Why U.S. Cities and States Should Play a Bigger Role in Foreign Policy

Part of making foreign policy work better for Americans is empowering local leaders.

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti addresses a crowd of protesters opposed to Trump administration immigration policies in Los Angeles on June 30, 2018.
Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti addresses a crowd of protesters opposed to Trump administration immigration policies in Los Angeles on June 30, 2018. FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

In a 2009 essay, I coined the term “formestic” to describe the inevitable intertwining of foreign and domestic policy and the fact that solutions to global challenges often lay at home—and vice versa. Although I’m not holding my breath for the word to catch on, the observation that foreign and domestic policy are inseparably connected is a core conviction of U.S. President Joe Biden’s team. He made the point repeatedly during the run up to the November 2020 elections and has kept making it since. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan was one of the architects of a “foreign policy for the middle class.” If there is a Biden doctrine, breaking down the silos of foreign and domestic policy would be a fundamental element.

The reason why these realms are deeply connected is simple: The United States is only as influential abroad as the strength of its economy, institutions, people, and ideas at home. But if that fact has sunk in, the discussion has mostly revolved around what the federal government can do, such as repairing and building national green infrastructure, investing in research and development, and shoring up the day care system. Encouragingly, the Biden administration has vowed to measure foreign-policy success by what that policy delivers for everyday Americans. “Everything we do in our foreign policy and national security will be measured by a basic metric: Is it going to make life better, safer, and easier for working families?” Sullivan said in February.

So far, so good. But what has been missing in the debate so far is the crucial role that U.S. states, cities, and communities can play. Cities’ and states’ economic policy choices concerning infrastructure, innovation, and other areas create the economic strength that U.S. power rests on. When local governments invest in their residents—via education, health care, housing, and other basic needs—they are laying the domestic foundation of foreign-policy success. Local governments and communities raise and empower the workers, inventors, caregivers, entrepreneurs, entertainers, and soldiers of tomorrow. When their programs and institutions are equitable, they help eliminate systemic racism and gender inequality, LGBTQ and religious bias, and other injustices. This aids foreign policy in two ways: Not only will the United States’ international reputation improve as it addresses its wrongs, but it will have the benefits of the full team it needs instead of leaving people behind and talents untapped.

It may come as a surprise to some, but state and local governments interact with the world outside U.S. borders in many more ways than in the past. Local leaders are the actual boots on the ground when transnational threats hit U.S. shores, setting pandemic rules, distributing vaccines, coping with extreme weather, and caring for migrants. Local governments have become key national security actors.

Their direct role in foreign policy has also been growing. For example, U.S. local leaders regularly nurture relationships with foreign governments. In any given week in Los Angeles, where I am the deputy mayor for international affairs, Mayor Eric Garcetti could be speaking with his counterparts in Tokyo, Jakarta, or Mexico City, the ambassadors of India or France, or the secretary-general of the United Nations. Before the pandemic, Los Angeles hosted heads of state and government ministers on a regular basis. Of course, these relationships do not define the contours of national ones, but the sum total of local ties—involving government, civil society, business, and countless individual people—is a critical stabilizer. In a democracy, especially one with a federal, decentralized system, these ties create the political space for closer relations or, in some cases, frostier ones.

Most major global cities have more active international engagements supported by greater resources than U.S. cities do.

Some relationships deserve a city like Los Angeles’ special attention—perhaps because of their outsized economic impact or their importance to a large diaspora community. With the Mexican Foreign Ministry, we created the Mexico-Los Angeles Commission, a first-of-its-kind, city-to-nation citizens’ commission that paired leaders in key sectors. We were honored when Japan chose to launch its third global public diplomacy hub, Japan House, in our city; currently, we are testing Japanese zero-emission equipment at the busy Port of Los Angeles. Vietnam and the United States need a nonstop flight to connect them, and Los Angeles is the best airport for that critical route. Paris and Los Angeles agreed to cooperate to make their Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in 2024 and 2028, respectively, equitable, sustainable, and innovative. With the United Kingdom, we are working on mobility innovation and gender equity progress. Finally, the city’s large Armenian-American diaspora demanded an active role for elected officials in addressing the recent war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. Los Angeles’ role has been “formestic” indeed.

Mayors also cooperate across borders every day. Garcetti has convened mayors from around the world through the auspices of C40, where he chairs a group of nearly 100 climate-ambitious cities. The mayors discuss not only what more their cities can do to address the climate crisis but also pragmatic details of how best to respond to COVID-19 and how post-pandemic recovery must be just and green. Los Angeles belongs to many other active city networks, some dedicated to specific topics such as gender equity, some broader, like the Urban 20, a network of cities in the G-20 countries that advocates for a more progressive agenda than their nations do. Los Angeles is also one in a network of global cities that are measuring their progress toward the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.

This may sound like a large set of international initiatives for a city hall in California. But the truth is most other major global cities have more active international engagements supported by greater resources than U.S. cities do.

Cities and states could do even more with support from the Biden administration. If foreign policy is to serve everyday Americans, these channels should be expanded and deepened.

Here are a few suggestions to start.

On climate policy, the Biden team could push to involve U.S. and global cities at the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow. The world’s cities have shown a much higher level of ambition than most nations have. Their progress could inspire others.

Second, the administration could use experts from U.S. cities as technical advisors in international development just like Japan and other countries do. Cities and states have concrete, on-the-ground expertise in areas like how to use technology while protecting privacy, how to transition away from coal, how to write green building codes, and how to budget transparently.

Finally, the administration could work with cities and community colleges to inspire a diverse new generation of young people to devote their careers to international relations, administration, and business. We started the Mayor’s Young Ambassador program to send disadvantaged community college students, about a third of whom had never boarded an airplane before, on their first trips overseas and also brought international leaders to talk to hundreds of Black and other college students of color about career paths. This program could be replicated across the country.

To give these and many other ideas more traction, the U.S. State Department should establish a permanent office for city and state diplomacy as proposed in congressional legislation last year. A key provision of that plan is to detail federal foreign service officers to state capitols and city halls to support the growing foreign-policy agenda at the state and local level. This team could keep the State Department aware of local concerns and priorities, build on local connections with foreign partners, guide local leaders when they interact with countries that may have malign intentions, and otherwise bolster what cities and states have been doing in recent years. Many other countries have such offices.

Washington could take a page from the Defense Department and place more staff in places where they can interact with Americans outside the Washington bubble.

Along with this new team for subnational diplomacy, which would be better off located outside Washington, the State Department could also add staff to the Offices of Foreign Missions, which are already located in U.S. cities like Los Angeles, Houston, and Chicago. Washington could take a page from the Defense Department and place more staff in places where they can interact with and learn from Americans outside the Washington bubble while at the same time carrying out important State Department functions. To assist U.S. public diplomacy, for example, the State Department should have a liaison office in Los Angeles that focuses on the U.S. entertainment industry’s soft diplomacy and consult with it on the censorship it faces abroad. Similarly, a State Department liaison for public health based in Houston, which is home to one of the largest agglomerations of medical institutions in the world, could work on international collaboration involving hospitals, biotech companies, and state and local governments.

There are still other ways the Biden administration could operationalize the formestic agenda. The State Department, for example, could make better use of U.S. embassies all over the world to address domestic concerns. Many domestic agencies, such as the Food and Drug Administration, station staff at major embassies to work on narrow bilateral issues. They should be encouraged to take their domestic U.S. mandate with them and think more broadly about how their work abroad could benefit Americans. And although the U.S. Agency for International Development is in the business of helping developing countries, its staff abroad should also be scoping the territory for innovative local solutions to bring back home.

One of the many reasons I am so happy with the Biden team as it reaches its 100-day mark next week is this administration is determined to finally break down the foreign and domestic silos. Appointing Susan Rice, a former national security advisor, to head domestic policy in the White House is another signal.

But this blending is easier said than done. The divide between the United States’ domestic and foreign-policy communities is deeply ingrained—not just within government bureaucracies on all levels but in universities, think tanks, the media, and political campaigns. Only at the very top of the food chain—in the White House—is there a clear view of how the two realms are inescapably connected. Marrying the national and local would give the Biden administration more partners willing and able to pursue a holistic approach.

Nina Hachigian is the deputy mayor of international affairs of Los Angeles and a former U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Twitter: @NinaHachigian