The Growing International Role of Cities

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The Growing International Role of Cities
By: Georgetown Global Cities Initiative
15 October 2019

A new report explores the rising role of cities on the international diplomatic stage. Produced by the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy in collaboration with the Georgetown Global Cities Initiative.

The growth and international clout of cities and sub-state actors has been unparalleled in recent decades. These players seek agency in the international arena, forming networks at the sub-state level that help shape new organizing principles for international cooperation on Global Commons issues like climate, health, transnational crime, and migration.

These types of issues will continue to create opportunities for sub-national leadership to help shape outcomes beneficial for all—not just cities and states—through systematic interactions, a stronger connection up and down between cities, states, national capitals, and international bodies, and a larger voice for sub-national actors on Global Commons issues.

To explore sub-national activism and its effects upon the international arena, in late 2018 the Institute for the Study of Diplomacy convened a working group on “The New Metropolitanism.” Participants included experts and practitioners drawn from the ranks of local governance, academia, think tanks and research institutions, as well as the diplomatic community. They discussed whether the continuation and pace of this phenomenon is inevitable or a passing response to stalled nation-state leadership; and how this rising “metropolitanism” complicates—or complements—the work of central governments and “old-world” international relations.

This report provides a set of policy guidelines and recommendations, aimed at multiple audiences: cities and other sub-national actors and those that work with and within them; national governments; nation-state level foreign ministries; and international organizations. The ultimate goal is to ensure that all the relevant players find ways to harness emerging sub-national activism towards processes, procedures, and relationships that can produce innovative solutions to global challenges.

Recommendations cover a broad range of topics:

  • Move beyond climate change priorities. Climate change will remain a critical issue for sub-national activism, but other Global Commons issues are ripe for broader engagement, such as public health, cyber threats, and migration.

  • Ensure more voices. Cities like New York, Shanghai, and Tokyo will continue as important players, but increasingly empowered local governments will seek to play comparable roles, from mid-tier cities to new African and Asian megacities.

  • Shift the narrative to highlight urban/rural commonalities. “City problems” like drugs, crime, and climate resiliency are not contained to city limits; they are part of the rural landscape. Cities and city networks need to systematically shift the narrative to stress the connections between urban and rural issues and solutions, and what sub-nationals have achieved.

  • Think strategically about efficiency in city networks. Sub-national actors need to think strategically to include more cities, yet encourage network consolidation to avoid redundancy.

  • Take advantage of the opportunities border cities present. Border cities have a unique history and form of diplomacy that traverses national boundaries. National governments and international organizations can do more to learn from these cities and tap into cross-border relationships.

  • Gain better knowledge of how to work with cities at both the national and international level. National governments and international organizations need to create a more systematic approach toward sub-national actors and their networks—to understand what sub-nationals are working on, how their networks function, and who the key players are.

  • Train diplomats to work with and navigate the sub-national level. Throughout the world, as cities continue to grow, higher-level governments and institutions would do well to know and understand their cities and city networks better.

  • Create a dedicated office at the foreign ministry level to engage with cities and city networks. In order to ensure that there is a strong, centralized seat of knowledge, governments need to create an office to deal specifically with sub-national activism.

  • Work with cities on public/private partnerships and collaboration. National governments are likely to look to collaborate more closely with the private sector in coming years, something sub-national actors have been doing for years. Cities and city networks could provide a useful bridge between the private sector and higher-level governments.

  • Create stronger connections between those working at the sub-national, national, and international levels. A more systematic approach is needed to connect cities and their networks to larger governing bodies, without undermining higher government bodies or stifling what makes cities unique and successful. Meeting venues at the national and international level should be created to encourage this collaboration in a systematic way.

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Photo: Mayors participating in the Urban 20 (U20), Tokyo, 20–22 May 2019. U20 is an initiative developed in 2017 under the leadership of the mayors of Buenos Aires and Paris, and convened by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) in collaboration with United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG). U20 seeks to develop a joint position and collective messages to inform and enrich the discussions of national leaders at the G20 Summit at Tokyo through unique urban perspectives. Source: Georgetown Global Cities Initiative.

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