Analysis | Ambassador Nina Hachigian’s appointment as special representative for subnational diplomacy is a promising first step, but more needs to be done

Vanessa Jarnes

On October 3, the State Department announced that Ambassador Nina Hachigian would become the first special representative for subnational diplomacy and would lead a new unit for subnational diplomacy. The announcement explained that Ambassador Hachigian would engage local partners, develop connections with U.S. and foreign cities, and coordinate subnational diplomacy across the department. It did not offer substantial details about the structure or functions of the new unit. While the appointment and creation of a new unit are necessary first steps for institutionalizing the department’s focus on the issue, without sustained support and accompanying legislation from Congress, any gains may be short-lived.

Ambassador Hachigian is an excellent choice for the new role. As I learned from personal interviews for an ISD fellowship project, she understands the relationship between federal and subnational diplomacy thanks to her past roles as U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and Los Angeles deputy mayor for international affairs.

However, since the secretary of state creates the position, the unit could end with a change in administration. For example, Secretary Hillary Clinton named Reta Jo Lewis as U.S. special representative for global intergovernmental affairs in 2010. Lewis’s office developed ties with cities around the world and fostered relationships between the State Department and local U.S. officials to support their substate diplomacy endeavors. After Lewis ended her tenure in 2013, Secretary John Kerry named Ian Klaus as senior advisor for global cities on the Policy Planning staff. In the position, Klaus reoriented the focus of the job; rather than build relationships with cities, he gave the office a stronger analytical bent, one that studied the effects of urbanization on U.S. diplomacy. Both positions ended after President Obama left office.

Recent legislative efforts could address this problem by institutionalizing subnational diplomacy within the State Department. For example, in the past two Congresses, Reps. Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Joe Wilson (R-SC) introduced the City and State Diplomacy Act, which would require the State Department to establish an office of city and state diplomacy. Although one of their recent press releases commended the appointment of Ambassador Hachigian, Reps. Lieu and Wilson did not indicate whether they would continue their efforts to pass the legislation.

While the announcement is highly encouraging and long overdue, it is imperative that Congressmen Lieu and Wilson continue to push forward the bill in Congress despite the recent creation of a new unit. A legally codified office of subnational diplomacy would more likely have a consistent mandate, rather than operate on the whim of the special representative, and remain active beyond the end of the Biden Administration.

As Ambassador Hachigian develops the unit — much of which will depend on the extent of funding she is given — it would be prudent to consider keeping the office streamlined to mitigate potential politicization in the future. The unit should have both strategic officers headquartered in DC and a small cadre of employees based in key municipal offices around the country. These officers could incorporate subnational diplomacy into the department’s many strategic documents, pinpoint city diplomacy efforts that would benefit from senior principals’ amplification, and ensure that prep papers and talking points for multilateral ministerials include urban perspectives. Finally, the unit should manage an urban diplomacy fund to provide grants to U.S. cities with budgets that constrain their diplomatic initiatives.

It is promising to see the State Department acknowledge the importance of subnational diplomacy by establishing a special representative and new unit. However, this new policy risks falling short. Congress must work with the State Department to make these changes permanent, appropriate adequate funding, and structure the office in a way that maximizes policy impact while engaging cities around the world.

Vanessa Jarnes is a third-year student in the dual MSFS/MBA program with a focus on political and economic development, as well as the intersection of the public and private sectors. Her work and internship experience spans local government, two think tanks, an international development contracting firm, the U.S. Senate, the World Bank Group, and two federal agencies. At Georgetown, Vanessa has been a Bunker Fellow with the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, a Forte Fellow at the business school, and a teaching assistant for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

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