California’s Sub-National Diplomacy: The Right Approach
Image Credit: Prayitno via Flickr

California’s Sub-National Diplomacy: The Right Approach


California recently made foreign-policy history by becoming the first sub-national government to sign an agreement with China’s powerful National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), which oversees the country’s economic growth. Just as significant is the objective: fighting climate change by circumventing deadlocked decision-making in Washington and Beijing.

Although California has previously inked accords with other Chinese central government agencies on matters like trade and investment, its partnership with the NDRC, which functions as a kind of super-ministry in charge of economic policy, represents a significant evolution in U.S.-China relations. The approach has enormous potential – but both sides are pursuing it for the wrong reasons. Rather than being seen as an antidote to gridlock in national capitals, sub-national diplomacy should be viewed as an integral part of foreign relations in the interdependent twenty-first century.

Relationships between sub-national governments and foreign powers aren’t exactly new. American cities and states began establishing representative offices abroad, usually for investment-promotion purposes, in the 1970s and 1980s. In Europe, cross-border linkages between cities and states have flourished as a result of the creation of a single economic market. But what is new is the expansion of these relationships to other issue areas, especially environmental policy, and the sense that sub-national diplomacy can serve as an antidote to foreign-policy paralysis in national capitals. By signing an agreement with Beijing, Sacramento is taking an unprecedented step onto what has traditionally been Washington’s turf. Like all ventures into uncharted territory, it’s a move that carries risks as well as rewards.

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

The biggest problem with sub-national partnerships like the one signed Sept. 13 between California and the NDRC stems from oversized ambition: they are no substitute for national-level negotiations. Sub-national agreements lack the legitimacy and legal status of their international counterparts, and by definition are far more limited in scope and applicability. Sub-national governments also often lack the financial and personnel resources to properly implement major initiatives. Moreover, if not properly coordinated with national governments, sub-national agreements may even undermine foreign policy objectives. Managing relations with foreign powers is difficult enough when confined to agencies within the Beltway or the Fourth Ring Road, and bringing sub-national officials into the mix risks exacerbating policy gridlock rather than easing it. Nonetheless, in an era of shrinking budgets for foreign ministries and proliferating challenges, sub-national diplomacy can play a valuable part on the global stage.

Sub-national partnerships have the advantage of being far more flexible than nation-to-nation agreements. This makes it easier to target specific needs across national borders, such as the improbable but promising partnership between the port cities of Seattle and Dalian to clean up their harbors. Sub-national agreements are also better suited to policy innovation and the tackling of tough issues like climate change, because the stakes are much lower than at the international level. Consequently, sub-national agreements are particularly well-suited to deal with environmental issues. The U.S. State Department runs a program called EcoPartnerships which counts eight such environmentally-focused agreements, including between the cities of Wichita and Wuxi, the state of Utah and the western Chinese province of Qinghai. Finally, largely because sub-national agreements are more targeted, they promise to be far cheaper to negotiate as well as to implement.

Nonetheless, to fully realize the potential of sub-national diplomacy, the foreign policy establishment must devote greater attention and resources to relationships between sub-national governments. Under former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, the U.S. government took some important steps in this direction, including the creation of an Office of Global Intergovernmental Affairs to work with state and local-level officials. But to date, these initiatives have focused mainly on promoting personnel exchanges and been limited to a paltry budget. Policymakers in Washington, Beijing and elsewhere should begin to take sub-national diplomacy seriously by promoting substantive policy discussions and agreements between sub-national governments, and committing substantial resources to ensure these efforts succeed.

To the extent they pay attention to the phenomenon at all, foreign policymakers are likely to regard sub-national diplomacy as at best a distraction, and at worst a threat to their prerogatives and prestige. But as California’s agreement with the NDRC indicates, sub-national diplomacy is emerging as a force to be reckoned with, and the foreign policy establishment ignores it at its peril.

Scott Moore is a Giorgio Ruffolo Post-Doctoral Research Fellow with the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the Sustainability Science Program at Harvard University, where he studies inter-governmental environmental cooperation and sub-national politics.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief