Analysis | To harness the benefits of urban diplomacy, the U.S. government should institutionalize its relationships with cities

Vanessa Jarnes

Through connections with “sister cities” abroad, cities such as Los Angeles are becoming influential diplomatic actors.
Through connections with “sister cities” abroad, cities such as Los Angeles are becoming influential diplomatic actors. (Image: Mark Fischer on Flickr/Cropped from original)

On June 7, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken introduced two new city diplomacy initiatives: a Cities Summit of the Americas in 2023 and the Cities Forward initiative. Both efforts intend to leverage local expertise across borders and develop innovative solutions to address worldwide governance challenges. Both also signal increasing acknowledgement from the U.S. government of the mounting importance of cities as global actors.

Cities are growing in size, density, and political and economic clout. As people increasingly move into urban areas and cities turn into megacities, metropolises are likely to wield greater amounts of power on the global stage and adopt larger roles in global policy problems. With rising influence, urban centers have the potential to engage in more negotiations, sway international politics, and reach agreements with other cities across the world. Municipal officials drive action on many global issues, including the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change, and violent extremist radicalization.

Gaps in the current relationship between cities and the federal government

Despite their lead on policy innovation, American cities are often not well connected to the U.S. government. This creates opportunity gaps where the federal government fails to fully harness urban diplomacy, achieve a “Foreign Policy for the Middle Class,” and recognize cities for the diplomatic connections they can also bring to the table. Further, closer coordination with the federal government could bring cities much needed information, expertise, resources, connectivity, and validation or support for their endeavors. This assistance can lead to more successful local foreign policies, which can and should lead to positive and concrete benefits for urban Americans. Some of these potential benefits include creating jobs and trade opportunities for local businesses or incorporating best practices to combat some of society’s most difficult challenges. Thus, both municipal governments and the federal government would benefit from increased cooperation.

Most cities in the United States have minimal interaction with the federal government, leaving many municipalities to independently resource and develop their diplomatic portfolios. Municipal actors frequently lack critical educational resources for their diplomatic activities, and city budgets for global activities are often meager, constraining their ability to carry out international engagements. A survey of city officials from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 53 percent of the respondents had not received relevant training for international engagements. The training that some officials do receive is largely self-guided or informal training from peers. Without international relations and diplomatic expertise or information from the State Department, Los Angeles Deputy Mayor of International Affairs Nina Hachigian warned in a personal interview that American cities could be vulnerable to influence by foreign officials, which could have adverse consequences for both local and national policy. Of the 10 North American cities polled in the Chicago Council survey (five of which were outside the United States), 40 percent of officials stated that their cities did not regularly engage with the national government, the lowest engagement levels of all the regions. Looking more broadly at the survey, respondents worldwide said that two-thirds of engagements with their national governments regarding international outreach were ad hoc and only 14 percent were regularly scheduled.

The State Department engages with substate diplomacy on the basis of personalities and individual projects rather than any institutionalized practices. There have been a few high-level personnel, including a special representative for global intergovernmental affairs under Secretary Hillary Clinton and a senior advisor for global cities under Secretary John Kerry. However, there is currently no formal channel through which the State Department can leverage city diplomacy for federal foreign policymaking. With most urban diplomacy efforts in the Department individually driven, the State Department has no well-established roles that think strategically about or coordinate foreign policymaking with subnational actors. Thematic or regional bureaus infrequently have officers with portfolios that intentionally focus on urban relationships and urban diplomacy. In personal interviews, two different officials indicated that a great deal of opportunity exists to better harmonize federal foreign policy with local efforts. Further, they intimated that the State Department cannot appropriately harness this opportunity with the current level of resources and attention devoted to the issue. This creates many gaps where the government loses potential prospects to improve diplomacy with countries and reach broader audiences.

Foreign competition in subnational diplomacy

Meanwhile, countries such as China view subnational diplomacy as a core component of their foreign policies and have made significant progress in influencing cities to achieve their goals. Conversely, the United States has neglected American cities as partners in diplomatic endeavors. In the last few decades, China has used “city-twinning” as a primary strategy for bilateral relationship building. Between 2000 and 2018, China increased its number of sister cities in East Asia and the Pacific alone from 440 to 950. The connections built and the diplomatic activities conducted between the cities are strategic. The ruling Chinese Communist Party intentionally targets countries with weak existing ties to China. President Xi has also made several public speeches in which he extolled the importance of “bottom up” diplomacy to create positive public sentiment about China. In a September 2015 speech, he stated, “without successful cooperation at the subnational level, it would be very difficult to achieve practical results for cooperation at the national level.”

Policy recommendations

The U.S. government can take the following steps to better synchronize its diplomacy with that at the urban level:

  1. Office of Subnational Diplomacy. The federal government would benefit from passing the City and State Diplomacy Act, introduced by Representative Ted Lieu in July 2021. The proposed legislation establishes an Office of Subnational Diplomacy, which will institutionalize practices of thinking about and incorporating cities into the State Department’s strategies and policy initiatives. To be effective, it would need a streamlined organizational structure with a few regionally located field officers and a dedicated cadre of Washington employees. Those situated regionally could prioritize building relationships with mayoral offices, while D.C.-based officers could work with bureaus across the Department to identify opportunities to incorporate urban diplomacy into strategy documents, prep papers, and talking points.
  2. Urban Diplomacy Fund. The federal government should create a fund to provide financial resources to American cities that lack sufficient budgets to implement their diplomatic initiatives. In the interview, Deputy Mayor Hachigian stated that any amount as low as $5,000 would help resource-strapped cities that may otherwise prioritize community issues instead of international engagements. Some of this fund could also take the form of grants to give cities more discretion in identifying their own urban diplomacy needs. Separately, the fund could go toward non-policy-related expenditures, such as employee training and conference expenses, enabling municipalities to maintain independence on diplomatic and policy matters.
  3. City Network Collaboration. City networks are eager for the federal government to support and amplify their work, as a May 2021 meeting between 19 mayors and U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry demonstrated. Through either the proposed Office of Subnational Diplomacy or individual bureaus, the State Department could build relationships with urban alliances that promote the goals of both the U.S. government and the urban networks. Those at the Department who already work with urban alliances believe that network partnerships are the ideal way for bureaus to become more involved with cities. Networks allow the federal government to work with a broad swath of cities around the world, including small and medium-sized ones. Meanwhile, Duffin stated in his interview, ad hoc city engagement is less sustainable for programming and funding than engagement on a network-wide basis. The Department could expand its work with city networks by creating new partnerships, inviting more representatives from networks to partake in roundtables, sending more principals to meet with networks, and identifying thematic or regional issues that could benefit from the establishment of new networks.
  4. Diplomatic Training Program. Limited resources and expertise constrain municipal-level training on international engagement. According to the Chicago Council survey, fifty-eight percent of the officials said that their cities would engage more if they had better training on international issues and negotiations. To counter this, the State Department should establish a training program for city offices that teaches basic skills relating to diplomacy, protocol, and negotiation. As Duffin suggested in the interview, the Department should ideally prioritize training permanent civil servants in the municipal offices over political appointees to better institutionalize the skills.
  5. Foreign Service Institute Urbanization and Urban Diplomacy Training. The Foreign Service Institute does not currently offer courses on urbanization, city networks, or urban diplomacy. All the current offerings approach diplomacy from a traditional state-centric viewpoint to the neglect of substate actors such as cities. The Foreign Service Institute should develop courses on urban diplomacy that teach Department officers how to think about and work with municipal actors. Just as many institutions are talking about inclusive diplomatic practices, the State Department should expand its professional training to include city officials.

As cities grow in size and clout, municipal officials are engaging with foreign political actors at all levels of government and building a vast array of networks that magnify cities on the world stage. If the United States wants to remain politically effective and strategically competitive, the government must find ways — including those listed above — to institutionalize its relationships with cities.

Note: The author conducted all personal interviews referenced in this text for her ISD fellowship project entitled “The Rise of Urban Diplomacy and Opportunities to Harness Sub-State Political Actors for Global Problems.”

Vanessa Jarnes is a rising third-year student in the dual MSFS/MBA program with a focus on political and economic development, as well as the intersection of the public and private sectors. Her work and internship experience spans local government, two think tanks, an international development contracting firm, the U.S. Senate, the World Bank Group, and two federal agencies. At Georgetown, Vanessa has been a Bunker Fellow with the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy, a Forte Fellow at the business school, and a teaching assistant for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Read more from ISD on urban diplomacy:

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Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Institute for the Study of Diplomacy

Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy brings together diplomats, other practitioners, scholars, and students to explore global challenges