Markos Kounalakis

How to establish California’s foreign policy

Markos Kounalakis
Markos Kounalakis

Big muscles and big claims were former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s hallmarks. One of his biggest State of the State assertions was that California resembled a nation-state. In essence, the Golden State equaled a sovereign country in power and potential. He was right.

Gov. Jerry Brown speaks a bit more softly than the ex-Governator, but he carries the big stick of a powerful California – America’s most populous state and largest economy. Last year the World Bank ranked California the Earth’s eighth largest global economy, barely behind Brazil. The Golden State has since sprinted well past Brazil, now landing California at number seven.

By nearly every measure, California would be a formidable nation. With all this strength and power, how should it interact with the rest of the world?

Despite California’s economic and technological hard power and its culturally effective and dominant soft power, the state is insolubly a part of the United States and its federal system. Despite certain separatists’ fantasies and a California National Party, Sacramento is not now nor will it likely ever be the capital of an independent nation. The almond capital, yes. State capital, for sure. Seat of the Eureka nation? Not so fast.

Even if it desired and achieved independence, it would still need armed forces, currency, uncontested international borders and its own foreign policy – all things currently managed (and sometimes mismanaged) in Washington, D.C. Granted, there are military-free nations, like the Vatican, and foreign countries that use the U.S. dollar as the coin of the realm, but none are the size and heft of California.

Rather than focusing on the role of a secessionist state in the world, however, the question should be: How can today’s California continue to lead in the world on issues that cross cultures and boundaries?

A global California has already engaged directly with other nations, as shown in the signing of the 2013 China-California memorandum or by Brown’s presence at the Paris climate conference. Brown’s personal concern regarding nuclear weapons proliferation is where he has recently reasserted his generational insight, commitment and leadership.

Not every future governor is guaranteed to articulate California’s outsized voice on global issues or throw around the state’s disproportionate weight in foreign negotiations. State politics do not generally reward politicians who regularly look beyond their own borders.

To ensure that California’s voice is heard and weight felt in the future, the state should establish open institutional structures and collaborative frameworks where consistent long-term global policies are developed, reviewed and promoted.

The state already has a business framework in the International Trade and Investment Advisory Council. (Disclosure: My wife is the chair.) A Sacramento-coordinated international policy framework would bridge Washington’s foreign policy establishment to California’s state government, academic institutions, industry and her mushrooming globally focused NGOs. It would provide a hothouse and clearing house of globally oriented ideas and policies that future governors and legislators could turn to for research, support and advice.

The state is home to some of the most important thinkers and doers. The entire UC system, the Hoover Institution (my affiliation) and Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, USC, the Public Policy Institute of California, Pacific Council on International Policy, RAND and many others can be asked and tasked to focus part of their work on California’s global future.

California industries are already independently changing the way the world computes, communicates, banks, energizes, drives, flies, organizes and thinks. Silicon Valley and Silicon Beach can be bridged and brought in to contribute. Google it. Then Uber it to Sacramento.

A coherent, coordinated and comprehensive institutional framework can deliver a deeper understanding of the state’s challenges and opportunities in the world.

A successful project will be able to sort out and prioritize the strategies and structures to continue putting California in the center of a new global map and at the heart of the Pacific Rim.

Markos Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at Follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.