U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, against a backdrop of Independence Hall, delivers a speech about the Iran nuclear agreement before an audience of several hundred assembled on September 2, 2015, at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. [State Department photo]

From Local to Global: Why Diplomacy Matters

By: David Duckenfield, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Public Affairs

If “all politics are local,” as the oft-quoted former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill once noted, current world events are demonstrating just how local diplomacy is as well. The fact is, this has never been truer than in today’s age of global interconnectedness and interdependency. Local politics, economies, and communities are having a global impact far beyond city, county, and state limits, directly influencing the lives of millions of people on the other side of the globe. And what we aim to achieve abroad through U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy has a direct impact on the lives of Americans here at home, as the world continues to become more accessible and connected at the touch of a smart phone.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is welcomed to the University of Virginia by University President Teresa Sullivan in Charlottesville, Virginia, February 20, 2013. [State Department photo]

That’s a point the country’s lead diplomat, John Kerry, drove home in his first domestic public speech as Secretary of State when he addressed a crowd gathered at the University of Virginia. Kerry said,“In today’s global world, there is no longer anything foreign about foreign policy. More than ever before, the decisions that we make from the safety of our shores don’t just ripple outward; they also create a current right here in America. How we conduct our foreign policy matters more than ever before to our everyday lives.”

And that is the driving force behind the “Why Diplomacy Matters” initiative. The State Department, together with the Meridian International Center and the Johns Hopkins Foreign Policy Institute, is delving into the question of why diplomacy matters to Americans in the 21st century and what it will look like in the next 100 years. Through a series of panel discussions and a study, we will produce a report that speaks to the enduring legacy and importance of diplomacy to the everyday lives of the American people.

We share the belief that it is critical for Americans to understand that we live in an interdependent world, how that inter-dependency affects them directly, and what value diplomacy can bring to jobs, education, entrepreneurship, travel, tourism, health, and robust trade and investment, right here in America.

Explaining why diplomacy matters to American citizens and helping them understand the purpose, practice and day-to-day impacts of our statecraft empowers Americans as the ultimate arbiters of foreign policy. The better educated Americans are about diplomacy, the more empowered our leaders are to engage on the world stage to find sound solutions that create a more peaceful, prosperous world and a stronger, more prosperous America. We are committed to ensuring a cross-section of American society — educators, diaspora communities, state and local elected officials, the business community and others — are an integral part of the ongoing conversation of how the United States can and should engage in the world to benefit our citizens here at home.

Opinion polls have been conducted in recent years that capture the views of some Americans who believe that the United States should be less engaged internationally, and that foreign policy does not create the kind of dividends that necessarily are worth the investment. That narrative is misguided, and countering it is at the heart of this initiative. While the United States cannot solve every global challenge, our engagement is essential in many circumstances. That is why we must engage on the global stage, an argument I believe most Americans intuitively understand.

Ultimately, diplomacy is a two-way dialogue. The contributions and collaborations of the American public are critical as we grapple with some of the toughest issues that challenge our peace, prosperity, and security. The State Department is confronted routinely with a host of thorny issues that ultimately shape our world and the communities in which we live. In the past year alone, the international community faced numerous shared challenges — the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa and the growing global threat posed by ISIL — to which the United States led fast-paced, global responses. President Obama also laid the groundwork toward charting a new course in our diplomatic relations with Cuba while Secretary Kerry was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the historic U.S.-China climate change agreement.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry greets the three veteran Marines — Mike East, James “Jim” Tracy, and Larris Morris — who lowered the American flag at U.S. Embassy Havana in 1961, during the flag-raising ceremony in Havana, Cuba, on August 14, 2015. [State Department photo].

The future is clear. From turning the lights on in the morning, to driving a car to work, taking light rail or flying around the country, everything we do has an international dimension. Locally elected officials at the mayoral and gubernatorial levels have led the way in grasping the importance of this concept. They are collaborating with their international counterparts to solve the daunting issues facing their constituents. In particular, local elected officials understand that local buy-in is a crucial element to tackling climate change on a larger scale. Mayors are engaging on climate change through organizations such as the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives (ICLEI), the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), and the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group.

Just last month, I witnessed the power local communities can lend to forging global solutions when I participated in the U.S.-China Climate Leaders Summit, hosted by the City of Los Angeles and Mayor Eric Garcetti. Under the U.S.-China Climate Smart/Low-Carbon Cities Initiative launched by President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, cities, NGOs, and businesses from the United States and China convened for a two-day meeting to highlight local government efforts to implement the countries’ ambitious climate change agendas. One major outcome of the meeting was the release of the first-ever U.S.-China Climate Leaders Declaration, which included ambitious climate commitments from two dozen U.S. and Chinese cities. Notably, 11 Chinese cities and provinces committed to peak their CO2 emissions ahead of the national target of around 2030. Another outcome was the formation of a new partnership between 20 cities in China and California aimed at strengthening their climate action planning and connecting their respective clean-tech industries.

U.S. and Chinese officials participate in the 2015 Climate Leaders Summit, hosted by Mayor Eric Garcetti and the City of Los Angeles, in Los Angeles, California, September 15, 2015. [City of Los Angeles photo]

The Los Angeles meeting underscored the importance of ambitious local action by cities, states, and provinces in the global fight against climate change. And in doing so, it fostered significant momentum toward a positive outcome at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP 21) later this year in Paris, where countries will gather to reach a new international agreement to address climate change in the post-2020 era.

In cities around the world, mayors and other municipal leaders are also stepping up to build community resilience to the global threats and challenges caused by terrorism and violent extremism. Recognizing that local government authorities are uniquely positioned to safeguard their citizens from polarization and radicalization through partnerships with local communities, the Strong Cities Network (SCN) was launched last month at the United Nations. SCN is the first global network established to strengthen collaboration among cities and other sub-national entities working to develop innovative, inclusive, human rights based, and community-centric strategies and practices to prevent radicalization to violence at the community level.

As we engage at the local level to address these formidable problems, the world flattens, the horizon widens and our lives become much more global. The United States is uniquely positioned to prosper in this new environment because of our decentralized form of government, our entrepreneurial bent, and our ability to adapt and innovate.

While the global challenges of the future will not diminish, their impact on local communities will only increase. Americans need to continuously take stock of that reality and embrace it to ensure we prosper in the new global workspace and marketplace of ideas. The United States, along with like-minded NGO actors, will continue to connect the world of diplomacy to town halls across America. We will work with local elected officials, citizen diplomats, the business community, and others to take the “foreign” out of “foreign policy” and give our nation a more prosperous and secure footing in the global world of the 21st century.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry delivers remarks at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, February 20, 2013. [State Department photo]