I was in Chicago last week for the Chicago Forum on Global Cities. One of the panels I was looking forward to seeing was about city diplomacy.
People have been talking for a while about cities conducting their own foreign policy. But it was very clear at this forum that in the United States at least, the entire basis of that idea has shifted radically in a very short period of time.
Here, for example, is an article in the Chicago Tribune about the topic in advance of the 2015 edition of the Chicago Forum:
It’s one example of an outward-looking strategy that has been labeled “foreign policy for cities,” “city diplomacy” and by some academics, “paradiplomacy.” Sao Paulo, London, Hong Kong, New York and other megacities are swapping information and forging powerful alliances with far-flung counterparts in new and strategic ways.
The efforts go beyond traditional business attraction moves, branching into collaboration in the arts, education and urban issues, from pollution to poverty. If done well, a city can gain a reputation as a hotbed of innovation, a team player on pressing urban problems and a prime location for foreign investment, business partnerships and tourism.
“In a world where national governments are negotiating more and more trade agreements that make national borders much less relevant, it is essential for cities to have a strategy for international relations,” said former Toronto Mayor David Miller. Otherwise, he said, “they risk becoming insular and isolated.”
We see here that city diplomacy is focused on position cities to thrive in a borderless world, focusing on building global networks, attracting investment, sharing ideas, building the brand, etc.
This year’s panel on the topic was very different. I don’t have an article for it but will embed the video below. If it doesn’t start at the right place, skip to 3:10:20 for the start of the panel. It’s worth watching how Peter Spiegel from the Financial Times frames the discussion even if you don’t watch the entire thing. (If the embed doesn’t display, click over to watch on You Tube).
Here we see something completely different. City diplomacy is now about explicitly attempting to subvert national government policy on the global stage. The three issues Spiegel highlights are climate, immigration, and trade. This has obviously been driven by a global trend towards more populist governments, such as the election of Donald Trump or Brexit, along with developments in other countries.
Listening to the Americans at the conference, the older ideas of city diplomacy have fallen by the wayside. I didn’t hear talk about them. Those from other countries not experiencing a flashpoint domestic conflict with the national government continued to conceptualize things more in the previous way.
It makes me wonder if some of these cities are taking their eyes off the prize to engage in short term political squabbles that have little tangible upside. In any case, the shift in focus is clear.
Cover image by Daniel Schwen, CC BY-SA 4.0