Paradiplomacy, or how cities talk to each other and get things done

Hundreds of Mayors from around the world attended the C40 Climate Summit in Paris. Source: C40.

As economic and cultural power continues to concentrate itself in urban areas, with the oft cited statistics of a global urban future, cities are growing into a role on the international stage traditionally reserved for the nation-state.

Cities are economic and political powerhouses. The GDP of the state of New York is larger than that of Spain or South Korea. In Latin America, São Paulo state alone is richer than Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia combined. Guangdong in China is wealthier than Russia or Mexico.

Major cities are now negotiating agreements directly with other cities around the world, developing a proto-“foreign policy” along the way. Known as paradiplomacy, these new international relationships between cities is a signal of the growing strength (and in some cases, antagonism) of global cities to their national governments. There are a growing number of cases where the foreign policy objectives of cities are diverging from national ones.

In the United States, cities such as New York are signing climate change agreements, sometimes in opposition to state or federal government.

In Paris, Anne Hidalgo has been a proponent of a more active handling of the Syrian refugee crisis, in opposition to President François Hollande, a fellow member of the Socialist Party.

After Brexit, the newly elected mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, penned an op-ed in the New York Times, along with Hidalgo and Bill de Blasio of New York City, underscoring the value of immigrants in the future of his city.

This new dynamic between cities and their national governments will only intensify as cities diverge–politically, economically, culturally–from the more rural parts of nations. Cities building international agreements in opposition to their national governments is just one example.

The governance level of the future–and the one I believe has the highest likelihood of solving the fundamental challenges of this century–are cities. The power and legitimacy of city government comes in their pragmatism and concrete objectives. Cities, by being primarily public service providers, understand the practical, physical reality of peoples lives. Unlike nation-states, which can often be derailed by ideology and issues of identity, cities are concerned with people’s daily human needs. This connection to the concrete leads their diplomacy to be concrete and actionable.