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If former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was once called “America’s mayor,” then current New York City Mayor Eric Adams is making a compelling case for the title of “Turkey’s mayor.”
Earlier this month, after the FBI raided the home of Adams’s chief fundraiser and seized a few of the mayor’s own devices as part of a major federal corruption investigation, several reporters began to take a closer look at Adams’s ties to Turkey and its longtime president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. As Brooklyn borough president, Adams attended nearly 80 events celebrating Turkey, including a flag-raising ceremony and a meeting with Erdogan. He embarked on funded trips to Turkey and celebrated Turkish Airlines at a gala alongside Martha Stewart. During his mayoral campaign, Adams reportedly received donations from the Turkish government and the Erdogan-linked Turken Foundation, a registered foreign agent. Now, the FBI is investigating whether, after winning the 2021 Democratic mayoral primary that all but ensured his victory in the general election, then-candidate Adams “pressured New York Fire Department officials to sign off on the Turkish government’s new high-rise consulate in Manhattan despite safety concerns with the building.”
It may be tempting to write off the Turkey probe as yet another eccentric chapter in the saga of Eric Adams—or as a mere local “New York story.” But the Adams-Turkey connection has national security implications that extend well beyond the five boroughs, and the story highlights the growing importance of a previously overlooked domain of foreign policy: city and state—or “subnational”—diplomacy.
No doubt, Adams is eccentric. He has a propensity for crystals. And, after learning that “New York sits on a store of rare gems and stones ... [he] believes that as a result, ‘there’s a special energy that comes from here.’” He once compared himself to Gandhi and said the G in GPS stands for “God,” not “global,” in the very same week. And he allegedly carried around a doctored photo of a fallen police officer in his wallet.
And it is, indeed, odd for Turkey to be targeting local officials for influence operations. As Casey Michel, an expert on foreign lobbying and interference, wrote in the New Republic, “At first blush, the scheme borders on the ridiculous; as mayor, Adams is hardly a prominent figure in American foreign policy and would not be the most logical official for foreign financiers or regimes like Turkey to target.” Indeed, diplomacy and foreign affairs are traditionally thought of as federal issues.
But subnational diplomacy is worth keeping an eye on—if only because the foreign actors are actively engaged in it. Federal authorities have not yet filed charges against Adams or his campaign in connection with the investigation, but the mayor’s alleged pressure campaign on the Fire Department to fast-track Turkey’s $300 million, 35-story tower should still raise eyebrows. The consulate’s September 2021 opening ceremony afforded Erdogan, an autocrat with a spotty human rights record, the opportunity to reflect on his country’s—and, by extension, his own—“increased power.” Adams’s adventures abroad also warrant scrutiny. As Michel writes:
[Adams] didn’t appear ever to question why it was that such autocratic regimes might want to sponsor his trips abroad—or might want to help finance his election efforts. Indeed, even as his political star has continued to rise, there’s no record of Adams ever criticizing any of the governments that have enabled his various gallivants around the world or any of the regimes that have fêted him during his globe-trotting sprees.
During and after his travels, Adams didn’t utter discouraging words about his hosts. For example, he’s kept mum on such matters as China’s sprawling concentration camp system and Azerbaijan’s descent into outright dictatorship. Instead, the mayor has happily stumped for his hosts; at one point, he even announced that he would move to Azerbaijan after his retirement from government.
The above constitutes only the alleged conduct that has thus far come to light. And the degree to which Adams allegedly benefitted from Turkey suggests that he would have done much more if the allegations related to the FBI investigation hadn’t surfaced. Even though Adams’s Turkish connections are finally under the microscope, Turkey’s apparent success in the affair may only embolden other foreign agents seeking influence at the local government level across the country.
The public typically hears about the international connections of cities and states only when something nefarious seems to be going on, as in the Adams-Turkey case, or when something very, very funny happens. A case from earlier this year: In January, Newark Mayor Ras Baraka held a ceremony at Newark’s city hall celebrating the signing of a “sister-city” agreement with the Sovereign State of Shrikailasa. Founded by President Dwight Eisenhower after World War II to “develop economic, cultural and technical exchanges between U.S. cities, counties, and states with corresponding communities worldwide,” such formal agreements can bring tangible benefits to cities and have been a reliable tool for subnational diplomacy for decades. There was only one small snag: The Sovereign State of Shrikailasa wasn’t real. As Matt Stieb writes in New York Magazine, the Sovereign State of Srikailasa is “neither a city nor a country but the name of the ‘great cosmic borderless’ nation for a group known as Kailasa,” described as a “cult” by one of its former members.
Of course, not all efforts by city and state governments to establish international ties are embarrassing or nefarious, nor is subnational diplomacy the domain of only cosmopolitan metropolises such as New York. Most cities in the United States, regardless of size, have connections abroad, and mayors naturally act as champions or ambassadors for their cities. Sister-city agreements are usually brought up when discussing city diplomacy, but they constitute only one example among many. Such connections include formal or informal arrangements and include a diverse range of ties: diaspora, trade and investment relations, and signed agreements across economic, cultural, and technical cooperation.
Many of these subnational diplomatic efforts have paid dividends. For example, since signing a sister-city agreement in 1979, the city of Phoenix, Arizona, has deepened ties with Taipei, Taiwan, helping to enable more formal economic relationships, including a recent promise by the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company to invest $40 billion in two chip factories in North Phoenix. The Phoenix-Taipei example demonstrates the fruits that a decades-long relationship over several successive mayoral administrations can bear. Major investments in critical technology like semiconductors also demonstrate that these benefits can be a boon to both local economies and national security.
But most international efforts by city and state governments or political leaders fall well short of that high-water mark. Cities forge foreign connections through a mix of the personal and strategic, with trips coming together on a reactive or ad hoc basis. Efforts that may appear as nefarious attempts at foreign influence could in fact be better explained as clumsy attempts at subnational diplomacy—ineffective and problematic actions resulting from an incoherent foreign policy. For an example, we can look again to Adams, who wrapped up a four-day trip to Mexico, Colombia, and Ecuador in October. Facing a migrant crisis back home, the mayor’s trip “was billed as an attempt to see firsthand the dynamics of international migration to the United States and, most importantly, spread the message that NYC can’t handle any more migrant arrivals.” However, the benefits to New York City or national security stemming from the trip, especially his insistence on visiting the notoriously dangerous Darién Gap, against the urging of Colombian security authorities, remain unclear.
While subnational diplomacy done right can bring a city benefits, subnational diplomacy done clumsily invites risks—risks that can cause problems far beyond city limits. As the Truman Center’s Deputy Director for City and State Diplomacy Max Bouchet writes, “In some instances, rather than seize the opportunity, national governments view city diplomacy as a threat to their own turf and their sovereign prerogative to conduct foreign policy.” Ironically for Adams, in recognition of the national security risks posed by subnational diplomacy run amok, Turkey’s ministry of foreign affairs has attempted to limit and oversee interactions between Turkish mayors, as well as other municipalities, and foreign diplomats in Turkey.
A closer, uncritical relationship between Erdodgan’s Turkey and the mayor of the largest city in the United States risks undermining a coherent U.S. foreign policy toward Ankara. As the Council on Foreign Relations’s Steven Cook points out, “Washington now shares few interests with Ankara.” Cook argues for “reducing U.S. reliance on Turkey, including by seeking alternative military bases elsewhere,” especially in light of “Ankara’s closeness to U.S. adversaries, including Iran” and past attempts by Turkish state-owned bank Halkbank to circumvent U.S. sanctions on Tehran.
To be sure, the risks and vulnerabilities posed by haphazard subnational diplomacy can vary by severity. On the more severe end of the subnational diplomacy risk spectrum, cybersecurity remains a perennial vulnerability for municipalities. City and state government information technology systems often lag behind federal systems—themselves not always state of the art—and adversarial or malicious actors from nations to independent cyber criminals may seek to exploit them. In Lawfare, Ryan Scoville points out that “subnational diplomacy has played an inconspicuous but material role in Beijing’s effort to acquire cutting-edge American technology.” In his piece, Scoville presents “new evidence that China has entered into a substantial collection of written agreements with U.S. states for the purpose of promoting technology transfer in a number of strategically sensitive fields of innovation, including information technology, nanotechnology, aerospace, biotechnology, and semiconductors.” The federal government is particularly worried about this issue, illustrated by U.S. sanctions and restrictions on semiconductors to China, as well as outbound investment.
Relatedly, local government officials may find themselves targets of malign foreign influence. In 2020, Axios found that a “suspected Chinese intelligence operative developed extensive ties with local and national politicians, including a U.S. congressman, in what U.S. officials believe was a political intelligence operation run by China’s main civilian spy agency between 2011 and 2015.” The allegations only seemed to affirm a notice issued by the State Department earlier that year requiring “representatives of the Chinese government to provide prior notification of their visits to and meetings with state, local, and municipal governments; and educational and research institutions—including National Laboratories.” Last year, the Office of the Director of National Intelligence issued a “Safeguarding Our Future” bulletin aimed at urging U.S. state and local leaders to “exercise vigilance, conduct due diligence, and ensure transparency, integrity, and accountability” in order “to guard against potential foreign government exploitation.”
Either in recognition of the untapped national security benefits of subnational diplomacy—or in an attempt to keep a more watchful eye on local governments’ interactions with foreign actors—the State Department established the Subnational Diplomacy Unit in October 2022 and appointed Amb. Nina Hachigian, a former ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and deputy mayor for international affairs for Los Angeles, as special representative for city and state diplomacy. The news was likely a welcome development for commentators who have been advocating for the establishment of a subnational diplomacy unit, such as Maryum Saifee, who wrote in early 2022, “Engaging state and local actors in international diplomacy will help the State Department address the national security challenges of the 21st century.” The new office has already begun such engagement efforts, including attempts to equip local leaders with national security knowledge and raise awareness of the geopolitical implications of some of their activities, particularly through briefings on China.
But Saifee isn’t the only one making the case for the State Department to keep a closer eye on subnational diplomacy and its attendant national security risks. Adams, with his unnatural interest in the Anatolian Peninsula, is making a very compelling case as well, in his own special way.