California's suppressed voice in foreign policy

California's technological and demographic strength is unmistakable, with one notable exception: We are underrepresented in Congress when it comes to shaping foreign policy. That's bad for us and the country, because California's Pacific perspective, which comes from 840 miles of coastline and a wave of immigration from across the Pacific and the Pacific Rim, is critical. Too often, policymakers in Washington overstate the importance of problems in Europe and the Middle East, and frequently misunderstand or underestimate the threats and opportunities in the more distant Indo-Pacific.

It may be hard to believe that California, by far the most populous state, has no voice in Congress. But aside from the fact that the Constitution favors the least populous states, there are no Californians on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, or the Senate Intelligence Committee—not just no chairmen, but no members at all.

These three legislative committees are the core of U.S. foreign policy decision-making. They confirm our ambassadors to countries and NGOs, the secretaries of state and defense, the CIA director, and the director of national intelligence. They ratify treaties, shape force structures, conduct critical intelligence oversight, and work with the administration to define how America engages with the world. With the voice of 39 million Californians currently unrepresented and with no immediate prospect of direct engagement, they are excluded from the Senate's foreign policy-making process and apparatus, damaging America's current and strategic future.

California brings expertise, insights and resources that America often exploits but does not always use strategically in today's global conflicts. In demographic, cultural and educational terms, California tends to be ignored and often dismissed.

If California continues to be undervalued in foreign policymaking bodies and the institutions that influence them, the consequences for America could be devastating. It could also slow the American economic engine, which is powered by California's active global engagement, its agricultural strength, its manufacturing prowess, its vast and developing port system, its concentration of venture capital, and its technological leadership.

The state has an economy rivaling that of India. It is home to the country's largest ethnic population: Indian, Taiwanese, Korean, Japanese, Filipino and Mexican, and the second-largest Jewish and Ukrainian communities. This diverse population brings with it family and business ties that can deepen America's diplomatic and strategic foreign relations and meet the Biden administration's recognized need for greater multilateralism and alliance-building.

Without a prominent Californian voice, Washington leadership is falling into transatlantic-oriented policy inertia and frequent, knee-jerk entanglements in the Middle East. (No offense to our Pacific neighbors Alaska, Hawaii, Oregon, and Washington.) Realigning East and West Coast foreign policy mindsets and interests could help correct Europe's continued over-dependence on American markets and power. Under President Joe Biden, the long-awaited military pivot to Asia has begun in earnest, but there is still a long way to go.

Mexican-American relations could also greatly benefit from a California perspective that promotes a more controlled, rational and humane approach to immigration policy with our largest trading partner. Mexico's presidential election is just around the corner, promising a fresh start. It would be helpful to leverage California's history, experience and networks of cooperation to improve cross-border security, energy and trade policies with the new Mexican government. California should play an important role.

It wasn't always this way, but the death of Dianne Feinstein and the resignation of Barbara Boxer created a vacuum in the national security and foreign policy areas of the California Senate. Boxer (foreign relations) and Feinstein (intelligence) played important roles on the Senate's foreign affairs committees.

Kamala Harris was the last Californian to serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee. Now that she's Vice President, however, she represents the entire nation, not just one state. It's fair to say she brings her deeply rooted California perspective to the executive branch. In that case, expect President Biden to bring a Delaware perspective to the country's foreign policy, too. Lucky Delaware (population 1 million). You also have Senator Chris Coons on the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Maryland is also lucky. The current chairman of the Secretary of State is Senator Ben Cardin, who was joined on the committee by Maryland's junior senator, Chris Van Hollen. Maryland and Delaware are overrepresented in the exclusive secretaries of state club; California is excluded from members-only meetings.

California Governor Gavin Newsom points out that the 22 least populated states have a combined population of nearly 40 million in California, meaning that 44 senators in the U.S. Senate have as much or more influence as California's two senators.

And what about the House? Until recently, Californian congressmen played a significant role in foreign policy. California's House Speakers Nancy Pelosi and Kevin McCarthy were part of the bipartisan “Gang of Eight” – a group with access to the most sensitive intelligence information in the country. Today, none of them are Californians. None are from west of the Rockies. Californians sit on the House committees that deal with foreign policy – Armed Services, Intelligence and Foreign Affairs – but none are chairmen or ranking members. Representative Adam Smith of Washington, ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, is the only West Coast resident in the leadership of those three committees.

West Coast awareness and preferences are further diluted by the dominant national media institutions based in DC and New York. Broadcast networks and surviving print media feed and reflect East Coast prejudices and often characterize West Coast concerns and interests as quaint or quirky.

Conversely, California’s largest newspapers are headquartered in New York due to the problems of the local media. With all due respect and Washington monthlyAs a former president and publisher, I understand and appreciate the success and power of East Coast media and its dominance of the national debate. It does not adequately represent a rapidly changing American nation and the current geopolitical challenges from California's Central American neighborhood and the Indo-Pacific. The Council on Foreign Relations and the Asia Society remain on New York's East Side and are unlikely to migrate to California anytime soon.

What needs to be done?

It is up to the leadership of the U.S. Senate to restore balance and understand the need to have California represented on these important committees. (That is true as long as the Senate remains Democratic.) Seniority may still be crucial, but the Senate must first understand the importance of having a representative West Coast voice heard in its body and within the global community. California will have a new U.S. Senator in 2025. He should be appointed to one of the three foreign affairs committees.

Moreover, much of the media power concentrated on the East Coast needs to do more than parachute in reporters or set up smaller outposts in Sacramento, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Silicon Valley or on the U.S.-Mexico border. A stronger presence and interest in what's happening here – and who's doing it – will help Washington policymakers interpret and make clear the future of Sino-U.S. relations or global technology policy.

The most populous, wealthiest, most innovative, most diverse, and most internationally touristic state in the United States needs greater formal influence over the global policy decisions made in Washington, DC. America must hear and heed the perspectives of its most economically dynamic and globalized state. The U.S. Senate marginalizes or ignores California, the world's largest minority-majority democracy, at its peril.

Anna Harden

Learn More →

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *