By: Ed Kennedy

US President Donald Trump has achieved a significant milestone. He is the first President since Dwight Eisenhower, who left office in 1961, to skip a trip to California within his first 12 months in office. Even then, Ike did get there in 13 months after he got to the White House.

Trump is also unlikely to visit anytime soon, given the visceral antagonism that would greet him. Considered in context this milestone tells a deeper story and asks the question whether 2017 was the first big shift away from the absolute power of the US federal government to set and pursue foreign policy abroad.

California Gov. Jerry Brown, even before President Trump took over the White House, had made extensive contacts outside of his home state, particularly in Asia. He has since picked up the pace.  Sacramento has no army nor state department.  But Brown and the state have other resources.

Relations between the Republican Trump administration in Washington and Brown, a Democrat, were always destined to be turbulent. California is a deep blue Democratic Party stronghold and has the pulling power in its own right as the US’s most populous state and its largest economy.  California has always looked across the Pacific for its future instead of east and over the Atlantic. In 2016, California, was the US’s largest exporter, with US$163 billion in exports to 228 foreign countries, according to the US Chamber of Commerce. Its top export markets are Mexico, Canada, China, Japan and Hong Kong in that order.  Elon Musk’s Tesla, headquartered in California, leads the field in electric cars and batteries and is a powerhouse in civilian space technology.

Business as usual no longer

This era is not ‘business as usual’ for either the White House or Sacramento. The Trump administration abdicated leadership on climate change to Brown almost immediately with the president’s June 1, 2017 announcement that he would withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement. In doing so‚ he saw the US government fade as a global leader in climate change, allowing Beijing to claim an unlikely new mantle as the leading global power in green reform.

In subsequent meetings of the United Nations Congress of Parties on Climate Change, Brown who has been the US’s most visible figure, eclipsing the delegation from Washington. Brown has been a global leader in the signing of climate change agreements at both the state and international levels, seeking and obtaining an agreement with the Chinese government for action on climate change outside the Paris agreement.

Brown’s high-profile meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in June last year served to illustrate the pulling power of the Golden State globally. It also came before Trump himself made the first trip to Asia of his presidency, with Brown offering what essentially is an alternate American vision for the world from what the administration in Washington is delivering.  He signed green energy agreements, opened a California-Beijing clean technology fund and explored the development of batteries and electric vehicles. The 79-year-old governor has done much the same in Europe. 

However, although Sacramento can throw its weight around and Brown can maintain a role as a de-facto opposition leader to Trump on the world stage, ultimately the constitutional constraints on states make its hard power very limited – California can’t set up its own embassies abroad although in the past it has maintained trade liaison offices across Asia.  And while a number of California municipalities have joined in with others across the nation to serve as sanctuary cities, the Golden State will not be setting its own immigration policy, much less rerouting aircraft carriers in defense policy. 

The Soft Approach

Notwithstanding, it would be a mistake to overlook the immense soft power California holds and how it is of growing importance on the world stage. Wikipedia lists at least 232 television series that have been set in California. It has Hollywood and much of the music, movies and even the porn industry. For better or worse‚ each of these fields in their own way have built the power of brand California abroad including Asia. With the online era and the rise of the digital economy set to make the globe more borderless than ever, the same limitations of distance and communication that saw California shape an independent identity in the 20th century will not be repeated in the 21st.  

Instead, California can now build on that independent identity it forged in an era of instant communication, and rapid travel. These advantages are especially important in a Pacific-facing state that is also the nation’s tech epicenter if not the world’s. The greater interaction and establishment of partnerships between Silicon Valley and Asian capitals will provide an avenue for California to further affirm its differences from Washington.

It is also a potential avenue of growing security concern. As Asia faces a future of greater instability, odds are far greater conflict will be pursued in agile stealth and cyber warfare. The challenges of maintaining security in the new dynamic are more complex. Especially if Sacramento and Washington are on poor terms.

New complication to the dynamic

In a world where China’s Xi is increasingly assertive, and Trump’s administration is seen as an unreliable diplomatic force at home and abroad, the quasi-independent status of California adds a new complication to this dynamic.

There is no suggestion of any insidious conduct on the part of Sacramento, but Silicon Valley is a leader in emerging tech and an attractive target for foreign threats. Certain incidents can be greatly influenced by leaders and the political persuasions of the leaders. Apple’s high-profile battle with the FBI in 2016 tested the Obama White House. So too will the Trump administration be tested, for as technology evolves in years ahead new ways to attack devices will grow.

At a local level‚ no state has more to lose than California. It is home not only the major industries of Silicon Valley and Hollywood, an economy worth of $2.5 trillion annually, and the largest concentration of personal data of US citizens. The Chinese government’s collection of hackers are held to have been very busy in recent years attacking US businesses in Silicon Valley and beyond. This as well as hacking government infrastructure.

Brown to exit the stage

While Brown is in his last year of office, the distance from Trump’s White House will endure beyond Brown’s exit. The need for an effective partnership between state and federal government remains as vital as ever, and it is here both Trump and California Democrats must circle back to an electoral truth – that voters will punish leaders that are seen to play politics at their expense.

While these are highly contentious times‚ measuring the scope and scale of it beyond the media foray is difficult. As opposed to other nations, the relations of US states with the federal government have typically been combustible. America’s largest state has enough sway globally to be regarded as “the great exception” and any ambition of the White House to quell California’s voice would only be self-defeating. Further affirming to global allies and foes alike that the Trump administration hasn’t yet got a grip on the wheel of American government.

Ultimately this all means a diminished influence for the Trump administration globally.  And to a degree‚ the United States. A president with strong domestic support can project strong influence abroad. One with turbulence and upheaval at home – and especially leaders at the ready to rival him on the world stage – will find his capacity to carry out his role as America’s chief diplomat seriously hindered, now, and for long as Trump’s agenda to ‘Make American Great Again’ is unable to win the necessary support from the American people.

Ed Kennedy is a journalist from Melbourne, Australia. He can be found on Twitter at @Edkennedy01