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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Parallel Diplomacies

Governors gallivanting around the globe, play-acting as Churchill, undermines their focus on state issues and America’s ability to engage in meaningful diplomacy with its chief political rival.

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(Governor Eric Holcomb/Flickr)

Governors have always been well-traveled. Photo-ops at steel mills and press conferences in forgotten exurbs are the stuff of successful gubernatorial campaigns. In the late 1980s, many governors decided to leave their states—not just for visits to neighboring governors' mansions, but for palaces and parliaments abroad.

Forty-four of the nation's fifty governors left the United States between the middle of 1985 and December 1986. Most of them went to Japan, angling for new plants from one of the nation's burgeoning auto giants. Governor Martha Layne Collins of Kentucky made seven trips to Japan, which yielded an $800 million Toyota plant in rural Kentucky, a wiring factory in Scottsville, and a gold-and-silver-star decoration in the Order of the Rising Sun from the Emperor. Collins was one of more than thirty governors who, as of 1987, had kept a satellite office in Tokyo. Washington state director of trade John C. Anderson quipped that "governors and mayors are held in much higher esteem in Japan than they are in the U.S."

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And with good reason. Governors milling around in foreign countries represents an inversion of the federal system. States are sovereign, but the federal government alone conducts foreign policy. You don't elect your governor to broker treaties in the Middle East.

Distinctions should be made. It was one thing to glad-hand our Japanese allies in 1987. The efforts of governors around the country today to confront China are another thing entirely. Some of their efforts have been salutary, but others have encroached on congressional territory and sent conflicting signals to our biggest geostrategic rival.

Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida has made a recent foray into the former category. DeSantis announced in September 2022 a much-needed package of policies to combat Chinese interference in Florida. He signed laws or executive orders prohibiting state and local governments from contracting with Chinese-owned companies, barring Florida universities from taking gifts from organizations affiliated with China, and banning China and other "countries of concern" from buying Florida farmland. The latter addresses a development that could, in time, threaten Florida's food supply, as about 6 percent of its privately held farmland was owned by foreign investors as of 2020.

DeSantis's posture was clearly adopted with 2024 in mind. And his actions prompted an arms race among other Republican hopefuls. Governor Greg Abbott of Texas on Monday supported pending legislation to ban Chinese companies from purchasing Texas farmland. Last December, Kristi Noem, South Dakota's governor, banned state employees from using the Chinese-owned TikTok app on state devices and made it illegal for state entities to contract with "evil" governments such as China and Russia.

Those governors—DeSantis, Abbott, and Noem—could plausibly claim to be acting within their authority as governors. Others, such as California's Governor Gavin Newsom and Indiana's Governor Eric Holcomb, have used their offices to engage in what amounts to parallel diplomacy.

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In April 2022, Governor Newsom signed a non-binding memorandum of understanding with the Chinese Minister of Ecology and Environment Huang Runqiu. The memorandum "deepen[ed]" what Newsom called "California’s strong climate and clean energy ties with China." Less than a year earlier, Newsom signed a bill creating the "California-China Climate Institute," allowing California university students to collaborate with China's Tsinghua University on climate research. Collaborating with the nation's chief political rival sends mixed messages to Beijing and undermines the prospect of a coherent national response.

Governor Holcomb visited the island of Taiwan in August 2022 to attend a summit on semiconductors; on the trip he met with President Tsai Ing-wen. The move set off fireworks in Beijing, with a Chinese spokesman noting that Chinese officials “have made serious demarches to the U.S. side on Indiana Governor Holcomb’s visit to Taiwan." Our national approach to Taiwan's sovereignty is incoherent, but Holcomb is the governor of Indiana, not an American ambassador, and neither he nor Newsom have business making policy that undermines America's capacity for a national response on the China question.

Newsom and Holcomb's rogue diplomacy, and the budding arms race among Republican contenders to out-hawk their prospective 2024 opponents, highlight two risks as governors wade into our foreign policy.

The first is that patchwork state-level efforts to respond to China provide cover for congressional inaction. Congress, and not the states, has the power to enact and enforce the policies needed to counter a mercantilist hegemon. As American Compass lays out in a policy brief, decoupling from China requires legislative and executive actions—enforcing existing tariffs against Chinese goods, imposing local content requirements to stimulate domestic or near-shored production, and rethinking our immigration system—that are necessarily national.

The second risk is associated with the arms race on the Republican side. The dueling moves from DeSantis, Noem, Abbott, and Governor Glenn Youngkin of Virginia, who earlier this month quashed a proposed Virginia battery plant citing the company's Chinese ties, to out-hawk one another could push the eventual Republican nominee to revert to a pre-Trump interventionist foreign policy, with predictable effects.

At root, this is about the order of political operations: The national government makes foreign policy for the nation, the state governments make policies for their states. States can't enter into treaties with foreign powers, and they shouldn't enact their own foreign policies. There are ways for states to oppose Chinese influence. But governors gallivanting around the globe, play-acting as Churchill, undermines their focus on state issues and America's ability to engage in meaningful diplomacy with its chief political rival.