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Kennedy School Review

Topic / International Relations and Security

The Case for Paradiplomacy: How Delegating Control Might Be America’s Best Diplomatic Hope

“The future will be won by those countries that unleash the full potential of their populations.” – President Joe Biden before the United Nations General Assembly, 20221

Polling over the past half-century shows that a clear majority of Americans want the United States to play an active role in world affairs.2 However, very few citizens are actually called upon to play that role. Even though the U.S. foreign policy enterprise may be one of the largest in the world, the number of people legally empowered to represent U.S. interests abroad remains shockingly small. Between overseas diplomats, military attachés, intelligence officers, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) officials, and political appointees, roughly 25,000 – 30,000 people are charged with the day-to-day task of achieving the United States’ vast foreign policy agenda.3 To put it in another context, almost all official interactions between the United States and the rest of the globe are conducted by less than 0.01% of the American population.

While efforts have been made to diversify this relatively small group, not much has been done to expand it.4 A centrally controlled foreign policy apparatus will always run into a tyranny of scale. For each new additional person at the front lines of diplomacy, there are many more persons required to manage and supply them. An embassy can only get so big, and a centrally controlled national security apparatus can only manage so much at one time. With the world’s largest foreign policy establishment already in place, the United States is unlikely to rapidly expand and escape the cruel physics and expense of this equation anytime soon.

Likewise, the odds of reduced demand or increased specificity seem equally unlikely. Five consecutive presidents have tried and failed to simplify and focus efforts within Washington.5 Year after year, the number of requirements listed within the national security strategy grows, demands from maintaining alliances increase, and the number of domains the government must account for multiply.6 Rather than reduce demands or increase its capacity, the United States instead continues to overpromise and underperform.

The answer, instead, must be division and delegation. National leaders should seek to offload a reasonable portion of the foreign policy agenda to entities outside of the central foreign policy establishment. Paradiplomacy, or subnational diplomacy, refers to foreign affairs activities conducted at levels below the nation-state. Under a strategy of paradiplomacy, entities, such as states, provinces, or cities, are empowered to lead and act in parallel to sections of U.S. foreign policy with relatively high levels of autonomy.

Why Paradiplomacy Now

Centralization is a cornerstone of U.S. foreign policy, but its best days may be behind it. Since the unipolar moment, five presidents have struggled to wield the United States foreign policy apparatus nimbly enough to keep up with challenges from Chinese and Russian adversaries.7 To keep up with an ever-growing list of national security priorities and fires on all fronts, the United States Government has responded by adding more and more institutions to its foreign policy establishment. As of 2023, the United States vastly outspends many of its autocratic adversaries, enabling it to compensate for lack of nimbleness. However, this workaround is quickly running out of steam.8

The foreign policy landscape of the 21st century is likely to be far more multipolar than the centrally controlled Washington establishment is capable of responding to. In addition, confronting global issues like climate change and COVID-19 requires the cooperation of subnational leaders who are closest to affected communities.

Attempts to keep up with such demands via an ever-growing bureaucracy are unlikely to succeed, and the influence mega-corporations, states, cities, and other subnational actors have in foreign policy will only increase. Ignoring and avoiding engagement with subnational entities will only drive them towards riskier and more destructive behavior. Luckily, the United States is uniquely positioned to take advantage of such an environment. Its mayors, governors, business leaders, and academic institutions already lead the charge in a vast array of international relations and national security spaces. It is time to empower and enable these entities to do more.   

1) Delegate to Subnational Actors as Part of the National Security Strategy

The 2022 National Security Strategy makes little mention of the growing role of subnational diplomacy. In fact, it does not use the word “city” or “state” (as in a U.S. state) a single time in the context of foreign engagement. However, nearly 30% of the overall document is spent addressing issues that fall directly within the interests of subnational actors, such as climate and energy security, pandemics and biodefense, food insecurity, terrorism, technology development, and crime. COVID-19 is mentioned 16 times in 48 pages.9 These issues, especially food and energy security, are already being addressed through a wide array of subnational relationships. Given the size of some of these issues and the limited capacity the federal government has to address them, subnational governments will likely wind up doing the lion’s share of the work.

Rather than looking at states and cities as supporting elements in need of coordination, the federal government should look to subnational entities as potential leaders in this effort. The United States should take advantage of this increased interest and capacity by subnational actors to free itself of issues not of vital interest to U.S. global engagement. In return, Washington should give subnational entities the latitude to engage and lead in these areas.

2) Make Subnational Diplomacy a Cornerstone of the State Department Mission

The need for increased capacity in subnational engagement has long been identified as a weakness within the State Department. Historically, subnational diplomacy has fallen on a small office within the State Department’s Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.10 In 2019, Rep. Ted Lieu and Rep. Joe Wilson introduced the “City and State Diplomacy Act” to create an Office of Subnational Diplomacy. A year later, Senator Chris Murphy and then-Senator David Perdue introduced a similar bill.11 Spurred on by this increased attention, in 2022, the State Department created a new Special Representative for Subnational Diplomacy, appointing Ambassador Nina Hachigian as its first officeholder.12 Movement in this direction is admirable. However, investments in this capability remain small and certainly do not indicate a foreign policy strategy with paradiplomacy at its core.

In contrast, China has shown far greater interest in expanding its paradiplomatic efforts. Since 2013, the study of subnational diplomacy has become a key area of research at Tsinghua University’s Department of International Relations. In 2015, Tsinghua published a study led by Yan Xuetong, one of China’s top international relations scholars and key foreign policy adviser, titled, “Expanding Subnational Exchanges, Promoting China-U.S. Great Power Relations.”13 This study spurred high-level engagements by President Xi Jinping—leading to the establishment of several subnational programs.14 This list of successful programs is vast and growing rapidly, creating a gap between Chinese and American diplomatic capabilities that will require urgent reform to rectify.

American policymakers and certain subnational leaders have taken notice. Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo commented, “Xi knows that the federal government is pushing back against the Chinese Communist Party here in the United States… [the CCP] sees that here in the United States, and increasingly around the world, it can use subnational entities to circumvent America’s sovereignty.”15

In some instances, subnational elements within the United States have taken it upon themselves to defend against Chinese subnational institutions. In 2020, a number of educators in Wisconsin led a diplomatic and legal battle against the growing influence of Chinese funding within the Wisconsin University system, working to pass state laws to counter them.16

Despite clear interest by senior lawmakers and cabinet members, U.S. investment in paradiplomatic capabilities remains meager at best. Under current administration guidance, the State Department is responsible for providing “U.S. representation abroad, foreign assistance, foreign military training programs, countering international crime, and services to U.S. citizens and foreign nationals seeking entrance to the United States.”17 It is time that the State Department add paradiplomatic relations to this list of core tasks and make a meaningful investment into the capability.

3. Provide a Liaison Between the National and Subnational

The Biden Administration National Security Council has emphasized the need to “ensure that the needs of working Americans are front and center in our national security policymaking.”18 Across the United States, there are hundreds of millions of business owners, intellectuals, and average citizens, who could provide immense value in achieving foreign policy goals, and yet there are few, if any, liaisons connecting these entities to the larger national security apparatus.

During the War on Terror, the State Department saw the need for increased coordination and communication with the Department of Defense. They proceeded to embed one career foreign service officer with each major Combatant Command and general officer level command.19 Today, over 90 of these liaisons advise and coordinate between military units and the State Department.20

As of 2023, however, no foreign service officers are embedded in the other major federal departments. The Departments of Commerce, Education, Treasury, and even the Interior all have a role in shaping foreign policy, and yet the principal department in charge of this domain has no one in the building. They also have no embedded persons within any city or state level governments. If our leaders want “working Americans at the front and center in our national security policymaking,” State Department officials will be needed to help guide the way.

Why Have We Not Used This Approach Already?

The Treaty of Westphalia, signed in 1648, brought an end to the 30 Years’ War and helped enshrine the nation-state as the principal sovereign entity on the international stage. The treaty intended to bring into check the power of supranational organizations such as the Catholic Church and the Habsburg Empire. In doing so, it established who could and who could not take part in the world of foreign relations and set a precedent that has been largely enforced for the past four centuries.

The framers of the U.S. Constitution shared this conviction. Enshrining that states shall not “enter into any Treaty, Alliance, or Confederation” and that the power to make treaties and conduct external affairs belong to the President and the Congress alone.21 The United Nations Charter echoes this underlying principle.22

Prior to World War II, the United States had a history of independent diplomatic engagement by leaders within business, local government, and civil sectors. However, the passage of the National Security Act of 1947 placed the responsibility of executing American strategy in the hands of a relatively narrow subset of Executive Branch foreign policy professionals.23 In an era when a single misstep could have led to the nuclear annihilation of the planet, tight centralized control over diplomacy seemed a prudent decision. While the nuclear threat remains, central control is losing its luster, and the prevalence of subnational actors is increasing.

The Trend Towards Paradiplomacy Has Already Begun

The historical precedent that began with the Treaty of Westphalia is already being challenged. Global focus on greenhouse emissions reduction and the COVID-19 pandemic fueled an explosion of test cases in paradiplomatic relations. In 2013, California entered into an unprecedented agreement with China’s National Development and Reform Commission in an attempt to combat climate change.24 In 2020, Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles convened the mayors of the worlds largest cities to share their experiences in combating the pandemic. These mayors were part of C40 Cities, a network of 96 of the world’s largest cities focused on combating the effects of climate change.25

Today, over one-fifth of the global population lives in just 100 cities, and over 55% of the world lives in urban centers.26 That number is expected to climb significantly over the next century, and with it, the foreign policy aspirations of city leaders. A combination of political pressures from millions of inhabitants, distant and often unresponsive national governments, and GDPs larger than the majority of U.N. member states will push subnational leaders to enter into the sphere of foreign relations. (For context, Los Angeles County has a GDP of $710.9 billion, comparable to that of Saudi Arabia in recent years.)

Subnational entities have also shown an increasing willingness to deviate from central foreign policy leadership. After the United States withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement by the Trump Administration, 468 mayors endorsed the agreement on their own. These mayors represented ten of the most populated cities in the United States, encompassing some 74 million Americans.27 With loose and relatively untested constitutional limits, cities and states are developing their own foreign policy platforms.

Subnational leaders are often closer to the real issues affecting people’s lives—trade, transport, clean air, energy consumption—and therein are more vested in driving practical solutions. City and state leaders, who know these problems intimately, are increasingly losing trust that a distant and often detached foreign policy establishment properly represents their interests abroad. Instead of waiting on Washington, they are choosing to do it themselves.

Risks of Inaction

A paradiplomatic approach to foreign policy is not without its risks. The post-Westphalian system and the international rules-based order is predicated on the idea that those entering into the foreign policy realm do so under the official endorsement and supervision of their nation. Paradiplomacy blurs the lines between officials and non-officials, making central control inherently difficult.

These lines are already being tested and crossed, and the risk of ignoring subnational actors must be taken into account. In 2017 Erik Prince, owner of the now-rebranded Blackwater private security firm, offered the Trump Administration an out-of-the-box solution to the Afghan War. His private company would take over the war, with himself acting as a de facto viceroy, he proposed.28

Far from being an aberration, this trend has radically increased since the war in Ukraine began. The Russian Wagner group, a private military corporation owned by Russian oligarch Yevgeny Prigozhin, has taken over a large portion of the Russian war effort in Ukraine, and continues to wage wars across Africa on behalf of wealthy benefactors.29 Erik Prince, once again, offered to take over the defense of Ukraine through paramilitary groups and contractors.30 Elon Musk has continued to dabble in the Ukraine war largely without consent and much to the chagrin of State Department officials.31

While corporations have long been used as instruments of a national government, these private entities represent something new. In many cases, they are providing services and entering into negotiations without the clear oversight or consent of national-level leaders.

Avoidance, exclusion, and sanction have long been used to mitigate the risk of subnational actors becoming involved in international affairs. However, trends seem to show this practice is losing its effect. Rather than practicing avoidance, policymakers must craft a strategy capable of harnessing subnational actors while mitigating risks of paradiplomacy run amok.

Limitations and Conclusion

Expanding paradiplomacy will require charting a careful pathway between limits enshrined in the Constitution, historical norms, and international laws. In many cases, it will require testing limits of international codes which have been in place since Westphalia. As such, it will require large-scale investment by the whole of government and national-level leadership willing to shepherd it. Paradiplomacy is also not a panacea, capable of addressing all foreign policy issues. Rather, it must be looked at as a significant force multiplier in need of strategic guidance. Half measures and lackluster investment in such a strategy will likely result in little noticeable improvement above the status quo, and paradiplomacy without a coherent strategic vision will only result in chaos.

While the federal government empowering cities, states, and businesses with a prominent role in sectors of international relations will undoubtedly lead to a number of international snafus and handwringing within the Washington establishment, the unknown opportunities and unforeseen benefits that such freedoms will unlock may provide exponentially more value overall. Rather than see the growing assortment of subnational actors as meddlers, American foreign policy leaders should actively shape a national security strategy designed to take advantage of these subnational policy entrepreneurs. Leaders must delegate what they are ill-equipped to effect, focus on what they can, and gain the wisdom to know the difference.

The views expressed here are the authors’ alone and do not reflect the policy or position of any U.S. government organization or entity with which they may be affiliated.

Photo credit: NASA via Unsplash

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