Interviews | Diplomacy

A Discussion With US Senator Chris Murphy About Subnational Diplomacy and China

The City and State Diplomacy Act has an unmistakable target, even if the text of bill does not name it: China. 

Catherine Putz
A Discussion With US Senator Chris Murphy About Subnational Diplomacy and China
Credit: USDA photo by Lance Cheung

In August, a bipartisan pair of senators on the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee introduced legislation to formalize subnational diplomacy with the creation of an office within the U.S. State Department tasked with coordinating policy and programs to help mayors and governors engage with foreign counterparts. The City and State Diplomacy Act — introduced by Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Senator David Perdue (R-GA), and in the House of Representatives by Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA-33) and Rep. Joe Wilson (R-SC-2) — has an unmistakable target, even if the text of bill does not name it: China. 

In the interview below with The Diplomat’s Managing Editor Catherine Putz, Senator Chris Murphy discusses the motivation for the act, the present obstacles for subnational diplomacy in the United States, and the health of U.S. diplomatic efforts around the world.

In press coverage, the City and State Diplomacy Act is framed as a direct response to China’s own efforts at subnational diplomacy. How would you summarize China’s subnational diplomacy in the U.S.?

China understands that it is not just federal policymakers that have influence and that the future leaders of America are found in mayors and governors offices. That’s why they’ve greatly expanded their diplomatic efforts to influence and manipulate American leaders at all levels. They are collecting intelligence on U.S. governors and conducting outreach to U.S. mayors and state legislatures as a way to shape the narrative about China, creating sympathy for its authoritarian model and advocating for policies that advance its interests — including reducing U.S. support for Taiwan. Internationally, China is touting its local leaders’ response to COVID-19 through global forums that hold up China’s governing model as an example for the world. Secretary Pompeo is right to highlight that we should be concerned with these influence campaigns. The problem is this administration is not doing anything about it.

What obstacles exist for subnational diplomacy in the U.S. at present?

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Some states and cities are already engaged globally on issues of trade and investment, climate, public health, and urban planning, but the problem is that this current engagement is episodic and based on luck and circumstance rather than strategy. The State Department is designed to understand and navigate complex foreign policy issues. The office I, along with Senator Purdue and Representatives Lieu and Wilson, propose to create would offer support and guidance as subnational units seek to solve complex problems, share best practices, and seek out trade and investment partnerships. 

Currently, there is no effort to align city and state efforts with our overall diplomatic strategy. It’s all well and good for Secretary Pompeo to warn governors about Chinese influence campaigns, but he has not tasked any entity at the State Department to proactively brief governors and mayors. Our local leaders are some of the best representatives of America; why not enlist them as experts and advisors in our capacity building programs, so they can build ties with their counterparts across the globe while advancing our foreign policy interests?”

In your mind, is the bill designed to counter China’s local-level diplomacy in the United States, or more to build up U.S. capabilities in that area?

It’s both. Certainly, we need to help our mayors and governors understand efforts to influence them so they engage with China with open eyes. But, like our broader efforts to counter China, we cannot be satisfied with being reactive; we need a proactive agenda. This office would maintain international networks, reduce duplication and inefficiency in international outreach, and ensure that our mayors and governors are an active part of our public diplomacy. A core function of this office will be to generate exchanges and cooperation between mayors and governors in the U.S. and their foreign counterparts. 

Right now, mayors and governors across the country are hearing more from China than from their own State Department. We need to be present and use our local leaders to not only advocate for U.S. values, but to demonstrate them through win-win partnerships. The pandemic is a key opportunity. Since states and cities are on the forefront of public health solutions, this office could host high-profile events that bring together mayors and governors from across the globe and create durable networks to rebuild global trade and investment and improve pandemic response. It is not enough for us to criticize China’s outreach as hypocrisy — we have to show up as well.

Based on your interactions with local leaders, how likely are mayors, governors, and state legislators to take advantage of advice and coordinating help offered by the State Department?

Mayors and governors want to lead and showcase the talent, resources, and strengths of their cities and states to the world. Ten years ago, the State Department did stand up an office similar to the one I am proposing to authorize in statute, and it was energetically used. The Office of Subnational Diplomacy facilitated trade and investment deals, and enabled numerous engagements among subnational actors: for example, MOUs with Brazil and India on subnational cooperation, and preparations for the Olympics in Brazil. The endorsements we have received from the people this office will serve are a testament to the need for this kind of assistance.

Can you put this bill in the context of the current health of U.S. diplomacy worldwide? How do you rate U.S. diplomatic efforts at the moment?

America’s diplomatic leadership has completely atrophied under President Trump and China has eagerly swooped in to fill the void we left behind. The United States has abandoned any real effort at subnational diplomacy, while China has spent the last four years building a network of outreach around the globe. Trump withdrew from major international agreements like the JCPOA and the Paris Agreement, insulted our long-time allies in favor of cozying up to autocrats like Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong Un, and has shunned multinational organizations like NATO and the WHO. America’s reputation abroad is in tatters and this bill is just one piece of the concerted effort we will need to muster in order to counter that damage and rebuild relationships with the rest of the world.