International Skyline: Cities as Global Actors

Since the unification of Italy’s city-states, shortly before the turn of the 20th century, diplomacy has largely ignored cities. But something is changing. Perhaps it was the UN’s 2007 declaration that more of humanity now lives in cities than not and the World Economic Forum’s 2014 assessment that “cities are the lifeblood of the global economy,” or the recent flood of books that either celebrate cities as triumphs of human progress or raise alarms about the spread of urban slums. Cities are back on the global agenda. And cities are emerging as independent international actors in new ways.

A city is a surprisingly hard thing to define. Academics debate what actually constitutes a “city.” Statisticians use disparate numbers to suggest trends. And policy-makers — particularly in the developing world — often avoid the question altogether. The urbanization academics Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid, building on the work of the French urban theorist Henri Lefebvre, have proposed that to define cities we should rely less on size and consider instead other characteristics of urbanization, notably a simultaneous “concentration and extension.” Brenner and Schmid argue that cities are concentrated — or agglomerated — as “a complicated, constantly thickening web of economic, social, and ecological connections” and extend by “radiat[ing] outwards . . . via dense webs of relations to other places.” Increasingly, those “other places” are overseas.

The most robust example of this “concentration and extension” is the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. Agglomerated into a network, the C40 comprises 75 large cities — which collectively produce 25% of global GDP — joining ranks to address climate change. The group’s work at global climate change meetings has already paid dividends: the 2010 COP 16 included a formal statement acknowledging cities as key stakeholders in the global discussion, and in 2014 the UN endorsed the Global Compact of Mayors to reduce GHG emissions. Global networks of cities are emerging on other transnational issues as well, including infrastructure and technology.

Cities are seen as independent. They don’t carry the same baggage as nation-states on the field of international engagement. New York City isn’t the United States, Guangzhou isn’t China, Istanbul isn’t Turkey. In foreign policy terms, cities are non-state actors. As such, they can engage internationally in different ways from their home countries; this is often called “paradiplomacy.”

Beyond helping facilitate apolitical inter-city connections through sister city programs, international visits, and cultural exchanges, the leaders of many politically and economically important cities conduct diplomacy themselves. Their engagement can even complement the diplomatic work of national governments. They can, for example, promote reformist agendas by raising justice and equality issues with the progressively-minded mayor of a city in a country otherwise considered illiberal in ways their national-level counterparts cannot. Many city leaders are in a better position to make policy changes that directly affect their citizens’ lives than their national counterparts, including the promotion of political space and human rights.

The relationship between federal and city governments isn’t frictionless, of course. Federal governments largely ignore cities, and city governments often denounce federal policies, particularly on economic and immigration issues. On international issues, however, federal and city governments have much to gain from strategic partnerships. Federal governments would be well-served to see globally-minded mayors as resources, and to understand the international issues that affect cities. And city governments have the potential to increase their own legitimacy and access global financing for local initiatives by leveraging the diplomatic influence of federal governments — when seeking money from international financial institutions for infrastructure development, for instance, or working with UN agencies on cultural and historical preservation efforts.

One potential avenue for dialogue between city and nation is domestic, between federal and city governments of the same country. City leaders would benefit from ensuring that federal governments know and understand the international issues affecting their cities, and federal governments should seek this input to better inform policy. London Mayor Boris Johnson’s late 2014 push for a “London visa” to support the city’s tech and fashion sectors and congressional lobbying by the U.S. Conference of Mayors to continue federal financing for the Urban Areas Security Initiative are examples of such dialogue, but it is often ad hoc and too disparate to be effective. Foreign policymakers need a deeper understanding of the international issues important to cities.

A second potential avenue runs between a federal government’s diplomatic corps and cities in host countries. Diplomats would do well to recognize that cities are laboratories of political reform and engines of economic growth — not to mention incubators, potentially, of security threats. City leaders are often more engaged than national leaders on these issues. Inasmuch as the Arab spring was a series of national revolutions, it first needed a Tahrir Square. Economic growth in Bangalore was born from urban tech sector connections with cities abroad. And un- and under-governed urban spaces in cities like Lahore and Lagos, with their resources, people, and infrastructure, can produce “fragile cities,” increasingly more attractive to criminal and terrorist networks than places off the grid, like Somalia.

National trends begin in cities. Only by examining what’s happening in cities will foreign affairs professionals be able to understand and leverage developments that will have larger national — and potentially international — implications, such as the economic reforms in Shanghai that steered China in a more capitalist direction. Consulates in large cities that are not the seats of national government — such as Johannesburg, Mumbai, and Sao Paulo — must become increasingly city-minded: understanding the socio-economic and political trends in their cities, facilitating wide-ranging connections with cities in their home countries, and using this understanding to propose targeted engagement and assistance.

The next major international task for federal governments with regard to cities will be implementation of a likely post-2015 Millennium Development Goal on urbanization. With major donors focused on rural poverty, those who design assistance budgets must set different priorities in order to make headway in urban areas. Such progress is important to improve the lives of the urban poor and to combat the brain drain from developing countries of professionals, who leave in search of livable cities but whose presence is the greatest hope for sustained development. Given the politically charged nature of these issues in urban areas and the close relationship to development and security in many of these places, effective aid will require stronger ties between the political work of diplomats, the development projects of aid workers, and the professionalization programs of security agencies. An urban foreign aid program, in other words, has to be as integrated as the cities it seeks to assist.


Peter Lord is the U.S. Department of State’s Cullom Davis Fellow at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He has been a Foreign Service Officer since 2002. The views expressed in this article reflect his opinions and not necessarily those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.