Federalism and Foreign Policy: The Role of States

Thursday, November 10, 2022
Nicolás Ortega

Professor of Political Science, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; Research Professor, Center for Political Studies, Institute for Social Research, University of Michigan

President, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace


Vice President for National Program and Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations

Jenna Bednar, professor of political science and public policy at the University of Michigan, and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, discuss the risks and benefits of subnational involvement in foreign affairs and the power that U.S. cities and states have to influence federal and international policy agendas. 


FASKIANOS: Welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations State and Local Officials webinar. I’m Irina Faskianos, vice president for the National Program and Outreach here at CFR. Thank you for taking the time to be with us.

As a reminder, this webinar is on the record, and the video and transcript will be available on CFR’s website, CFR.org. CFR is an independent and nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, publisher, and educational institution focusing on U.S. foreign policy. CFR is also the publisher of Foreign Affairs magazine. And, as always, CFR takes no institutional positions on matters of policy.

Through our State and Local Officials Initiative, CFR serves as a resource on international issues affecting the priorities and agendas of state and local governments and provides analysis on a wide range of policy topics. We’re excited to have participants from forty-seven states and territories with us.

I’m pleased to introduce our speakers, Jenna Bednar and Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, for today’s discussion on “Federalism and Foreign Policy: The Role of States,” and we shared with you in advance their recent article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Fractured Superpower.” So I commend that to all of you, and that is, obviously, the basis for today’s discussion.

Jenna Bednar is professor of political science at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on the theoretical underpinnings of the stability of federal states and her recent book, The Robust Federation, demonstrates how complementary institutions maintain and adjust the distribution of authority between national and state governments.

Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar is the current president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He has previously served as a justice of the Supreme Court of California and in two presidential administrations. He was also the Stanley Morrison Professor of Law and Political Science at Stanford University where he directed the university’s Spogli Institute for International Studies and co-directed its Center for International Security and Cooperation.

So thank you very much to both of you for being with us to talk about the recent piece in Foreign Affairs. You discuss the shift to city and state involvement in federal-level policymaking.

So, Jenna, let’s start with you to talk about your—what you found in that article and give us an overview of the distribution of authority in the United States, the risks and benefits to this structure.

BEDNAR: Thank you. Thank you, Irina, for this invitation and an opportunity to share this hour with everyone.

Happy to get us kicked off thinking a little bit more about federalism, and when we think about federalism I want to think about it in three domains—domestic policymaking, foreign policymaking, and sustaining democracy—in the same way that Tino and I organized that article.

And in terms of, like, the descriptive and the distribution of authority, originally states and locals were intended for the police powers or the day-to-day governance—you know, policing, emergency response, zoning, health, education, welfare—and then the feds for defense, foreign relations, and managing the economy or maintaining a common market between the states.

And we know that this line has both shifted and blurred. In particular, the role of the federal government in domestic policymaking in our day-to-day affairs has grown exponentially but at the same time is something, I think, that we’re going to talk a lot more about the nature of the—

As the nature of the global system shifts from being—I really like the metaphor that Anne-Marie Slaughter of New America gives us—moving from a nation-state chessboard to one that’s a very networked web, states are much more involved in foreign policymaking, and so those buckets that I mentioned—domestic and foreign policymaking and sustaining democracy—have changed and that’s OK.

First, that’s all right. That’s actually normal and very healthy for a federal system. You can think of it like breathing.

And so, instead, I encourage you to think about, well, what’s the function of federalism? Why do we have it? And some people think about, well, federalism is for allocation—that is, to harmonize access to resources or maybe even just administrative decentralization.

I think that the people on this call are not interested in that view of federalism. I just last week did a similar webinar with the civil servants in—federal-level civil servants in Canada, and they were really thinking about the provinces as being just pains in the neck.

So, anyway, another way of thinking about the reason why we have federalism is as context fitting.

Well, OK, the central government would do it, could do it better, but won’t because there is variation from state to state, locality to locality, and so we just decentralize enough to be able to take these local contexts into account.

I’d like you to think about a third frame and that frame is problem solving, that federalism can act like a problem-solving mechanism.

And what does it mean to problem solve? Problem solving, the very first thing that we have to do is to identify the problem—what is it that needs to be solved—and then the frame on that problem, why is this a problem.

Also, in problem solving we need to think, well, what would better look like? What is a vision that we would like to work toward? And then we can get to how do you solve it, what are the alternatives, and then the implementation of that remedy.

So this is a problem-solving process, and I want to be thinking about—I encourage you all to think about federalism as a problem-solving process where the problem is good policy.

And so the first and second, that is, federalism as some kind of—we have it for allocation or we have it to fit context—in both of those frames, diversity—the diversity that we have in our country is like an annoyance, right? It’s an inconvenience.

But in the third diversity is an asset, right? In the first two, there is a sense that states with one another and with the federal government are in competition, and in the third—this problem-solving frame—we can think of it being a collaborative process, certainly, you know, where you are working toward alignment of values and alignment of action.

Certainly, in any good collaborative relationship, there are differences to be worked out. Sometimes they can be quite aggravating. But thinking about it as collaboration versus competition might—I think, is a real opportunity that federalism offers.

And so what are some of the things that can go wrong? Given that I have said that diversity is an asset and diversity shows up as a way, you know, where you assert a difference of opinion, a difference of a goal—at least a short-term goal—there is a real incentive for those who have power and, currently, the federal government very often, whether it’s constitutional through its spending authorities or some other way, has the power.

It might be tempted to squash the independence of the state and local governments. And so I think that that’s a real hazard, first, of course, because independence is a reality, that state and local governments are going to find a way to assert their independence. Even just in the act of implementing federal policy there is discretion and some assertion of independence.

But, secondly, as I’ve just said, I think this diversity, if we can overcome the problematic externalities and that sort of thing, is really useful if federalism is this problem-solving mechanism.

And then when we think about, in particular, in the context of foreign policymaking where you might think that having this kind of, as Tino and I had in the title, this fractured superpower—this complexification of foreign policymaking—why would you want that?

Well, one reason is continuity. That is, if the federal government for some reason steps back away from some kind of relationships that it had formed in the international sphere—for example, when the Trump administration decided to pull out of the Paris Accords—at the state and local levels we can have continuity in terms of meeting the expectations of those accords so that we actually—it is a way of regulating—that is, maintaining—a more consistent relationship with the broader international community.

And then I’d like to put forward one last reason why I think it’s quite important to maintain this independence and that it allows for much more complex diplomatic relationship with other countries.

So, for example, think about the U.S. relationship with China right now, fraught in many ways. By having this complexification, having these multiple levels of relationships, we can have subnational governments maintain the kind of very fruitful collaborations, particularly with green energy and other forms of sustainability science, information exchanges, best practices that can help move us forward in meeting this—you know, the greatest of global challenges, while at the same time at the national level Washington is able to maintain a much more adversarial role in particular over our relationship with Taiwan.

And so—and just to wrap up and turn things over to Tino, this is a really exciting moment for the states and local governments. First, you have proven yourselves to be absolutely necessary to sustaining our American democracy, to making it healthy, as we saw not just in the 2020 presidential elections but again, just a few days ago. Kudos to all of you in running such transparent, ethical elections.

And with these midterms and even though we don’t yet know the balance of power in Congress, it really doesn’t matter at this point. We know it’s going to be really close—and so we know it’s gridlock, and gridlock in a federal system doesn’t mean the end of policymaking. It just means that the real centers of policymaking are at the state and local levels. So this is a real moment of opportunity domestically.

And then couple that with this new interest in subnational diplomacy. I’m very excited about the new office at the Department of State, for example, recognizing the role that states and locals are already playing in foreign relations and, perhaps, extending it.

So I look forward to seeing what you all do.

FASKIANOS: Thank you so much, Jenna.

And, Tino, let’s go to you now to talk about the policy recommendations and anything else you want to expand on.

CUÉLLAR: Thank you, Irina, and thank you, Jenna.

Jenna, it’s great to collaborate with you. For anybody in the audience, if you ever get a chance to co-author an article with Jenna I recommend it. It’s a great experience.

So I want to make three points, picking up on Jenna’s contributions. Two of them follow from the article that we wrote together. The third is a little bit me trying to begin to extend the implications of our argument in a direction that maybe highlights a bit more where American foreign policy might be going or could go in the next, say, ten years if it takes seriously some of the implications of what we develop.

So that last part I will not burden Jenna with feeling responsible for it, although if she hears anything she likes she can take the credit for it for sure.

So the first point I want to make is to emphasize something that all of you know that really is reflected in the work you do day to day, which is that the state and local apparatus of government is, actually, really huge.

Most Americans don’t fully understand that. They have a vision of the government where the federal government is big, the states are medium, and the cities are smaller. Even people who have pretty sophisticated understandings of public finance they don’t really get that, say, as of 2020 state and local governments employed 20 million people, whereas if you add up federal civilian employees you get 2.2 million people, active duty military personnel 1.3 million people.

So we’re talking about the vast majority of people who work in and for government are you all, state and local, dealing with education, with land use, with criminal justice, emergency response, public health, all kinds of regulatory challenges, all kinds of economic development challenges.

As a state Supreme Court justice, that was really my big takeaway from the experience. Like, if you want to know what governing is like, what cases arise when you’re just trying to govern, go to a state court and you’ll get a feel for that. And that’s not only a point about workforce. It’s a point about fiscal reality.

So it’s true that the federal government spends more money than states, leaving aside the CHIPS Act and unusual things like that. But if you actually take military spending, entitlement spending, and debt service apart and look at the regular budgets, the lion’s share of the money that’s left on everything from environmental protection to worker protections to agricultural policy, everything else is states and local.

So that is important in understanding what are we really talking about; why do these governments end up looming so large? What then should we imagine is responsible, thoughtful, priority setting from these different state and local governments and civil society around the idea of just how much power and importance state and local governments have?

Well, I would say if you take an international perspective, states and cities need to prepare for a dynamic, competitive, not always fully clear-cut environment allowing for experimentation and coordination.

That’s one way of saying that if you want to know what’s going to happen in the U.S. around climate, tech policy, immigrant integration, future of the biomedical sector, shared institutional development—the future of universities, for example—you have to think about these state and local linkages with the larger world because that will drive coordination around what common standards there may be.

It’ll drive innovation. It’ll drive the capabilities that states have to go beyond a very gridlocked federal government that when it’s at its best is trying to respond to the disparate needs of many, many different jurisdictions.

So whatever expectations we have in federal government even in the best of circumstances, and that’s not what where we are right now, you can’t really expect the federal government to figure out what exactly is good for Tennessee or for California or for Washington State.

Another point to make, which is maybe highlighting where civil society can come in, I would say I’m speaking to you from the offices of the Carnegie Endowment here in California now. For most of our hundred and twelve-year history Carnegie has operated in national capitals, places like Washington, D.C., Brussels, New Delhi.

Why do we have an office in California now? Because we think that subnational jurisdictions need the policy advice, the insight, the statistical and data analysis, the convening, to help shape a global agenda around all kinds of things that are not just your typical garden variety trade mission: around regulatory cooperation on technology, around the future of universities, around the biomedical sector, et cetera, around immigrant integration.

Now I’m going to get to the last part, which goes a little bit beyond where Jenna and I ended up the argument but, I think, I would argue, follows from the argument.

So, in my own organization, the Carnegie Endowment, we did some work in the last few years on foreign policy with the American middle class in mind. What does it mean to have the American middle class in mind? What does that mean for agricultural policy, for trade, for foreign investment, et cetera?

And we came up with various ideas that highlight the importance of not forgetting the entire country, of thinking maybe in a more nuanced way around trade, thinking about the importance of reexamining some assumptions about the role of industrial policy.

But I would extend that insight and maybe ask a slightly different question, which is: Where to a first approximation is the true greatest economic power of our country right now? And I don’t want to leave any part of our country out, but I will note if you take just the top twenty metro areas that’s 50 percent of the American global—gross domestic product, as it were.

And if I think about what it takes to extend that economic well-being to the entire country but also to protect what makes our metro areas so dynamic, what makes us interested in subnational diplomacy in states and cities as a locale for real innovation and economic and political progress, then you can come up with a foreign policy agenda that is not necessarily what the country is prioritizing.

And I’ll just note a couple of things that we probably want—like, we’d want to put on the list and not to exclude all the other things we have to worry about involving competition with techno authoritarianism and tensions with China and, you know, the future of India and so on.

But, first, I would note all these metro areas have benefited from a steady flow of the very best international students that come to strong and dynamic universities, both public and private, places like where Jenna teaches—the University of Michigan. These jurisdictions benefit from the diplomatic space and resources for scientific partnerships with the very best labs across the world.

So when Massachusetts becomes this sort of global biomedical hub that it is, it’s not only because it’s collaborating with other parts of the U.S. but with other parts of the world. These places benefit from pretty robust migration and real attention to the integration of migrants into their economies and their societies. They benefit from attention to the business climate and global IP issues that matter to companies that are headquartered in these metro areas around the country; resilience from cyberattacks and disinformation to protect infrastructure and civic life; political cover to celebrate and protect the diasporas that are at the center of a lot of our dynamic metro areas; expanding trade with data, services, and goods; and assistance in subnational diplomacy—jumpstarting that, making that really front and center in our foreign policy.

So all that is to say I think we have some really exciting times ahead, potentially, even in a really difficult and fraught global environment because, at the end of the day—this is what I’ll end with—you can look at all the dysfunctions and difficulties in our country, and there are many.

But if you look at the states and at cities, you will see that there’s also a massive laboratory for governance innovation and dynamism and performance that is actually hard to find anywhere else in the world. That makes me hopeful, even though I don’t want to ignore pretty big challenges all of us have to deal with.

FASKIANOS: Thank you both for that.

And now we’re going to go to all of you for your questions and comments. Again, as a reminder, this is a forum for sharing best practices so you can tell us what you’re doing in your communities.

To ask a question or make a comment, click the raised hand icon on your screen, and then when you’re called upon please accept the unmute prompt and tell us your name and affiliation so that we know where—what state you’re calling from or joining us from. And you can also submit a written question via the Q&A box, and if you do write your question please give us your affiliation there to give us context.

So Sean Loloee—excuse my pronunciation—I think you have raised your hand. You’ve also written your question, but why don’t you unmute and identify yourself and ask it yourself?

Q: Thank you very much. Sean Loloee. I’m a city council member for city of Sacramento in California.

And the question comes, at state level or at city level how can we be more effective when it comes to federal policies, that whether foreign policies that—you know, being involved and seeing that you might have an absolute negative effect not only within our own country but some countries overseas?

For example, what we see in Iran right now, which is a major revolution that has been started by the women and they’re the front runners of this. First time in the history of mankind. Yet, the big message from that country is please do not sign the nuclear deal because, ultimately, we’re weaponizing the very regime that has killed so far thousands of people and they have arrested over fifteen thousand people, and the parliament of two hundred and ninety individuals. Two hundred twenty seven of them have—are putting pressure on the judiciary department to execute any of the fifteen thousand that were arrested during the peaceful protests.

So my question is, how can we get involved? Because I’ve tried to reach out to some of the senators and, you know, get some feedback. I know that the government of Iran, they have their own lobbying group that they’ve been meeting with our senators and the White House.

So being a person within a city in California, how can we get our voices out there to discuss that? That’s my first question for foreign policy.

And then coming back to our own country, when the federal government sets aside a certain amount of funding for new green deals or green energy, I’m just curious that when we stop kind of producing or fracking for oil, which I’m against, by the way, but yet we go to countries that do not have as many environmental protocols or what have you and we demand them to produce more oil for us.

So are we kind of going around a circle with what our intention is about global warming? That, you know, we stop here in our own country, yet, we go to, for example, the Saudis and say, produce more oil for us? And their environmental policies or lack of, I should say, are much more severe than what we could have done.

So those are the two topics that I would like to, you know, put—and I’m hoping that I’m using the right forum to bring these two up. So my apologies if it’s not. But those are—those are my two questions.

Thank you so much.

CUÉLLAR: I’m happy to start. But, Jenna, you might have some ideas, too.

Thank you for the question. I will make three brief points as I reflect on this.

The first is I think, Sean, the capacity in our country to have coalitions of cities and states speak with a more unified foreign policy voice is in its adolescence. It’s not embryonic but it’s also not fully mature.

If you think about it, the whole representative democracy system we have is, in principle, designed to represent states and their constituencies, cities to some degree, and Congress. But it’s a very different mechanism to elect someone to sit in the House of Representatives than to take mayors and council members, state legislators, who have their competing concerns—different levers they pull, different pressures that you have when you meet with constituents—and to give you a forum to have a discussion about how the global picture is affecting your lives and your jurisdictions and your constituents and your concerns.

So there are embryonic efforts to create that capacity in, like, the National League of Cities, and so on. But I think we have a ways to go.

A second brief point is the traditional way we think about the legal division of power in this country where the federal government has preeminent power on foreign affairs and national security is a very incomplete picture of how things actually work.

So, legally, it’s true that binding legal agreements really have to be regulated at the federal level, and rightly so. But if cities or states want to enter into some agreement that is not legally binding to coordinate or to add their voices behind some concern about human rights they can do so.

And, you know, closely related, if and when cities begin—this is the third point—to build coalitions across borders, which, you know, exists on issues like climate, I think the power there is really distinctive, and I suspect that as those links get more robust there will be more of an opportunity for officials in Sacramento to have some public platform around the world to speak up on issues like what’s happening in Iran.

BEDNAR: And if I—I’m just going to follow up briefly to say that cities have, I think, a very important and different kind of role to play than Washington can play in both of those two challenges that you linked together so interestingly in your question. You know, and—because what cities can do is they can put forward a very human face and make this foreign policymaking to be about people—people connecting with people.

And so, you know, for example, here I sit in Ann Arbor, which is very close to Dearborn, a location when Tino was talking earlier about diasporas, very significant, very diverse Muslim community and that kind of help all of us in Michigan think about the human face behind—and people who have family who are participating in the protests and some who are not participating in the protests, whether they—because they support the government or because they’re afraid. But all of that brings it down to a very human level.

And then when you were talking about the environment and kind of the hypocrisy that can happen—and I’m hoping that other people bring up sustainability issues—I see cities as also being places where we can remind every individual that your action actually does matter and in some way.

And so finding ways to be—to participate in climate action at the very local level where climate change is happening in much varied ways is empowering for people and, I think, can—as people get personally engaged in this movement it may cause them to, you know, have a greater commitment to some of these bigger problems like asking for oil and other resources from countries that have looser environmental regulations than we do. Absolutely, that hypocrisy is very frustrating for many of us.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to go next to Alexis Blane and then I’ll go to a written question.

Q: Hi. Thanks. My name is Alexis Blane. I’m from the governor’s office in the state of Michigan. So hello, fellow Michigander, on this.

You know, I’m interested—we’ve talked, I think, a lot about the positives that can come from distributing power and in foreign affairs. I’m thinking in particular of, you know, in the economic incentive space and in the early days of COVID we also saw a lot of the downsides that can come from having more actors in a space competing with each other for the same set of resources, whether those be, you know, PPE or connections.

I’m wondering, as you look at this model of sort of a more devolved foreign policy, what are the tradeoffs that we’re making here and how do we think about minimizing those for folks?

CUÉLLAR: Great question. Jenna, you want to start since you are from Michigan?


I mean, so in my remarks I tried to outline, you know, what I see as risks are also benefits, right? But, you know, I absolutely agree with you that there are some real risks of having a more—I don’t want to say it’s not aligned but it isn’t aligned, right, I mean, because you have multiple points of interaction.

And so the real hazard would be, I suppose, first, is there some way that this operation endangers U.S. security. That’s the kind of moment when we would expect to see more forceful intervention from Washington.

But if it’s not immediately endangering security, I would hope that Washington might give a state with such competent leadership like the state of Michigan to explore its needs and see what opportunities it might be able to develop that could, ultimately, benefit the rest of the country.

CUÉLLAR: I’ll add that I think the best example to me—I’ll just—two examples of where fragmentation is not an ideal or a positive outcome, to my mind.

One is, historically, if you look at civil rights, which we talked about in the article, you know, the notion of robust, powerful states that can go their own way has a real damage to historical currency, in some respects, because that was the rubric under which to some degree, you know, states’ rights where sort of grossly unequal treatment for people who were African American or, in some cases, Latinos, played out in the country and it took concerted federal action but also, frankly, an awareness of what was going on in certain parts of the country driven by mass media that changed the picture.

I think climate is another example where, for different reasons and somewhat different dynamics, the truth is—you know, let’s take my home state of California. California is one of the most climate-poor jurisdictions in the world. We have a ways to go to actually implement and live up to our commitments.

But whether it’s zero-emission vehicles or charging infrastructure or power generation from clean sources or building codes that are phasing out gas or other things, we’re on the road to making serious progress.

But you know what? California is, like, 1 percent of global emissions. Maybe a little more than that but not much. California’s real power is in providing a framework or an example that others can follow both in the U.S. and abroad, and some countries, like China, have borrowed a bit from California on things like zero-emission vehicles.

But, again, if I were thinking about the six to seven to ten years we have to really drastically change the direction of policy around climate, it would be awfully helpful to have the entire country come together.

I guess part of what Jenna and I are saying in the article is it’s always nice to have high expectations of the entire country, and maybe the country will live up to them. And this is not a point about policy priorities. It’s a point about process more than anything.

But we have to think carefully about what the country has to do and what options it has to move forward where you cannot bring the entire country around but you still have to make progress.

FASKIANOS: Great. Thank you.

I’m going to take the next question from Martin Miller, commissioner for West Norriton township in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania: Is it worth it for municipalities such as ours—it is a population of sixteen thousand—to implement clean energy mandates for government facilities, vehicles, et cetera, when our state as a whole has no such thing? So and how can they implement what they’re doing, have a tangible impact or can influence our state leaders to follow our lead?

CUÉLLAR: Absolutely it’s worth it. That’s my perspective. But I’ll tell you why.

I grew up in a town with a population of maybe sixteen thousand, twenty thousand. It was not the biggest part of California. It was not the most famous part of California, sitting in a very heavily rural area with water from the Colorado River.

And I got to say I felt like just as we’ve been talking about how metro areas that are pretty big and globally oriented are in a conversation with each other, I think the towns like the ones I grew up in and like the one you mentioned are in conversation with each other, learn from each other, react to each other, can develop best practices together. And I don’t think there is a prospect for moving the entire country on sustainability or clean energy issues without trying to engage deeply with the smaller towns, with the rural parts of the country.

So I think we have a huge ways to go. And maybe one version of our argument applied at the micro level is we see states as huge pivotal actors in global policy. But we also see cities and towns, potentially, as important actors that influence each other within the United States.

So I think we need to invest in the ties that will bind these regions so they can share best practices and realize that even if the entire state is not pulled forward there’s still some useful things that can be done together at that level.

BEDNAR: Yeah. And, Marty, I would just add to that I know one thing that really holds a lot of localities back is lack of funds. But if you have the funds, and you, clearly, have the will to do this, the impact that you could have is so much greater than the managing the emissions of a population of sixteen thousand.

That is, what you are doing is you are showing other localities that this is possible, and I think what’s holding us back from climate action is people—a couple of things. One, people don’t think that they can make a difference and, secondly, they don’t know what to do. And you can show something that’s possible and can have a real result, and so your impact can be so much bigger than just sixteen thousand.

FASKIANOS: So, Cliff Lippard, who’s executive director for the Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations, has a follow-on to Martin Miller’s question: Because of preemption and nullification how much success can we realistically expect cities to have in implementing sustainability and clean energy measures in state governors—governments that are resistant to such measures?

BEDNAR: Yeah. I will just say, sitting here in Ann Arbor and until two days ago having a legislature—not a governor but a legislature that was hostile to a lot of the things that Ann Arbor wanted to do, including something like having a fee for plastic bags.

Like, we just wanted to do that and the state legislature said no, no, no, you can’t have—you can’t do that. And so preemption is a real problem. I’m going to leave it—turn it over to my justice colleague to follow up with that.

CUÉLLAR: Well, thank you, Jenna.

It’s a challenge. Look, I think there is a—there are always two interesting preemption questions in this topic we’re discussing. One is the federal-state preemption question, and here—I know that was not the bulk of the question, I’ll just note—here, my experience is, of course, the federal government could preempt the states.

But it’s actually a less clear picture of how often that happens and how that gets litigated and people think because there are doctrines that, I think, are, to my mind, fairly well justified, that effectively highlight from the courts that unless they have a pretty good reason to feel like Congress has spoken really clearly about something they will not ordinarily infer preemption of the federal government against the states.

Now, at the state to the local level the doctrines are different, and sometimes the amount of intrusion from the state level to what the cities and counties and rural areas do is much more dramatic. I think it’s useful to take the long view.

I would note that even the fight about something is sometimes worth having because it educates the public. It surfaces a genuine form of policy debate. Like, let’s be clear. To my mind, legislatures work best when they’re not the only place where the policy conversation is happening, where they’re forced to contend with things and to justify things on the local news or on a Facebook post or whatever.

I would add that in those states like mine that have direct democracy it’s also important to note that these conflicts about state versus local preemption often end up getting taken to the voters.

And, look, I’m not here to tell you that direct democracy is a panacea, that it works beautifully. But it’s true that it actually does end up settling these disputes often in ways that don’t go exactly in favor of what the state legislature might have initially wanted.


There’s a comment from Ted Raab, who’s the legislative director for Texas State Representative Mary González, about your argument and just wanted to comment, and I ask you, with legislators who are part-time who are in a state who meet for five months every two years, how do you balance good policymaking with that—you know, about dynamic foreign policy matters when they, generally, aren’t in session and their positions may be influenced by more partisan sentiments and their constituencies in their communities?

CUÉLLAR: So if I can give you the think tank answer, because I sit in one, I would say think tanks, state universities, colleges, they all have a role to play in creating the infrastructure of knowledge and policy for deliberation and discussion. Doesn’t mean that everyone’s going to agree or take the same view.

But I would say the more we’re honest about the incredible pressures that our public officials are under, sometimes in the short time frame they have to legislate—the constituency pressures, the fundraising pressures—the more, I think, we’re going to realize that we have to invest in generating objective, unbiased, nonpartisan knowledge.

One reason we set up here in California is because—and I think I could make a similar argument about Texas and I’d love to set up a Carnegie Texas someday; we’ll see, maybe in Austin—is that if I were to look for objective, unbiased, very practical information on how this global trade, global migration, the global climate policy picture affecting Californians day to day, now, some of that is available but some of that we have to produce, and we’re working on producing that.

So I would love to see more of that happening. I don’t think that’s enough but I think that’s a start. That moves things in the right direction.


I’m going to go next to David Hondowicz has a raised hand. I’m glad you put your hand back up.

Q: Yeah. I got froze out a minute ago.


Q: So there’s something that’s been bugging me throughout my career that I thought I’d run all by you.

I have a unique type of background for the business that I’m in. I started academically with a natural security degree from Georgetown and worked for the Marine Corps Association. Then I found myself working for a county council member in Montgomery County, Maryland, for about sixteen years.

If anybody’s familiar with Montgomery County, Maryland, we’re where Supreme Court justices live, $6 billion budget and so forth. So it’s like running a lot of states and we have full-time staffing.

And then I found myself these past three years—I’m chief of staff now for a member of the Maryland General Assembly and we meet ninety days every year, though, believe me, we’re busy otherwise.

When I—right before I started at the county I remember someone coming up to me the night we won the primary and saying we need a climate change bill. And I laughed because I was, like, this is a federal thing. We don’t do this stuff locally.

Well, a few years later we passed our first climate change legislation and that’s—there’s a lot invested in what we’re doing that locally. A few years later, I never thought we’d be involved in immigration. We had a day labor center in our own district and we found ourselves all tied up in that issue. We’re not in Texas or on the border or somewhere, and it’s a fairly progressive jurisdiction and we dealt with all that. And since being—working in the General Assembly we passed legislation dealing with Ukraine and our retirement benefits and so forth.

But I also remember in the past the General Assembly passing, before I started working there—this is back in the mid ’90s—members passing various resolutions about Poland and different countries that should be joining NATO and the county council talking about whether or not we should be debating opposing the war in Iraq.

So what I’m getting at is this, and it was alluded to by the—a gentleman from Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, a little while ago, which is, in what cases when I’m talking to—I’m going back to work at the county council again and we like taking positions on international things all the time because folks have very strong opinions about everything here.

When is this—some sort of degree of involvement, and you alluded to it earlier, ties in, like, with climate change, you have enough—you may have enough impact yourself on an issue that’s not being addressed or not adequately at the federal level or you’re dealing with the consequences of a failure to act at the federal level versus pounding your chest, and you’re really not accomplishing anything on that issue but what you are doing is taking time away from the nuts and bolts responsibilities of local government like land use or a transportation project.

CUÉLLAR: OK. Fair question. I think this is one, Jenna, you’ll have some thoughts on.

I’ll just say very briefly—thank you for the question—look, I think it’s a judgment call. But I’d start from the following premise. Every jurisdiction in America, from a town of four hundred people to a state with 40 million people, is affected by global issues.

Does that mean we should use a ton of time and energy of every single jurisdiction to respond to global issues? No. But I’ll start from the following two premises. Number one, the bigger jurisdictions in the country—the bigger cities, the bigger counties, and the bigger states—are genuine global actors.

They have the cultural influence, the economic power, the responsibility even, to be thinking about how their actions shape these key global issues that also are bread and butter issues to the American public.

Like, I cannot imagine an honest conversation about the day-to-day challenges that Americans face that doesn’t include the impact of climate, that doesn’t include the impact of migrants, that doesn’t include transnational crime, the impact of pandemics that cross borders, and so on, right?

And then the second point I would make is that for the jurisdictions that feel like those issues are a little more remote so not California, not New York City, not the city of Philadelphia, you know, not Montgomery County. I would put Montgomery County in the clearly can have global influence category. I can tell you why in a second if you want.

But for the smaller ones, I would say, at least there’s a responsibility to be aware, to join events like this, ideally, and be part of the discussion so that you can provide situational awareness to your constituents and policymakers.

FASKIANOS: Tino, do you want to say why you think Montgomery County, as you just alluded to, it is in that—OK.

CUÉLLAR: Yeah. Like, a ton of diplomats and government officials that have global influence, like, live there, right?

So let’s just start with that reality. Convening them, being part of their conversation, asking how the climate stuff they’re working on has implications locally, trying to figure out how to cross divides that exist in the world among the residents of that jurisdiction already, I think, is a step in the right direction.



BEDNAR: And I want to speak up for the smaller places as being so affected by any of these issues that we’ve just raised. You know, the local effects of climate change means that every place has to have a climate plan. Every place has to have a climate plan.

You know, the labor shortage that is so very real in our rural areas is—means that migration and immigration is a very important economic factor for them, and then this balance between, you know, corporate investment, which is so needed but then also is very disruptive to kind of the local social fabric. These are global—effects of global issues that are completely shaping and changing what happens in your communities.

And, you know, I’m hopeful that there is already some network of conversation-sharing best practices because, for example, climate action plans are very costly just to develop and to even know what to do. And so I hope there already is a network of information sharing that’s happening there as well as networks for lobbying, et cetera, for managing some of these other effects.

FASKIANOS: Thank you.

I’m going to take a written question from Erin Bromaghim, deputy mayor of international affairs for the city of Los Angeles: First, what would you recommend to the State Department as ways to help grow capacity for international engagement by our local governments? And, second, how do we ensure greater subnational diplomacy? How do we ensure that it remains a bipartisan priority?

CUÉLLAR: Great. Erin, great to be back in touch with you again. It was nice to see you in L.A. just a few days ago.

Great questions. I think the creation of a special envoy for subnational diplomacy office by the State Department is a huge step in the right direction, which your predecessor as deputy mayor will do a great job on, no doubt.

I do think there is a need for investment in this area outside the State Department. I would say—I would love to live in a world where five or six of the key agencies from the Commerce Department, the Energy Department, and the EPA had counterparts that was subnational diplomacy because so much of the action is around the issues those agencies handle.

I’d love to see many, many more cities do what L.A. has done to create, like, a deputy mayor for international affairs position. I don’t think there’s anything like that anywhere in my neck of the woods in northern California. I don’t know that Boston has that. I mean, maybe they do a lot but I don’t—I think L.A. has been ahead of the curve.

I think the harder question is your point about making sure this remains bipartisan and a first stab at that would be making sure that this whole movement towards engaging cities and subnational regions is not purely confined to certain geographies of the country but, really, blankets the whole country, brings people to the table to talk about values issues and about economic issues that affect the full cross section of the country.

BEDNAR: Absolutely.

CUÉLLAR: Irina, I think you’re muted.

FASKIANOS: I am muted. Thank you. How many years have we been doing this now?

CUÉLLAR: Not enough.

FASKIANOS: Thank you for—yeah.

Next, I’m going to go to raised hand for David DeCarlo.

Q: Hi. It’s good to see you, Professor Cuéllar. I’m David DeCarlo with the state of Illinois.

And my question is about the points raised in the article around states being, potentially, democracy defenders of last resort, so to speak, and, you know, if you could, you know, maybe briefly, you know, just provide some more thoughts around what you would view as the most legitimate and most effective types of actions.

You gave some examples in the article. But, you know, maybe what would be kind of the most legitimate and most effective actions that states could take in a constitutional crisis?

CUÉLLAR: Jenna, do you want to start?

BEDNAR: You know what? So I guess I’d start by just describing some of the things that our own secretary of state, Jocelyn Benson, has done to try to ensure that elections run smoothly.

I really feel like the state secretaries of state were the real heroes of the 2020 election and coming through following the insurrection, doing all that they can to establish transparent processes that are welcoming of different parties’ involvement and supervision, not trying to close anybody out but creating transparency of the entire electoral process, from the moment of registration, what happens with the ballot and how is it counted, and what happens and in terms of challenges, and this is something that within this state we’ve been working really hard on and establishing.

The other, I think, leadership role that the state of Michigan has played is showing the possibility—the transformative, really, possibility—of taking district drawing away from the legislature and giving it to a citizens commission, which is what we established thanks to what Tino described before about direct democracy in 2018.

At that point—and the state of Michigan—Michigan is a fifty/fifty state, right? It’s very exciting politics here. Fifty/fifty with maybe a little margin for Democrats, which is how we end up with Democrats at the top leadership.

And but at our state legislative level overwhelming majorities in both houses for Republicans, and including the State Senate was twenty-eight/ten Republican.

Now, how that comes out of a state that is fifty/fifty, it just doesn’t seem right and it didn’t feel right to the citizens. And so the—through direct democracy taken away, this was the first election run through the new district boundaries drawn by this citizens commission and it’s, basically, fifty/fifty. I mean, yeah, there is this—again, this little margin for Democrats but it’s, essentially, fifty/fifty.

That is something that gives people confidence in the democratic process. They feel like, OK, this is reflective of us, and I think this is something that many states can do better.

CUÉLLAR: And I’ll add to that by noting, David—great question—I agree with everything Jenna said. I would add there is much reason to be optimistic about this country’s future, to my mind, notwithstanding some incredibly big issues we face including the insurrection, including some hyperpartisanship and polarization, and real, real difficulties.

But when I think about how this last election, largely, played out, when I think about people in 2020 who stepped up to the plate, put aside partisan interests, and defended the process, I feel pretty good about it.

That said, the point we try to make in the article is a little bit like a discussion of nuclear deterrence, and that’s a scary analogy but I just want to play it out for a moment so people understand, right?

In the best state of the world with nuclear weapons, those weapons will never, ever, ever be used, and the better we understand the logic of what happens if and when those weapons are used as well as the risks of escalation, very much on my mind, given what’s happening in Ukraine, the better we understand what needs to be done so, ideally, those weapons are never used.

So let’s project that logic to how American democracy works and note that in the off-the-equilibrium path, unusual, hopefully never to be encountered scenario where there was absolutely blatant—I’m not talking about like, well, some people feel like the election was not quite right.

But, I mean, you know, an insurrection that then tries to stop the counting of electoral votes and replace the result with something different, the next step in that scenario is not like, oh, and then states kind of fall in line and everything’s fine except you just have somebody different at the top. No.

States will disengage from federal power in various ways, following a ladder of options that, ideally, will be very carefully and very prudently thought out and that I would like to see never used, right? Are you with me?

So it’s all about sort of an equilibrium—how do we create the incentives to make everybody understand that whatever the heated rhetoric they might be subjected to, it’s better for everybody to not create a situation where the only people that will benefit, really, are the countries and interests around the world that have a real desire to see America decline and, instead, we benefit from a vibrant partnership of countries—of states and jurisdictions that have a variety of different interests and specializations and areas of priority but that can come together around things like elections and never end up in that very dark place.

FASKIANOS: Jenna, any last thoughts, or should we leave it there?

BEDNAR: I think that’s a pretty powerful place to leave it.

FASKIANOS: I do, too. I hope people have been looking at the Q&A box because there has been some sharing going on of what people are doing in their states, in Maryland and in Boston.

And, Tino, this is for you from Ted Raab, who would—asks that when you open your office in Texas that you consider El Paso rather than Austin. So I’m just throwing that out to you. You should—

CUÉLLAR: I spent a wonderful summer in El Paso and still am very fond of it, and family I had in Ciudad Juárez as well. So we’ll keep that in mind. Thank you.

FASKIANOS: You should keep that in mind and I can connect you with Ted after this if you need more convincing.

But thank you to both of you for doing this. We really appreciate it. And to all the great questions and comments, I apologize that we could not get to you all. We do try to end on time here at the Council. So that is what we will do.

We will send a link to the webinar recording and transcript as soon as it’s posted so that you can take a look again and share it with your colleagues.

Until then, you can follow Jenna on Twitter at @profjennabednar and Justice Cuéllar through the Carnegie Endowment. Their Twitter handle is @CarnegieEndow.

And, in the meantime, I hope you’ll visit CFR.org, ForeignAffairs.com, and ThinkGlobalHealth.org for more expertise and analysis, and also just feel free to email us, [email protected], to let us know how else we can support the important work you’re doing and any topics you would like us to cover in future webinars.

So, again, thank you to Jenna and Tino.

CUÉLLAR: Thank you very much, Irina. You did a great job.

BEDNAR: Yeah. Thank you, everyone.

FASKIANOS: Thank you both.


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