In a novel but little-noticed endeavor, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has been trying to persuade American cities and states, including Honolulu and Hawaii, to contribute to the conduct of U.S. foreign affairs.

Over the last 20 years, Honolulu, the nation’s 10th most populous city, and Hawaii, the 40th most populous state, have dabbled in foreign affairs but without a sustained effort. Being host to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum last fall was Hawaii’s most demanding experience in that field.

Currently, Mayor Peter Carlisle appears to have fit into Ms. Clinton’s plans, having travelled to Asia three times — Japan, Korea, and China — since taking office in 2010. The mayor has said he sought to expand economic and sister city ties. Gov. Neil Abercrombie, however, seems so far to have shown little interest in foreign ventures.

Until Ms. Clinton started this program, foreign policy was the province of the White House, the State Department, and other federal agencies. Now, says a senior State Department official, “the scope of what defines nation-to-nation conversations is shifting in the modern, more global, and more flattened economy.”

Reta Jo Lewis, who is responsible for promoting Secretary Clinton’s plan, has been saying in recent speeches that “city-to-city and state-to-state dialogues [are] just as critical to the larger context of executing, implementing, and achieving a nation’s overarching diplomatic goals.”

“Building peer-to-peer relationships between state and local elected officials has a tremendous effect on foreign policy that often goes unrecognized,” Ms. Lewis says. “Building these relationships and encouraging this engagement at the subnational level has limitless potential.”

“Peer-to-peer relationships provide state and local leaders around the globe with an intimate glance into the American way of life, and more importantly, into our democratic institutions and system of governance,” she says.

“Even at a more basic but equally important level, these interactions develop trust – an attribute essential to developing strong bilateral ties.”

In Hawaii at the state level, Brenda Lei Foster, a specialist in Asian affairs, was an active “foreign minister” in the governments of Governors John Waihee and Benjamin Cayetano. She is now president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai but her position in state government no longer exists.

Governor Linda Lingle delved a bit into foreign affairs, leading several delegations to Asia to encourage investment in Hawaii. In her second inaugural address, she said she intended to cultivate U.S. relations with Asia “because Hawaii is the only natural bridge between these two very different and important cultures.”

In Honolulu Hale, Mayor Jeremy Harris claimed that he had been invited to speak all over the world on Honolulu as a model city. Mayor Mufi Hannemann went on a mission to Japan seeking ideas for a rail system here.

Over the years, Honolulu has forged sister-city relations with 27 cities including Tokyo and Hiroshima in Japan, Inchon in South Korea, Kaohsiung in Taiwan, Hainan in China, Hue in Vietnam, and Mumbai in India. Whether anything beyond pleasant exchanges ever took place between those cities and Honolulu, however, is not clear.

Thus, Secretary Clinton and Ms. Lewis have encouraged cities like Honolulu and all the states to do more in foreign affairs. Ms. Lewis says: “Secretary Clinton has made it a priority to engage our subnational leaders and utilize them as an extraordinary source of innovation, talent, resources, and knowledge.”

“After all, it is the states and cities that are the engines of growth at the ground level where the transition from policy to practice becomes most visible.”

She concludes that the challenges of the 21st century require the U.S “to collaborate and innovate globally.” That has meant fashioning “a strategy for creating partnerships for achieving modern diplomatic goals by engaging all the elements of our national power and leveraging all forms of our strength.”

About the Author

  • Richard Halloran
    Richard Halloran, who writes the weekly column called “The Rising East,” contributes articles on Asia and US relations with Asia to publications in America and Asia. His career can be divided into thirds: One third studying and reporting on Asia, another third writing about national security, and the last third on investigative reporting or general assignment. He did three tours in Asia as a correspondent, for Business Week, The Washington Post, and The New York Times, and was a military correspondent for The New York Times for ten years. He is the author of Japan: Images and Realities and To Arm a Nation: Rebuilding America’s Endangered Defenses, and four other books. As a paratrooper, Halloran served in the US, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and Vietnam. He has been awarded the George Polk Award for National Reporting, the Gerald R. Ford Prize for Distinguished Reporting on National Defense, the U.S. Army’s Outstanding Civilian Service Medal, and Japan’s Order of the Sacred Treasure. He holds an AB from Dartmouth