The Decentralization of American Diplomacy

The Atlantic has a good article out right now on mayoral participation in global diplomacy. According to the authors, the practice is increasingly common and ambitious. Mayors of large cities have taken on issues ranging from global warming to nuclear disarmament, to economic growth and terrorism. These efforts are also becoming more institutionalized. The mayor of New York, for example, has a “Mayor’s Office for International Affairs,” and Europe has an “EU-China Mayors’ Forum” that promotes relations between European and Chinese municipal authorities. The authors use the term “diplomacity” to refer to the “expanding propensity of cities to develop the necessary mechanisms to autonomously navigate foreign relations on their own.”

These developments strike me as interesting for a couple of reasons. First, they form half of a two-dimensional assault on a classical model of international relations, which identifies heads of state and their agents as the critical channels for official communication. Diplomacity amounts to a vertical assault on that model because it reflects a dispersion of diplomatic activity among national and local authorities. Communication by national officials other than heads of state—such as legislators—forms the other half: a horizontal assault in the form of a dispersion of diplomatic acts among component parts of national governments. Neither of these is new, but both have intensified under globalization. The result is an entirely different picture of international relations. If diplomacy under the classical model was centralized and tidy, the contemporary counterpart is decentralized and cluttered with a broad range of actors. This has both benefits and disadvantages. States and localities, for example, will often possess unique perspectives on international problems and unique capacity to develop solutions, but the proliferation of voices may also complicate the management of inter-state relations.

Second, the assault on the classical model in turn places pressure on American constitutional doctrines that are premised on that model, such as doctrines regarding “dormant foreign affairs preemption” and the diplomacy powers of the President. In its most robust form, dormant foreign affairs preemption holds that the Constitution’s allocation of foreign affairs powers to the federal government implicitly bars states and localities from taking any actions with adverse foreign policy implications that are more than “incidental.” The growing volume of diplomacity means that states and localities are increasingly likely to run afoul of this limit. Similarly, the horizontal proliferation of diplomatic acts has resulted in legislative incursions on the traditional diplomacy powers of the President. These tensions call for scrutiny of both non-classical forms of diplomacy and the justifications for the traditional legal restrictions that they encounter. There have been several good academic critiques of dormant foreign affairs preemption, and I have previously written on the issue of horizontal dispersion (here). Viewing diplomacity and legislative diplomacy as related phenomena is important because these practices implicate the same concerns about centralization and unity of message in U.S. foreign relations. If one accepts diplomacity even where it complicates the President’s job of establishing a single, coherent position on any given policy matter, it is harder to oppose legislative diplomacy for having a similar effect. And the same holds true in the other direction. Likewise, if one favors diplomacity as a democratizing force that incorporates a broader array of actors into international relations, the same consideration should encourage support for legislative diplomacy.

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