How city and state diplomacy can strengthen US foreign policy

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Erin Bromaghim, Visiting Senior Fellow for City and State Diplomacy, Truman Center for National Policy


  • City and state diplomacy is an important part of international cooperation, but right now it has no link to US foreign policy – which puts the country at risk of falling behind.
  • But strengthening linkages to city and state diplomacy is ultimately growth-hacking for US foreign policy.
  • Here are three ways to invest in city and state diplomacy as well as how to connect it to US foreign policy.

In early 2020, as much of the world held its breath and refreshed the John Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, local leaders like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti were already in action. Calling and texting with mayors around the world already facing down the virus and its impact. Los Angeles was able to move quickly: establishing drive-thru testing sites as recommended by Seoul, adopting Milan’s approach to reconfiguring hospital spaces, and sharing these models with other cities in the US.

Linking city-led international engagement to US foreign policy

The conversations were possible because these leaders knew and trusted each other. They and their teams have worked together for years sharing similar practical lessons on topics ranging from food security, climate resilience, and welcoming migrants and refugees, to hosting major events like the Olympic and Paralympic Games. This city-led international engagement is diplomacy, but right now in the US, it has no link to our foreign policy. As more nations invest in connecting to the world through the work of their local and regional governments, the US risks falling further behind.

But the momentum to recognize and leverage city and state diplomacy in the US is growing. Legislation to establish an Office of City and State Diplomacy at the State Department is pending before both houses of Congress. Last month, the State Department announced it will co-host a Cities Summit of the Americas in 2023.

And the Truman Center for National Policy is leading a task force focused on city and state diplomacy, which captured its recommendations in a report released last month. These ideas centre on increased coordination and collaboration between the State Department and the cities, states, and community-based organizations throughout the U.S that are engaged globally.

Why it is important to invest in these connections for US foreign policy

Investing in these connections is critical to strengthening US foreign policy in the long term, for at least three reasons:

1. Cities and states are a part of existing ecosystems that can multiply the reach and influence of US foreign policy. Most communities throughout the US have international connections already; connections that offer a new set of contacts, organizations, and projects relevant to US foreign policy.

Some cities and states have dedicated international affairs leadership and staff; others are home to diaspora communities, host universities and cultural exchanges, or lead international economic development and trade missions. Many city and state governments are also members of international peer networks, sharing ideas and advocacy on transnational issues like climate change and gender equity.

These bilateral and networked relationships multiply the touchpoints for US engagement. More partners offer more options for action. Where deeply entrenched policy positions may limit bilateral cooperation between national governments, city-to-city or regional collaboration may keep diplomatic channels open, as has been true between the US and China with respect to climate action. Cities and states may also pledge themselves to international agreements, energizing US commitments with locally-led initiatives, innovations, and new voices – true for both the Paris Agreement as well as the UN’s Agenda 2030 and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

2. City and state diplomacy is highly pragmatic, offering transferrable solutions that demonstrate the application of US commitments in context. Regardless of whether the motivation for international engagement is economic, cultural, or policy-based, cities and states ask one another for help and share what works. This is practical diplomacy, centering on methods for delivering better and more equitable public services.

Exchanges are highly actionable and focused on priorities like decarbonization, food security, sustainable development, and inclusive growth. They are also rooted in a specific context and place, which helps inform how success may translate from one community to another. Whether bilateral or facilitated by subnational networks, cities and states learn from one another, building trust and enduring relationships in the process – relationships that open new and different partnerships that improve the lives and livelihoods of Americans.

3. Informing our foreign policy with what’s working locally creates a pride of ownership for those communities – which in turn, can create greater awareness and buy-in for US foreign policy. If US foreign policy is to be measured in how it benefits the American people, the American people must see themselves as part of it.

Building foreign policy with the middle class

Establishing channels for coordination between the State Department and cities and states is the first step. Engaging local leaders on their priorities, and consulting communities on how their good work can be a model for others invites cities and states into what may seem like a distant and insular foreign policy apparatus. Building up these domestic connections means more communities have a voice and a sense of ownership for American values and leadership in the world.

Strengthening linkages to city and state diplomacy is growth-hacking for US foreign policy: tapping into content, products, and customers with only a modest investment in the platforms through which all parties can engage. This is a fundamental – and needed – shift in thinking about how and where diplomacy happens. And this is an opportunity to build a foreign policy with the middle class – not just for it.

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