City diplomacy is on the rise. Its success will depend on our ability to harness it and curtail power-politics through an inclusive and multilateral approach.

International politics is becoming increasingly local and city centric. Why? Urbanisation and globalisation coupled with the challenges of central government lead international cooperation.

Some of the biggest global challenges we face ranging from tackling climate change to achieving inclusive economic growth require local action and cities are particularly important here. The United Nations predicting that two thirds of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050. They are acting as centres of incubation for global trends and solutions at a time when central government lead multilateralism is facing challenges. As a result, we are seeing cities emerge on the international stage and the growing importance of city diplomacy.

Internationally, national government lead multilateralism has faced challenges. The ability of the west to shape global politics has been tested by disagreements among western powers and the growing importance of countries who are not part of this western alliance. In its Global Risks Report 2020, the World Bank warns that unless we adapt to shifting alliance structures and multilateral systems, time will run out to address some of the most pressing economic, environmental and technological challenges. As the world bank puts it “old alliance structures and global institutions are being tested.” This is creating a vacuum that cities are filling in some cases.

With the rise of city diplomacy, we are seeing a case of back to the future for international diplomacy. Before nation-states existed as we know them today, cities were international actors. Ancient Greece, often referred to as the birth of modern-day democracy, was formed of city-states. Similarly, as early as the renaissance period, city-states conducted foreign policy across Europe. The Treaties of Westphalia signed in 1648 lead to the modern international system based on interactions between sovereign nation-states. In such a system, the role of powerful cities who had conducted international affairs was diminished.

With globalisation, we have seen growing interdependence with events in one part of the world impacting the rest. Coupled with urbanisation, it has meant that cities have a global outlook and interest. Cities are the centres of economic and human activity. Since 2007, more citizens live in cities than in rural spaces. Cities are also the main contributors to our economies. The World Bank predicts that more than 80% of global gross domestic product is generated in cities. They are also the spaces where the most unique and unconventional innovations are taking place generating revolutionary new technologies shaping societal progress. They are the main consumers and polluters, the main centres of opportunity and the places where disasters occur. Their significance is evident in that they are also the spaces targeted in modern warfare ranging from cyber to terrorist attacks.

Cities are taking action to address global challenges as they see appropriate. They are doing so through policies that are not always aligned with their national central governments. For example, American cities have shown global leadership on climate action when the USA central government has chosen not to. Over 90 Cities in the US have adopted 100% clean energy goals. The American central government, however, has shown a lack of commitment to clean energy goals, withdrawing from the international Paris Climate Accords and speaking of the importance of “traditional fossil fuels” at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos.

Similarly, the Mayors of the four Central European states Czechia, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia (the Visegrad Group) have taken a stand on international affairs signalling positions in contrast to that of their respective central governments. In December 2019, the Mayors of Bratislava, Budapest, Prague and Warsaw signed the “Pact of Free Cities”. Through the pact, the Mayors are distinguishing themselves from their central governments and expressing a stronger pro-EU stand.

The danger facing city diplomacy is that the power dynamics between central governments and the political representatives of cities gets in the way of progress. The Mayor’s forming the “Pact of Free Cities” are all from different political parties to those in central government. They are also openly critical of their central governments. The Mayor of Warsaw Rafal Trzaskowsk, for example, said “we have difficult governments” when explaining the need for the Pact. In the US, however, Republican and Democrat Mayors have committed to making a transition to 100% renewable energy making the issue bipartisan.

City diplomacy is taking bilateral and multilateral forms. Some cities have international offices or representatives and reach out to international partners to draw in investments and share best-practices. We are also seeing city focused think-tanks aiming to address global challenges. For example, former California Governor Jerry Brown launched the California-China Climate Institute think-tank connecting Californian and Chinese scientists, experts and policymakers to work together on climate solutions. The think tank aims to hold “subnational climate dialogues” to advance climate policy in the absence of national leadership on the issue.

We are also seeing multilateral city diplomacy emerge and flourish. International cooperation of local government and cities is formally structured through organisations and networks such as C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, Global Compact of Mayors, ICLEI Local Governments for Sustainability, Global Parliament of Mayors, Strong Cities Network, United Cities and Local Governments. These networks bring together local government representatives to achieve global targets around matters ranging from climate change to preventing violent extremism.

In the EU, you have the European Committee of the Regions that acts as a political assembly of local and regional authorities from the EUs member states. Through the CoR, local and regional government are consulted in the EUs decision-making process. Yet, the CoR also engages with the EUs neighbourhood exchanging best-practises at a sub-national level. Through the CoR, for example, EU local and regional government assisted in Ukraine and in Libya in their local and regional government reforms.

The question going forward is how central governments can accommodate and capitalise on the potential of city diplomacy. The US has taken steps in this direction. In June 2019, the bipartisan City and State Diplomacy Act was introduced to support state and local diplomacy with counterparts abroad. The bill would establish the Office of Subnational Diplomacy at the State Department, which would coordinate overall U.S. policy and programs in support of city and state engagement with foreign governments and officials.

The success of city diplomacy depends on the ability of those representing them to be bipartisan, inclusive and multilateral in their action. Cities are the epicentres of global challenges and opportunities. Global progress will depend on the ability of cities from a broad range of geographic and political backgrounds to work together. This process can be catalysed if central governments harness its potential.

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Fellow at the London-based Localis Think Tank. She has represented Conservative local and regional authorities in the EU as Secretary General.