A majority of Californians are overjoyed at the victory of President-elect Joe Biden and fellow Californian Sen. Kamala Harris as vice president-elect. One thing that is likely to be amplified is the increasing self-reliance that California has found in the domain of international affairs.
California found its global voice, and the massive upgrade we will soon see in the White House will only strengthen this increasingly influential actor on the world stage.
Gov. Gavin Newsom often refers to California as a nation-state, and he is correct. California is a powerhouse. We have the fifth largest economy in the world ahead of the United Kingdom and France, and Los Angeles County has the 19th largest economy.
California is a major Pacific Rim player, the home of two Southern California ports that are central to America’s global trade, and synonymous with Hollywood, Silicon Valley, agriculture, manufacturing and innovation.
Los Angeles and San Francisco combined have more consulates than any other place in the world. L.A. has a bilingual mayor, a deputy mayor for international affairs who is a former ambassador, and California has a lieutenant governor who is also a former ambassador. In his very first days in office, Newsom made a state visit to Central America. This state is global to its core.
The Trump administration, through its failed policy of America First, institutionalized aversion to immigrants and the denigration of the very diversity that makes the California experiment so distinctive. California, long the object of global admiration, was unwittingly forced to find its own voice on global issues.
The art of subnational diplomacy was refined in California as the state and its key cities began to forge their own global relationships given that Washington was not up to the task. And with a more internationalist administration in Washington, California will soon have an eager and willing partner.
Californians do not want a wall separating them from Mexico; they seek a bridge. By calling Mexicans criminals and rapists Donald Trump insulted Californians who are inextricably linked to Mexico through family, culture, geography and shared interests. This is also the case for others, as Washington ceased giving visas to large numbers of Muslims and even to desperately needed workers at both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum, be they agricultural or highly skilled experts needed by California employers.
There is an oxymoronic quality to cutting off California from the rest of the world as it is these very ties to and respect for the rest of the world that made California great in the first place.
We repeatedly saw how America First was merely America alone. This self-destructive fiction made allies throughout Asia question America’s commitment to promoting regional security, while references to China and the coronavirus firmly positioned racism ahead of science while offending countless Californians with roots in Asia.
China’s predations are well known, but a more nuanced foreign policy with clearly articulated policy objectives and not mere bullying will resonate more powerfully in California, the eastern border of the Pacific Rim. In Trump’s America our allies no longer trusted or respected us while our rivals did not fear us. Most Californians could not tolerate the precipitous decline in U.S. global leadership, which we hope will be judiciously restored by the Biden-Harris administration.
California is too big, self-aware and globally interconnected to fiddle while Washington postured. Gov. Jerry Brown traveled to Brussels in 2017 to promote collaboration with the European Union in combating climate change and was treated as a visiting and heroic head of state. Since then, California and many of its cities, through the deft reliance on subnational diplomacy, have continued to step up. This trend will continue as we have willing partners in the White House, not xenophobic rivals.
We can now expect that Washington, Sacramento, Los Angeles, San Francisco and others will constitute a powerful alliance unlike the messy and offensive disarray that characterized the past four years.
Jerrold D. Green is president and CEO of the Pacific Council on International Policy in Los Angeles, a non-partisan organization, firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are his alone and do not reflect the position of the Pacific Council. This commentary was written for CalMatters.