage and facilitate opportunities for mayors and governors to engage in areas where they can be most effective in advancing American interests abroad.

There’s also another reason why coordination matters: geopolitical competition knows no boundaries. As states and cities raise their global profiles, they become vulnerable to exploitation by hostile foreign powers. For example, Moscow widely exploited the grateful comments from Italian mayors and governors for the humanitarian aid Russia sent during the COVID-19 crisis, attempting to propagandize its benevolent response in contrast with the European Union’s supposed abandonment of a member state. Meanwhile, the Italian government had to stop Russia’s aid mission prematurely when Russian units started collecting intelligence around sensitive sites, like near a base storing American nuclear missiles.

Special caution must be raised when it comes to China, as it is much more powerful than any of our individual states – and increasingly attempts to influence them. Beijing has worked aggressively to ensure that American governors, mayors, and other local elected leaders engage with China from the ground-up, on the Chinese Communist Party’s terms – from nudging them to promote President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative to pressuring U.S. elected officials to refrain from criticizing China’s policies on Hong Kong, Tibet, Taiwan, and the placement of Muslim Uyghurs in detention camps.

One of us had a direct experience with this while serving as the global policy lead at the California Assembly; Chinese diplomats harangued and harassed me and several elected officials in person (publicly) and by phone for exercising our right to invite Taiwan representatives to attend official functions. In that instance, as in many others, the Chinese government actively attempted to interfere with speech on American soil.

State and Local Diplomacy Needs a Structure

While these so-called “sharp power” tactics are not always successful nor sophisticated, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP’s) relentless efforts – not only in the United States but around the world – demonstrate why state and local engagement in global affairs must be coordinated, both to equip mayors and governors to rebuff foreign political influence efforts and to encourage these local U.S. leaders to pursue their own international engagements in ways that are consistent with American national interests.

The U.S. government and its local partners don’t necessarily need to reinvent the wheel to make this work. In fact, this might take the form of an upgraded White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, where an administration liaison to governors and mayors could hold a joint appointment at the National Security Council – effectively serving as the point person who channels the interests of states and cities into the policymaking community. This also might take the form of a new office at the State Department that coordinates global engagement by mayors and governors, as proposed by the City and State Diplomacy Act – which is currently being supported and advanced by bipartisan members in both the House and Senate. Whatever it looks like, Washington should see state and local efforts as opportunities to amplify its efforts and aim to align them as much as possible.

Empower and Equip, Not Co-opt

Effective coordination does not mean Washington controlling or co-opting what mayors, governors, and local elected officials do on the global stage. The United States is a nation of more than 300 million people with deep and vast regional economies and interests – and, per its federal traditions, there is no one set of policy priorities that can be centrally aligned. Governors and mayors have their own stories to tell, and it would be wholly unrealistic — and indeed counterproductive — for the federal government to get them all to speak from the same script.

Instead, Washington should incentivize their focused engagement on areas where they can be most helpful for the advancement of American foreign policy, while accepting that a degree of independence is inevitable and expected in a vibrant democracy. The best way to encourage them to operate inside the tent, so to speak, is to include them as valued members of the tent.

A meaningful subnational effort at the federal level, then, would offer greater resources to bolster states and cities’ abilities to compete and engage globally in areas where they are most suited, most notably on economics, public health, and the environment. It would:

  • strategically and formally include and integrate the concerns and perspectives of mayors and governors in negotiations on trade, climate, and other transnational issues;
  • provide additional budgetary resources for cities and states to build professionalized teams that focus on international and economic development work;
  • nurture sustained and structured channels between the White House and mayors, governors, and state legislative leaders’ offices dedicated to offering international policy guidance; and,
  • allow regular, tailored intelligence briefings to the most senior leaders in cities and states to alert and help them rebuff foreign efforts to influence U.S. politics and weaken U.S. democracy.

Based on our experience advising and working on global policy at the state and local levels, we know that mayors and governors are rightly mindful of their prerogatives and do not react kindly to federal dictates. A top-down structure that has them taking directions from the White House simply won’t work. Rather, states and cities as well as Washington should look at this as a process of incentives and empowerment: the former would receive the additional sources and expert support they need to build teams with global reach, while the latter gains some ability to channel and benefit from local voices that can amplify and advance U.S. foreign policy objectives around the world.

Merging the Foreign and the Domestic

Such cooperation provides another benefit for policymakers and government institutions. At a time of heightened uncertainties, anxieties, and even fear among the American public over how – and whether – communities are equipped to thrive in a global world, governors, mayors, state legislators, and civil society leaders can be natural connectors to explicitly link the foreign and the domestic. Washington’s foreign policy establishment, which is often seen as – and can sometimes be – out of touch with the lived experiences of communities outside the Beltway, need their help in earning the public’s support to enhance and sustain American global leadership. The federal government ought to formally bring them into the policy process.

States, local governments, and civil society organizations that work on the ground across the country understand what works and what doesn’t, because they are situated, literally, at the level where policy is implemented and services are delivered – and at a level where globalism is felt, and correspondingly accepted, rejected, or questioned. They know not just how to help national and foreign governments, but have valuable insights on how issues might be comprehensively addressed, whether it’s municipal workers supporting immigrants in Arizona or the police tackling terrorism in New York. Local leaders can help advance a foreign policy that is firmly rooted in the interest of American communities by those who know it best.

This is equally true in the converse: ambassadors and other diplomats – who have experience living in cities and towns around the world – can identify and study policy ideas that work and bring those concepts back to cities and states at home.

Indeed, Britain encourages its diplomats around the United States to do just that through an initiative called the “plagiarism agenda.” The State Department should plagiarize that idea in turn by supporting the creation of attachés from state or local governments or by expanding the remit of preexisting trade offices, all in conjunction with an enhanced subnational diplomatic program at the federal level. After all, spreading successful ideas abroad would reaffirm America’s somewhat tarnished reputation for bureaucratic competence. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, soliciting ideas in turn would be a modest way to boost America’s soft power.

Disseminating the expertise of cities and states might also be an international development strategy – and even an alternative form of foreign aid. New York City might, for instance, share an urban planning solution with a partner in Latin America, with a grant funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) or a loan from the World Bank. Or Florida might assist an Asian government ministry on countering narcotics smuggling. Tapping the knowledge of America’s state and local governments – through a mechanism that is formally coordinated, supported, and institutionalized at the federal level – would be an effective and efficient way to creatively source best practices for international development projects.

The U.S. should also elevate the role of cities and regions globally. Cities in particular are the most dynamic parts of most developing countries, so development strategy must keep them in mind. Both aid agencies like USAID and international institutions like the World Bank should do more to address the specific needs of cities and regions; they might even consider extending formal (or at least advisory) representation to state and local leaders from around the world.

All Policy Really Is Local

Whether it’s establishing global standards, setting cultural trends, or educating the next generation, American superpower has always been the sum of its various parts. If it was naïve to think foreign policy was an exclusively Beltway affair before, it would be malpractice now. And, at a time when globalized challenges like pandemics and climate change pose unprecedented threats, and authoritarian regimes seek to weaken democracies around the world, American leadership is vital. No doubt, this is precisely why the United States needs a White House that can effectively and credibly tackle global challenges.

But if America is to achieve effective outcomes as it moves past the coronavirus – and effectively reengage the world – a change in national leadership is not enough. It must also leverage the power, ingenuity, and resilience of its diverse network of institutions: public and private, for-profit and civil society, national, regional, and municipal. It would involve mayors and governors, civil society leaders, business owners, and innovative policy professionals and problem-solvers from our urban and rural areas – who have all risen to the occasion these past few months. It would ensure they all have a seat at the table – to drive, make sense of, and together advance our foreign policy on behalf of the American people.

Washington has long operated on the axiom that all politics is local. It must now accept that, increasingly, foreign policy is as well.

IMAGE: The U.S. “We Are Still In” pavilion at the COP 23 United Nations Climate Change Conference on November 11, 2017 in Bonn, Germany. A delegation of U.S. business, state and city government presented United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) Executive Secretary Patricia Espinosa with the America’s Pledge report detailing the efforts of U.S. states, cities and businesses to keep America on line in fulfilling goals towards carbon reduction set out by the Paris Climate Agreement. The “We Are Still In” initiative is an alliance of U.S. state and city government representatives, business interests and climate activists who want the U.S. to remain a signatory of the Paris Climate Agreement after  U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the accord. The White House sent its own delegation of fossil fuel supporters to the COP 23 conference the following week to make the case for the continued role of coal and petroleum in world energy needs. (Photo by Lukas Schulze/Getty Images)