State Department visits L.A., other cities to drum up support for Biden’s efforts abroad

The State Department is on a mission to sell the Biden administration’s foreign policy as a local issue in Los Angeles and other cities across the country — just in time for the 2024 election.

Assistant Secretary of State for global public affairs William Russo completed a tour through Los Angeles and Phoenix this month, one of several such trips senior officials are taking.

They’ve also been to Chicago, Pittsburgh and other cities, meeting with local officials, youth groups and think tanks.

They are trying to promote one of President Biden and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s campaign-era pledges: to make sure foreign policy is relevant to, and supported by, ordinary Americans. That support has become more urgent as the Biden administration sends billions of dollars in aid to Ukraine in its fight against an invading Russia, and as some Americans are questioning the effort.

“The rubric” by which the administration wants to be judged on foreign policy, Russo said, “is the extent to which we have succeeded in delivering tangible benefits” to Americans.

The goal comes in part from the blurring of lines between domestic and foreign policy, Russo said in an interview with The Times at the State Department.

It is also an “overdue course correction,” Russo said.

“It’s a humble reflection on past failures of the foreign policy community to be too focused on the outside world and outside perceptions, and quite frankly not spending enough time explaining … the value of what we are doing and securing the informed consent of the American people for that work,” he said.

Since coming to office, Biden and his administration have sought to connect foreign policy to the well-being of Americans who might feel distanced from conflicts abroad. A foreign policy that achieves effective economic competition with China, for example, is supposed to translate to more jobs in the U.S., Biden has said in numerous public remarks.

Blinken, in his first speech as secretary of State, acknowledged that foreign policy “can sometimes feel disconnected from our daily lives.”

“Those of us who conduct foreign policy haven’t always done a good job connecting it to the needs and aspirations of the American people,” Blinken said. “As a result, for some time now Americans have been asking tough but fair questions about what we’re doing, how we’re leading — indeed, whether we should be leading at all.”

It has, at times, proved a hard sell. The issue of Ukraine has complicated attempts to relate to ordinary Americans. After many Americans initially festooned homes and buildings in U.S. cities with the blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag in a show of support, opinion polls have registered a significant drop in that sentiment in recent weeks, eroded by a small but vocal, hard-line group of Republican lawmakers questioning Washington’s multibillion-dollar aid to the struggling country.

“Ukraine is an excellent example,” Russo said. He cited a trip by Blinken and other State Department officials to Chicago and Cleveland to meet with large Ukrainian diaspora communities. “The thing we want to do is tell a story about why what happens in Ukraine matters here, and why what we do here has a huge impact on what happens in Ukraine.”

Russo and his staff often tailor the message to the audience. In a meeting with young members of Future Farmers of America from the Midwest, the pitch involved food insecurity and Russia’s harsh efforts to block shipments of Ukrainian grain, which contribute to shortages in key parts of the world.

“One of the ways we fix this problem … of hunger and food security … is through American agriculture and through American farmers,” Russo said, referring to the meeting.

Whether speaking to people from a Mississippi River town in Missouri or others from rural Arizona, Russo said he can make the case that conflicts thousands of miles away rarely remain contained, and impacts do come home to roost domestically — whether it’s the flow of migrants into the U.S. or climate disasters.

"Obviously speaking about these big foreign issues is the bread and butter of the State Department and what we do," Russo said. "It just requires a kind of slightly different mind-set and frame for how we talk about it when we talk about it domestically."

In Los Angeles, Russo discussed the city’s upcoming hosting of the 2026 World Cup and the 2028 Olympic Games with Deputy Mayor Erin Bromaghim, along with how to better showcase Southern California’s diverse economy, vast trade infrastructure and varied industrial and artistic talents.

He also met with young student athletes in the PlayLA program at the Michelle and Barack Obama Sports Complex and spoke to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council and to L.A.-based international journalists.

“Our team does global messaging,” Russo said. “How can we help tell the story of Los Angeles, as part of the story of America. … Beyond just the Olympics and beyond the World Cup, what are some L.A. stories that tell a bigger story about who we are as America today that we can tell on the global stage? Our team believes … it’s great to go out and talk about all that.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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