The Los Angeles skyline in 2019. | Photo Credit: Eugene Garcia/EPA

Micro-Powers: City Diplomacy and the Future of Global Relations

In the face of nebulous politics, wavering reliability of central governments and an ever-growing need for collective action in crises, cities may present themselves as the rising stars of global politics. What is city diplomacy, and what value might it bring to a city’s inhabitants, and nations as a whole? The IAS Gazette explores the growing role of micro-powers in the international relations landscape.

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When former-President Donald Trump announced plans to pull the United States (US) out of the Paris Agreement in 2017, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti was one of his fiercest detractors, saying, “If the President wants to break the promises made to our allies enshrined in the historic Paris Agreement, we’ll build and strengthen relationships around the world to protect the planet from devastating climate risks.”

He was subsequently joined by over 400 other mayors who would remain committed to the Paris Agreement, and co-founded a city-to-city network known as the “Climate Mayors”.  

The “Climate Mayors” organisation is a robust example of city diplomacy—a rising star in the international relations landscape. Much like traditional diplomacy, it involves generating global outreach, except now, cities take centre stage by collaborating with other politicians, as well as public and private stakeholders. Think climate agreements, “Smart City” collaborations, cultural exchanges, and tourism agreements. These efforts not only directly aid a city’s socioeconomic, cultural and technological development – they also enhance a nation’s overall international relations landscape.

Leaders around the world are quickly recognising the significance of diplomatic pursuits conducted between cities. Global governance has shifted from closed-door discussions to building collaborative networks between different political actors facing similar problems.  Around the world, city leaders have begun collaborating to tackle a variety of pressing issues such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Still, what cities have lacked thus far is the legitimacy to carry out diplomatic activities, which only federal governments can grant if they recognise the value of city diplomacy in furthering their nations’ interests. 

Mayor Garcetti and his fellow city leaders remain committed to the Paris Agreement in 2017. | Photo Credit: Eric Garcetti/Flickr

City Diplomacy: Then and Now 

City diplomacy is not a new concept; it has only broadened in its nature and scope.

Initiatives like the Sister Cities International (SCI) network have been connecting transnational governments with shared interests as early as 1956. Within the network, Prague had been linked with Taipei, and Chicago with Warsaw—both pairs collaborating in numerous fields including business, culture and technology. 

Today, city diplomacy is gaining significance due to the importance of local leadership and community groundwork. Cities are met with an urgency to solve problems, such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. A combination of an increasing need for collective action, wavering reliability of central governments and the opportunities to connect in the digital age, have catapulted transnational governments into a new era of diplomacy. 

City officials at the first Annual Awards Ceremony for outstanding Sister Cities projects in 1963. | Photo Credit: Sister Cities

Cities at the Forefront of Climate Action

Mayor Eric Garcetti’s story exemplifies how city diplomacy can be of value despite nebulous domestic politics. 

In the case of Los Angeles, carbon emissions were reduced by 11 per cent in 2016, on track with its goal of becoming carbon-neutral by 2050. With the help of private-sector partners, the city has even started a consortium, allowing US cities to pool their buying power for electric vehicles in a bid to drive prices down and signal strong demand for zero-emission transport. 

Internationally, the C40, a network focused on the climate crisis, brings 97 cities together to trade practical lessons on which climate interventions have worked, as well as launch initiatives to tackle the crisis in different regions. Recently, the network has mobilised to raise US$1 billion (S$1.36 billion) for zero-emission vehicles in Latin America.

More than 90 mayors attended the C40 World Mayors Summit in Copenhagen, in 2019. | Photo Credit: C40

Many other city networks seek similar impacts in achieving a sustainable future. The organisation 100 Resilient Cities encourages cities to share information and their unique experiences in preparing for natural and human-made disasters. Not only can these networks help mayors achieve their goals through collaboration, but they are also able to spark a little healthy competition between them to incentivise bolder, quicker steps. 

Cities have also grabbed the spotlight in global climate summits, such as the United Nations’ (UN) COP26. Despite national leaders being criticised for their so-called “vague” commitments to reduced emissions during the conference, city leaders were praised for their results-driven action, with mayors such as London’s Sadiq Khan pressuring governments to provide cities with greater “direct and legislative” support from central governments. 

“Count on cities to launch the seeds of the kind of green revolution we really need,” said Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan among the group of mayors on route to the COP26 summit in Glasgow. | Photo Credit: Kirsty O’ Connor/PA Images

In recent years, climate action spearheaded by cities has only increased. European cities such as Paris and Madrid have pledged to ban diesel vehicles within the decade. Japan’s first “Eco Town”, the city of Kitakyushu, has helped implement almost 200 projects in waste management, water treatment and pollution control across 78 cities in the Asia-pacific region, including Cebu, Philippines and Medan, Indonesia, since 2010.

Cities have also mobilised to achieve “Smart City” goals. Smart cities harness technology to create more robust and efficient systems for their citizens. In the fight against climate change, such developments may be used to fuel sustainable development in the areas of green building and waste management. An example of this would be Seoul’s reduction in fossil fuel usage by using the city’s waste to generate electricity

City-to-city networks, such as the “Smart Cities” network may facilitate the information exchange between cities adopting such schemes, and promote “Smart City”  initiatives in line with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. 

Ultimately, a city has enormous potential to make aggressive commitments to climate goals due to its ability to implement large changes on a local level, which in turn benefit a nation overall. In contrast to central governments’ seemingly sluggish struggle to take substantial climate action across their nations, cities continue to take the lead towards sustainability.

Local Leadership During the Pandemic 

Local leadership has also proved to be an important factor in a city’s success against the COVID-19 pandemic. As perhaps the closest political institution to people on the ground, action taken by city governments has been all the more vital. The pandemic has seen many central government figures mishandle the crisis, or undermine its severity, essentially passing the baton to city leaders to impose their own measures and restrictions. 

“We can’t always wait for [the] federal government,” said Governor of West Java, Ridwan Kamil. “…so I called my friends.” 

The former city mayor-turned-governor harnessed his network to contact his counterparts in Singapore, Malaysia, South Korea and Australia to request assistance in bringing Indonesia’s oxygen crisis under control earlier this year. 

Workers unload oxygen cylinders at an emergency oxygen station in Jakarta, in July 2021. | Photo Credit: AFP

Large city-to-city networks mobilised as well, arranging information exchanges to discuss strategies to tackle the pandemic. Before the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared COVID-19 a pandemic, 100 Resilient Cities was already steps ahead, organising a conference between Chinese representatives from Beijing University and the China Centre for Urban Development, and representatives from cities such as San Francisco and Milan to share lessons learned from China’s experience with handling the virus. 

“Cities are on the frontline of responding to this pandemic,” said Lauren Sorkin, Executive Director of 100 Resilient Cities. “Sometimes those international and national political processes take longer, and you can lose time when you need to actually save lives.” 

The network also surveyed its global partners and found that trust in local governments was generally higher than that in central governments. This gives cities another advantage—they’re close to their people and trusted by them too. 

Cities have another advantage when it comes to tapping into international networks during crises; sharing common roles and responsibilities as city leaders make for a more amicable network, without tension between national powers. 

“The odds are if the city in this region is facing a challenge, there is going to be another city within their network that will be experiencing that too,” said Ms Sorkin, when explaining how city diplomacy can be expected to gain ground globally,

City leaders can also engage international central governments despite international tension, fostering ties through initiatives that would otherwise be overlooked on a national level. An example would be Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti advocating for a direct flight path between the US and Vietnam during his visit with then Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in 2018. The initiative would cater to the large Vietnamese population in Los Angeles as well as encourage business and tourism between the two nations. 

A Bamboo Airways aircraft departs from Hanoi in an inaugural flight to the U.S. | Photo Credit: Bamboo Airways

Despite the labyrinth of conflict in the South China Sea, Taiwan has also benefited from city diplomacy. 

In January 2020, Taipei Mayor Ko Wen-je formally signed a Sister Cities agreement with Prague’s Zdenek Hrib. The move came after a previous agreement between the pro-Taiwan mayor and Beijing fell through. Due to Taiwan’s position under mainland China’s watchful gaze, it is often hindered from conducting diplomatic activities on the global stage. 

This presents city diplomacy as a door to opportunity.

Prague and Taipei have since agreed to collaborate across various sectors, with Prague sending students to study in Taipei while gaining knowledge about Taiwan’s robust digitalisation of healthcare and efficient transport system. 

Mayor Ko Wen-je and Mayor Hdenek Hrib formally signing a Sister Cities agreement in January 2020. | Photo Credit: Ko Wen-je/Facebook

If they come into fruition, such efforts only expand networks that cities can tap into during crises. 

“Mayors are diplomats,” writes Nina Hachigian, Los Angeles Deputy Mayor of International Affairs. “…the promise of powerful urban diplomacy is undeniable. National policymakers should prepare to respond.”

The Question of Legitimacy 

As the examples illustrate, city diplomacy is a valuable tool in advancing a country’s interests. However, city leaders are still testing the waters when it comes to expanding their global influence. 

Cities are still very much limited in potential when it comes to certain issues. A lack of financial and legislative support from national leaders limits a city’s potential to make greater positive changes, such as in the case of climate action. The ability to engage in international trade deals, too, lies mainly with the federal government. 

While decentralisation of power may provide city officials with some “wiggle room”, their wings are still clipped in terms of international engagement. City budgets generally do not account for international activity, especially because many national and state officials have yet to recognise the importance of city diplomacy. 

Essentially, cities that could fulfil their goals through global diplomacy, are not given the opportunity to do so. 

In other words, cities lack the legitimacy to enact changes that would be able to better the lives of their inhabitants, and can only be allowed to do so when national leaders grant it to them. 

The Future of Diplomacy 

In the face of domestic gridlock, international tensions and the challenge of governing entire nations in uncertain times, city diplomacy can offer what world leaders sorely need: a way forward despite endless politics.  

Cities’ contributions would not overstep the boundaries of federal governance, rather it would complement its effort. By empowering cities, national leaders would be able to better tackle local problems on the ground and advance their nation’s interests. Local problems, after all, are a microcosm of global challenges. 

Creating transnational, city-to-city networks will bring the world into an exciting and efficient era of hyper-connectivity. The realm of international relations would be able to boast a constellation of micro-powers, capable of exchanging resources and information between themselves seamlessly. 

The future of urban diplomacy is undeniable, and it would be prudent for politicians to start creating a space in their national agenda for cities to shine on the global stage.  

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The IAS Gazette is a news site run by undergraduates from the Singapore Institute of Management’s International Affairs Society (IAS). Founded in 2018, it traces its roots to The Capital, a now defunct bimonthly magazine previously under the IAS.

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