By now, it is safe to assume that the Trump presidency will be remembered for, among other things, it’s ineptitude and crassness in its dealings with foreign allies and adversaries alike.
In the years since taking office, Trump has pulled out of both the Paris Climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal; twice bombed Syria in violation of international law; sent lethal arms to Ukraine; levied sanctions on Iran, Russia, Venezuela; threatened sanctions against our European allies; engaged in a trade war with China; and continued to send military support to Saudi Arabia and the UAE in the face of congressional opposition. The president, who campaigned on a foreign policy that set the neoconservative movement against him, ended up filling his cabinet with a number of that movement’s favorite figures, including national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
It’s safe to conclude that this will not be seen as a golden age of American diplomacy.
Given the recklessness exhibited by the current administration, Democrats in Congress have tried to counter-balance the president, most notably in passing, for the first time, War Powers Resolution legislation aimed at ending US involvement in the war on Yemen, as well as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act by California Democrat Ro Khanna that would prohibit the administration from taking us to war with Iran in the absence of congressional authorization.
Meanwhile, as the administration continues to abandon diplomacy in favor of sanctions, arms sales, and bellicose tweets, it has fallen to state leaders such as governors to step into the breach.
Last year, then–California Governor Jerry Brown traveled to Europe in support of the UN Conference on Climate Change, during which he served as special adviser for states and regions. According to Brown, in the aftermath of Trump’s precipitous withdrawal from the Paris Accord, it was up to state and local leaders to carry on the work of reducing carbon emissions. “We can’t just wait for our national leaders,” said Brown, “we need to take action together.”
In late June, an innovative and timely bill to support such diplomatic efforts was introduced into the House by California Democrat Ted Lieu and South Carolina Republican Joe Wilson. The bipartisan “City and State Diplomacy Act” seeks to establish an ambassadorial-level post to oversee and facilitate subnational diplomatic efforts. The bill notes that “the growth of subnational cooperation has enabled States and municipalities to play an increasingly significant role in foreign policy. The Office of Subnational Diplomacy would support “exchanges and cooperation agreements between elected leaders of State and municipal governments and those of international cities, regions, and countries” while promoting exports and attracting foreign direct investment in the United States.
The bill has recently garnered the enthusiastic support of the US Conference of Mayors.
Reta Jo Lewis, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund, served as the first special representative for subnational affairs during the Obama administration under Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In the years following Lewis’s departure, the role was left unfilled. Lewis believes that subnational engagement can deepen relations between allies and can also serve as a stabilizing force with adversaries.
Recalling her interactions with Russia, Lewis observed that, “by the end of 2012, it was clear that US-Russian relations were deteriorating rapidly, but we found a willingness on the part of the Russian government to cooperate in facilitating subnational engagement. The Agreement on Strengthening US-Russia Interregional Cooperation that was signed by Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Lavrov in September 2012 was, with the exception of the establishment of the deconfliction channel in Syria, one of the last major deliverables we’ve been able to achieve in the US-Russia relationship.” During her tenure at State, Lewis concluded similar agreements with the governments of India, China, and Brazil.
The importance of creating alternative avenues of diplomatic engagement cannot be underestimated, not only during a time of rising tensions with Russia, China, and our European allies, but also in the context of the atmosphere of uncertainty and mistrust cultivated by President Trump.