California should step up as U.S. retreats from world stage

Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers a speech during the opening of COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018.
Former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger delivers a speech during the opening of COP24 UN Climate Change Conference 2018 in Katowice, Poland, Monday, Dec. 3, 2018. AP

The Trump administration’s lack of leadership in the international community calls for a response from somewhere. That somewhere should be California.

The United States has announced it plans to withdraw from UNESCO, the United Nations heritage and peace organization, at the end of this year. The withdrawal can be added to a list of deserted or diminished agreements including the Trans Pacific Partnership, the U.N. Human Rights Council, the Iran nuclear deal, and likely soon a nuclear treaty with Russia. In place of constructive engagement with the world, the Trump administration’s isolation is emboldening autocrats and authoritarian regimes.

“The U.S. president has, so to speak, retreated,” former NATO Secretary General Anders Rasmussen told CNBC. “He has withdrawn from world affairs and that is why we see all that chaos right now. The world needs leadership and only Americans can provide that leadership.”

California, the most populous state in the union and the world’s fifth-largest economy, is already stepping up to fill the void, and we should expand our role.

The state stepped forward after the Trump administration announced the U.S.’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change.


This month, after the Trump administration produced a laughable “clean coal” slideshow at an international climate conference in Katowice, Poland, California representatives advanced real policy ideas. California State Senator Bob Wieckowski and Ken Alex, director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research, discussed strategies related to carbon cap-and-trade and “ocean-climate contribution.”

Governor-elect Gavin Newsom hasn’t shied away from bold statements and actions when the time calls for it. In a clear indication of his intention to work proactively with international partners, Newsom, along with Attorney General Xavier Becerra, attended the inauguration of Mexican President Lopez Obrador earlier this month in Mexico City.

Brendan rawson.jpg
Brendan Rawson

As Becerra noted, California’s relationship with Mexico “is much more than just an economic relationship ... “(it) goes beyond neighbors.”

Newsom laid out his own beliefs in an email to supporters, saying, “As I see it, there are three non-negotiables here: One, we must expand opportunity to every single person who calls California home. Two, we must never, ever back down from our commitment to California’s values. And three, whatever we achieve, we achieve together. Because this is our moment to be leaders, not just of our state, but of our nation.”

The governor should put those beliefs into action with a clear strategy to make sure our state remains engaged with the nations, non-governmental organizations and private sector actors that share our values and commitment to working together to address today’s challenges. To that end, here are five ideas to help seed the conversation:

1. Newsom should petition the U.N. for California to receive “observer status” membership at UNESCO until the federal government returns as a full member in good standing. UNESCO has more than 30 distinct programs addressing climate change. California should be at the table helping shape those strategies.

2. California is the 10th largest investor in Russian sovereign debt and Saudi Arabia has invested billions in Silicon Valley’s tech sector. California should undertake a review of the financial linkages between our state and the foreign actors that seek to undermine the values we hold dear. Actions such as CalPERS divestment or prohibition of foreign investment could be linked with demands such as the the return of Jamal Khashoggi’s remains to his family.

3. Establish initiatives within the University of California system that advance UC’s role abroad as a resource for democratic causes. Leverage other higher education resources such as the Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at Stanford University to advance California as a ready partner with international democracy causes.

4. Expand the Department of Social Services’ Refugee Resettlement Program and establish an immigrant affairs office to support a California commitment to remain a destination for the world’s “tired, poor, huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

5. Develop a strategy of cultural diplomacy, to include: a cultural ambassadors program sending exceptional California artists such as former U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan, musician Herbie Hancock (already a U.N. cultural ambassador), or California immigrant Gustavo Dudamel to important international gatherings; a cultural exchange program that sends California artists abroad and brings foreign artists here, particularly those from countries that the president has denigrated; and a program to assist California sites in securing UNESCO World Heritage status. Potential sites could include Manzanar, Angel Island and Monterey Bay.

There are certainly many more and better ideas of how California can step up to this moment. The international community still seeks engagement with the American people and with American ideals. California should heed the call.

Brendan Rawson is the executive director of San Jose Jazz. He may be reached at