ArticlePDF Available

It Is Time for the United States to Institutionalize Subnational Diplomacy

January 2021
Transatlantic Take
It Is Time for the United States to
Institutionalize Subnational Diplomacy
Benjamin Leffel, Reta Jo Lewis, Corey Jacobson, Luis Renta, and Kevin Cottrell
Washington, DC Ankara Belgrade Berlin Brussels Bucharest Paris WarsawWashington, DC Ankara Belgrade Berlin Brussels Bucharest Paris Warsaw
The start of the Biden-Harris administration presents the United States with the opportunity to harness
subnational diplomacy to solve domestic and global problems. The primary delivery mechanism for this
should be the establishment and permanent institutionalization of a Subnational Diplomacy Office (SDO)
in the Department of State, headed by an ambassador-at-large. The administration can accomplish this by
supporting the passage of the bipartisan City & State Diplomacy Act passed by the House of Representatives
in 2020 to create such an office.
A first functional SDO was created by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when she appointed Reta Jo Lewis as
special representative of global intergovernmental affairs in the Department of State. While this innovative
office was dissolved in 2013, its success in advancing U.S. global goals in the economic, strategic, and environ-
mental arenas is well-known. It is time to establish a permanent SDO that carries out the following functions
for the following ends.
Integrate subnational government climate action into federal action
To avert a catastrophic global temperature rise of 2° Celsius above pre-industrial levels, the United States and
other nations must commit to substantially greater emissions reductions. This can be accomplished through
integrating the emissions reduction commitments made by cities, businesses, and other local actors into the
calculation of countries’ nationally determined contributions under the Paris Accord. The time for the United
States to do so is now as it rejoins the accord and an SDO can facilitate this process.
The White House should reestablish through executive order the State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force
On Climate Preparedness and Resilience, a mechanism linking local officials to the White House. The order
should designate at least two SDO functions. First, gathering data on the emissions-reduction commitments
made by local authorities within the task force and ensuring these are incorporated into the calculation of
the United States’ nationally determined contributions. This will help increase the ambition of emissions
reduction commitments. Second, serving as the main intermediary between local authorities in the task force
and international climate initiatives. This should include assisting city and state participation in the Local
Governments and Municipal Authorities constituency of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change
(UNFCCC), the main platform for local governments in climate negotiations. Since the 2010 Conference of
Parties, when local governments were first recognized as “governmental stakeholders, delegations of U.S.
subnational authorities in UNFCCC negotiations have been an ongoing and important tradition.
January 2021
Transatlantic Take
It Is Time for the United States to Institutionalize Subnational Diplomacy
The groundswell of subnational climate action efforts that emerged in response to the Trump administration’s
decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Accord are now some of the most important tools at the
federal governments’ disposal in strengthening climate policy. As the new administration rejoins the accord
and reestablishes stringent climate-mitigation policies, it must integrate these initiatives—notably the U.S.
Climate Alliance, Americas Pledge, and We Are Still In—into its efforts. An SDO could carry out this process,
relieving the burden carried by the offices of mayors and governors in coordinating them. When these initia-
tives were launched, they stretched thin the staff of state and local leaders in coordinating the advocacy,
communication, and other activities involved with such inter-city/state activities.
An SDO should also facilitate access to international sources of expertise for carrying out effective urban
climate governance. This includes environmentally oriented transnational municipal networks, such as ICLEI-
Local Governments for Sustainability and C40, that share increasingly standardized community-level emis-
sions accounting methodologies as well as the climate policy models and software to implement them. These
networks and other fora also allow cities to share their best practices. Further, other nations and their cities
wish to learn how U.S. cities conduct climate policy and an SDO could help arrange international exchanges,
creating yet further valuable opportunities for sustainability-interested U.S. locales.
Connect locales with international supply chains for more effective health emergency
preparedness and response
This is urgently needed to effectively link U.S. subnational governments to international sources for public
health and other supplies when these are not available domestically, as has been the case in the coronavirus
pandemic. Locales struggled to obtain supplies from abroad but eventually did: New York sourced thousands
of ventilators from China; Maryland sourced test kits from South Korea; and Broussard, Louisiana sourced
related supplies from its Canadian sister city of Cap-Pelé, among other examples. An SDO can establish direct
international pipelines to quickly equip locales with these resources when in need. The United States has
learned during the pandemic that decentralized efforts of international procurement can be too slow. Estab-
lishing international procurement supply chains can allow for improved response not only to pandemics, but
also to disaster relief, climate change, and other emergencies.
During the onset of the pandemic, U.S. cities scrambled to form new public-health networks to enable sharing
resources and knowledge, but they were beset by lack of time and capacity. The UN diplomatic community and
the International City/County Management Association helped cities exchange and access the resources, data,
and knowledge needed to better manage the crisis, to recover, and to improve resilience to future pandemics.
Hence, leaders from New York City to San Francisco see the prospect of an SDO as a promising direct means
of better connecting U.S. cities to resources for pandemic management. As with procurement and supply
chains, leveraging the power of these knowledge networks can accelerate the deployment of policy innova-
tions for emergency response of virtually any sort.
Connect state trade offices to consular resources abroad to maximize exports and attract
Significant untapped export and job-creation potential exists for U.S. firms seeking to internationalize, which
can be helped by an SDO connecting local firms and governments to the resources of U.S. embassies and
consulates for entering foreign markets. The export-assistance services of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s
Foreign Commercial Service (USFCS) supply the rapidly growing demand from local businesses by lever-
January 2021
Transatlantic Take
It Is Time for the United States to Institutionalize Subnational Diplomacy
aging the connections of embassies and consulates, including to trade associations, governments, and busi-
ness elites. While state and local governments’ foreign trade offices handle an increasingly large amount of
export-assistance demand, their resources are dwarfed by those of the USFCS.
By linking state and local government’s foreign trade offices and local firms to these resources, an SDO can
more fully connect internationalizing firms to foreign markets, maximizing exports and investments. This
potential is shown for U.S. trade with China and beyond. Further, the need for this function has existed for
decades. A 1990 cable from the U.S. embassy in the Netherlands states that “it would be helpful to establish
in Washington a well-publicized office to assist local government officials and groups to plan their overseas
visits in order to optimize their chances of meeting their trade, investment and tourism goals. This describes
precisely the proposed role of an SDO.
Coordinate with locales on soft power to communicate human rights values abroad
The United States lags behind rival powers such as China in equipping local governments with interna-
tional-affairs capacities and coordinating soft-power efforts to communicate political values. Chinese local
government Foreign Affairs Offices institutionalize subnational diplomacy across several areas, including soft
power, to shape narratives favorable to China and advocate for policies in its interests, including reducing
U.S. support for Taiwan and exhibiting its authoritarian governance model as an example for the world. The
United States lacks anything comparable, to the detriment of its soft-power goals, including the communica-
tion of human rights values.
Enhanced efforts coordinated by an SDO could involve the addition of soft-power components to existing
exchanges. For example, the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs in the Depart-
ment of State has a state partnership program that works with local police and prisons. This program brought
a delegation from Louisville, Kentucky to Senegal to provide protest-related training. U.S. practices shared
during the visit conveyed the United States’ respect for human rights that contrasts strongly with that of
China, Russia, and many other states. An SDO could expand such exchanges between U.S. local and foreign
counterparts across a range of governance areas while improving soft-power projection capability.
Integrate local officials and initiatives into the bilateral and multilateral frameworks,
dialogues, and summits to which the federal government is party
The federal government can more immediately and effectively achieve the governance goals sought by its
participation in major international convenings by directly involving mayors, governors, and other local
leaders. As they house most of the world’s population and economic wherewithal, cities will be the implemen-
tation sites of solutions to pandemics, climate change, and most other global governance matters on which
nations convene. For example, the Urban 20 (U20) is a network of city governments seeking greater represen-
tation for in G20 decision making on pandemic recovery, climate action, and international economic devel-
opment goals. An SDO would help U.S. cities join the U20, thus better representing urban voices in national
decisions in the G20 and bringing to bear the political and economic capacities of cities, strengthening multi-
level capacity to achieve these goals.
U.S. participation in multilateral security institutions, such as NATO and the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue,
can better build counterterrorism capacity from the bottom-up by having an SDO integrate the Strong Cities
January 2021
Transatlantic Take
It Is Time for the United States to Institutionalize Subnational Diplomacy
Network, which shares resources for the prevention of violent extremism among U.S. and other cities. The
Department of State should also reinstate the U.S.-China Governors Forum to Promote Sub-National Coop-
eration, for which U.S. participation was discontinued in 2020. An SDO would coordinate U.S. participation
in the forum, strengthening bilateral trade, investment, and technology exchanges by locales on both sides.
This would also provide a pathway for future subnational dialogue on more sensitive issues, such as human
rights and democracy, that remain crucial unfinished matters in bilateral relations and global governance. An
SDO can replicate this approach with bilateral dialogues with other nations.
Further, new roles for peacebuilding-oriented city and citizen-diplomacy networks can be woven into bilat-
eral and multilateral security frameworks. This includes long-standing city networks, such as People to People
International, Sister Cities International, and Global Ties US, that carry out citizen diplomacy, cultivating
long-term peace outcomes through greater inter-societal understanding.
Track the international engagements of local governments and leverage data power to
enhance diplomacy
Tracking the myriad interactions between U.S. locales and their foreign counterparts will produce a full picture
of local-global engagements, making clearly visible the landscape of U.S. subnational diplomacy, and allowing
us to understand how and where it can enhance U.S. foreign policy and the goals of internationalizing commu-
nities. An SDO Data Center would link with local leaders across the public, private, and civic sectors to coor-
dinate the keeping and sharing of records on: city and state international exchanges of government personnel
for training or best practices sharing in any area of policy or public administration, and what was exchanged;
memoranda of understanding between U.S. local governments and foreign counterparts; international sister
city relationships; city government memberships in transnational municipal networks; commitments to or
signatory status in international initiatives; trade missions; cultural exchanges; and many more across sectors.
These data would enable an SDO and the federal government to determine how best to serve the international
interests of local governments, businesses, and other organizations. This may include the SDO providing
targeted assistance to internationalizing communities to achieve public administration, commercial, tech-
nological, place branding, educational or other goals. It could also enable the Department of State to more
fully understand the extent of Chinese subnational engagement in the United States and provide local elected
leaders with tools to effectively manage outreach to counterparts in China or any other nation.
An SDO could further integrate U.S. locales into the global data-analytics communities of direct relevance
to urban governance, feeding relevant data into global repositories actively used by cities. For example, cities
beginning or continuing climate-change mitigation policy benefit from knowing what sustainability targets
their neighboring cities are setting. This information is becoming increasingly available through reporting
systems of city, region, and business climate actions and commitments, including the UNFCCC’s Non-State
Actor Zone for Climate Action, The carbonn Center, and the Carbon Disclosure Project. The more U.S. cities
are aware of and given the opportunity to report their climate actions and commitments to these systems, the
more these will be available for the benefit of other cities.
January 2021
Transatlantic Take
It Is Time for the United States to Institutionalize Subnational Diplomacy
Beyond affording U.S. cities greater access to valuable information, integrating them into emerging glob-
al-subnational data analytics frameworks can create new funding opportunities too. For example, the Leader-
ship for Urban Climate Investment initiative is a joint effort by the OECD and the Climate Policy Initiative to
standardize data tracking of subnational climate-finance flows worldwide. By linking locales and relevant data
into this initiative, an SDO can help U.S. cities and states opportunities access international climate-finance
opportunities that they may otherwise miss. The above benefits will similarly extend to virtually all other
areas of public administration, allowing the data-tracking function of an SDO to strengthen the multilevel
governance of increasingly internationalizing governance areas.
January 2021
Transatlantic Take
Ankara • Belgrade • Berlin • Brussels • Bucharest
Paris • Warsaw • Washington, DC
About GMF
The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) is a
non-partisan policy organization committed to the idea that the
United States and Europe are stronger together. GMF champions the
principles of democracy, human rights, and international cooperation,
which have served as the bedrock of peace and prosperity since the
end of World War II, but are under increasing strain. GMF works on
issues critical to transatlantic interests in the 21st century, including
the future of democracy, security and defense, geopolitics and the
rise of China, and technology and innovation. By drawing on and
fostering a community of people with diverse life experiences and
political perspectives, GMF pursues its mission by driving the policy
debate through cutting-edge analysis and convening, fortifying civil
society, and cultivating the next generation of leaders on both sides
of the Atlantic. Founded in 1972 through a gift from Germany as a
tribute to the Marshall Plan, GMF is headquartered in Washington,
DC, with offices in Berlin, Brussels, Ankara, Belgrade, Bucharest,
Paris, and Warsaw.
About the Author(s)
Reta Jo Lewis is senior fellow and director of Congressional Affairs
at GMF. She previously served as the State Department’s first-ever
special representative for global intergovernmental affairs, leading
an office that was charged with building strategic peer-to-peer
relationships between the U.S. Department of State, U.S. state and
local officials, and their foreign counterparts.
Benjamin Leffel, Ph.D., is a social scientist and scholar-practitioner
of cities in global processes. He is a faculty member at University
of California, Merced. He can be followed on Twitter at @
BenjaminJLeffel and his work is detailed on his website benleffel.
Luis Renta is assistant executive director for international affairs &
trade policy at United States Conference of Mayors.
Corey Jacobson is the legislative director for Congressman Ted
Lieu (D-CA). In addition to leading the legislative team, Corey acts
as the Congressman’s chief adviser on the House Foreign Affairs
Committee and covers the national security portfolio.
Kevin Cottrell is the Guido Goldman director of Leadership
Programs at GMF, where he leads a team of experts in transatlantic
leadership development and citizen diplomacy efforts across the
United States and Europe.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the
views of the author(s) alone.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any references for this publication.