The fractured superpower: Federalism and foreign policy

October 7, 2022

Though federalism is typically viewed in a domestic context, political scientist Jenna Bednar explores the balance of state and federal power and how it shapes U.S. foreign policy in Foreign Affairs. Bednar and co-author Mariano-Florentino Cuéllar, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, examine how states can enhance the country’s international influence and how Washington can minimize the risk to U.S. alliances.

“U.S. authority on the world stage has often been associated with a federal system in which Washington is dominant,” Bednar writes. “But this conventional understanding is both flawed and out of date. When it comes to policymaking capacity and on-the-ground implementation, states increasingly hold a decisive edge.”

Bednar notes that states have long been drivers of progress and change at the federal level. “Many of the most important federal policy changes—including ending slavery; expanding marriage rights, voting rights, and civil rights; changing health-care access, reproductive rights, and welfare coverage; reforming public education; and protecting the environment—were first tried at the state level, making states what U.S. Justice Louis Brandeis called ‘laboratories of democracy.’” 

However, Bednar stresses that states go beyond testing new policy, “they also fill in existing policy gaps when the federal government stalls.” Recently, states have taken it upon themselves to seek their own international partnerships or agreements when they have significant stakes in energy, trade, and technology. 

While the U.S. Constitution prohibits states from entering into formal treaties, the State Department has established that these constraints only concern agreements that are “legally binding,” providing the freedom for states to make international agreements by other means. 

Bednar points out that “states can leverage their soft power and convening capacity to facilitate policy coordination and form coalitions with like-minded foreign governments. And states can also use the flexibility in existing U.S. law to collaborate on international agreements to address problems of global significance neglected by Washington.”

Although states’ role on the international scene can provide a major boost for U.S. foreign policy, Bednar details the risks of this decentralized foreign policy approach. She explains that “subnational diplomacy involving states and research institutions may conceivably complicate national strategies for safeguarding sensitive information from other countries. And as states increasingly use litigation to contest federal action, foreign governments may be able to exploit tensions between states and the federal government.”

Bednar argues that to manage the growing influence that states have on U.S. policy on both the domestic and global fronts, the three following strategies should be pursued:

  • State governments should further develop their potential to act as “laboratories of democracy” in the U.S. federal system to shape global developments in ways that advance U.S. interests.
  • Foreign governments can strengthen their long-term relationships with the United States by building ties with individual states and their dependent cities.
  • Policymakers in Washington should recognize the value of allowing states to experiment on core issues and even engage with them globally. Congress should reestablish the Advisory Committee on Intergovernmental Relations to provide a further means for informal negotiation and sharing best practices.

“At its best, the constant interplay between the states and the federal government can provide a powerful strategic advantage to the United States,” Bednar concludes. “States can contribute to continued U.S. leadership on the most vital international policy challenges of our time, as well as ensure the resilience of the U.S. system, helping to preserve and defend democratic institutions and practices. In a more pessimistic scenario, however, the federal bargain could become a source of conflict and tension.”

Read the entirety of “The Fractured Superpower: Federalism is Remaking U.S. Democracy and Foreign Policy,” published in Foreign Affairs.