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Forum Summary: City Diplomacy



What follows is a summary of the Meridian 180 forum “City Diplomacy” (May-July 2018) 

Summary by Fleur Johns (UNSW Law), Karen Knop (Law, University of Toronto) and Annelise Riles (Cornell Law School) 

A signpost with all the Sister Cities of Los Angeles labeled. City Hall in the background.

In the City Diplomacy online forum, moderators Fleur Johns, Karen Knop, and Annelise Riles invited members to reflect on the increasing boldness and visibility of cities’ diplomatic engagements. Among the questions posed in their introduction were whether city diplomacy is really a growing phenomenon, what versions of international relations it might produce, what it might achieve that seems difficult to achieve otherwise, what the implications might be for rural and remote communities, and what the risks for cities themselves might be of the resulting global connection and disconnection. 

Who is the city in city diplomacy? 

One theme of our discussion has been the importance of not treating the city as a smaller version of the abstract state and of not attributing singular public agency to it (Mariana Valverde, Neema Kudva).   

Large v small cities – Whereas the writing on “global cities” tends to focus on private actors and global economic networks that cluster in major cities, interest in “city diplomacy” tends to organize around the city itself as a public actor that is developing a global reach (Janne Nijman, link in post to her “Renaissance of the City as a Global Actor”).  

Although it is not only global cities that engage in city diplomacy, theories tend to be built around large cities like London, New York, and Paris together with large cities of the global South in a post-colonial period (Neema).  The most highly networked US cities, for instance, are primarily the biggest, and they are also the cities with the resources to pursue diplomacy as a strategic exercise and to drive the global urban diplomacy agenda (Kris Hartley, link in post to Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) report; Boston University Initiative on Cities (BUIC) report linked in post by Vanessa Vardon).  A city-oriented or city-originated version of international relations would therefore tend to reflect patterns of power or of knowledge dissemination from “core” wealthy countries to the global development “periphery,” even though a more progressive urban agenda might result on issues like climate change (Kris).  But not all of the most highly networked US cities are large.  “Big tent” networks bring together broad coalitions of diverse cities of all sizes (eg, Global Covenant of Mayors), while “high hurdle” networks are more selective and tailored to the most aggressive cities on policy innovation (eg, C40, 100 Resilient Cities) (Vanessa, BUIC report).  Older forms of city diplomacy such as city twinning and city-to-city bilateral relations include smaller cities, can be more particularized and may therefore be worth fresh attention (eg, collaboration of Rochester, NY and Nagasaki, Japan to address the legacy of war) (CCGA report, Annelise Riles, Karen Knop). 

Practical diplomacy – The notion of city diplomacy has changed the international law focus from formal legal arrangements between states to include informal cooperation between cities (Helmut Aust), however, an equally important shift is to the cumulative significance of changes in the mundane practices of many actors moving between cities (Fleur Johns).  Between border cities, there may be little diplomacy involving the two city councils, but instead, large-scale practical diplomacy that enmeshes individuals, NGOs, broader public sector entities like universities and forms of authority ranging from a jointly owned tunnel to ad hoc cooperation over sports events (Chris Waters).  Practical diplomacy goes even farther for small cities in the Global South, where regional networks accomplish such everyday purposes as getting an education, processing waste and providing water provision, unlike in large cities, in which city apparatus already encompass most networks of everyday life (Neema).  City diplomacy in such small cities is essential, in comparison to cities of the Global North where it often raises challenges in closing the democratic gap between investment in international diplomacy and community concerns on the ground (Jenna Condie, Kris). 

The “city” – As to the “city” in “city diplomacy,” we should not assume that it is simply the existing city government or its political body.  In the case of Google’s Sidewalk Lab’s project to develop the Toronto waterfront, its city partner is actually a specially created legal authority funded by three levels of government (Mariana).  Such special purpose authorities, which can themselves be public-private partnerships, are less transparent and accountable than a city council would be.  In high-density cities, the law of private property means that vast amounts of space are regulated in even less accountable ways by condominium rules, building management statements and other documents drafted by private developers and alterable by subsequent property owners.  It might be possible, for example, to largely ban Airbnb from a city if all condominium rules did so (Cathy Sherry).  As these examples illustrate, thinking about city diplomacy also needs to attend to the “smart city” movement and the city as a technological site (Chris Pettit), including for direct democratic engagement (Bronwen Morgan raises the possibilities of collaborative economy initiatives based on digital platforms).   

Why city diplomacy? 

City against state? Much of the positive press that city diplomacy has recently received comes from the potential of cities and issue-specific city networks to resist problematic state policies and to compensate for the failure of state-to-state diplomacy to address pressing problems (Janne).  For example, the provision of shelter to undocumented migrants by some Dutch cities has opened up a strong fault line between these cities and their national government, with Germany, Italy, and Spain providing other examples of cities invoking and developing international human rights law against national policy (Barbara Oomen).  Recognizing the leadership potential of cities on particular issues, international and regional organizations are increasingly dealing directly with cities (Helmut, Jonas Grimheden).  For instance, the EU Agency for Fundamental Rights brought together human rights cities from Latin America, China, and the United States as well as Europe. 

While US mayors who have joined domestic and/or international environmental networks report considerably higher level of political agency to counteract federal climate policies relative to mayors who are non-joiners, this empowerment does not appear to extend to policy issues like immigration and policing (BUIC report).  In addition, in a study of 27 diverse global cities, over half reported that participation in city networks had led to change in a local policy, greater capacity of city staff and the introduction of pilot projects based on other cities’ experience.  But almost none reported that its networks changed national, regional or supranational policies (CCGA report). 

Temporary or permanent, room to experiment?   The examples of cities resisting or compensating for problems in state or inter-state governance emphasize the positive trend of city diplomacy.  In contrast, some members underlined that cities remain subject to the state’s power to control their activities (Helmut, Neema), while the argument was also made that, in many settings, a state’s national interests would soon actually come to be defined by its urban interests (Janne).  Others contrasted the positive instances of city diplomacy with the problem of opacity and lack of public accountability in cases such as Sidewalk Labs.  A number of members emphasized the informality, flexibility and experimental quality of city diplomacy, as compared to other modes of diplomatic engagement, with different views on what regulatory conditions that suggested (Mariana, Helmut, Fleur).