Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti with counterparts from China and New Zealand–Photo courtesy of Eric Garcetti, Flicker Creative Commons.

By Sam Tabory

Not all cities have the same resources. Not all cities have the same clout. Not all cities have the same needs. Differences like these create a problem for universalizing conversations about the supposedly shared urban agendas and priorities that motivate cities to engage with each other on a global level. Broadly speaking, arguments in favor of the value and power of cities interacting with their international counterparts and engaging in global governance processes—loosely defined as the collective practice of city diplomacy1—often overstate the shared interests and priorities of cities dealing with very different economic, geographic, and political realities. This is a problem for the still nascent and, in the eyes of many, unproven field of city diplomacy. For an urban leader to be convinced of the potential benefits of international engagement and to subsequently mobilize resources to support external engagement efforts, that leader needs to see city diplomacy as speaking to the needs and priorities of his or her local context and not just to the generalized needs of an undifferentiated “urban agenda.”

These types of differences are borne out in the practical work of facilitating international engagement between cities. As an organization that is as much interested in studying the process of how cities interact with each other as it is in studying the content and subject matter of those interactions, the global cities research team at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, of which I am a part, is in a unique position to glean insight about how differences are (or are not) successfully accounted for in city diplomacy efforts.

Based on experiences directly observing international urban engagement efforts as well as working with representatives of city network organizations—often thought of as hubs of contemporary city-to-city engagement2—I have found three broad areas of difference that are under-discussed and under-considered in processes of city diplomacy. Those areas include: (1) differences in mayoral outlook regarding the role of a city in the international arena, (2) differences in resources and political clout, and (3) differences in nationally determined governance norms and political values.

First, when considering differences in mayoral outlook, these are fundamentally about whether a mayor understands or prioritizes his or her position as having an internationally facing role at all. It is a legitimately debatable premise whether local leaders should have any interest in exerting influence beyond their immediate jurisdictions. A common critique of city diplomacy is that mayors have plenty to worry about at home before setting their sights internationally. Even for those of us already convinced of the link between international urban engagement and the ability of city leaders to deliver results locally, it is important to explicitly and publicly entertain the possibility that not all mayors see value in such engagement. Acknowledging disagreement on the fundamental premise of city diplomacy encourages more rigorous and considered analysis of the benefits of city diplomacy, an effort which could ultimately help build a stronger case for why city leaders should put resources behind such efforts. If a long-term goal of those who support city diplomacy is to build a broader community of practice, there is no better way to build a bigger tent than by more rigorously proving the value proposition that city diplomacy has to offer.

A second area of difference revolves around the resources and political clout that cities have at their disposal to put behind the policy stances they take as part of their external and international engagement efforts. These differences manifest at two levels: within national urban systems and across international urban systems. In any national context, it is well established that cities will fall at different points along the hierarchy of their national urban system, often as a function of population concentration and overall economic importance.3 The position that a city holds within its national system will realistically affect how that city engages with the general practice of diplomacy. For instance, when the mayors of Chicago, Los Angeles, or New York choose to publicly engage and take a stance on consequential topics of the day like trade or immigration, they generally have the clout and resources to command a greater degree of attention than do mayors of secondary or tertiary cities. In part, this is because the size of the population and economy that they oversee and that would be affected by any such stance is generally much greater. It is also in part because of the larger pool of city resources in absolute terms that they might have at their disposal to follow through on actions associated with any such stance.

That said, a city’s less prominent position within the hierarchy of its national urban system can also act as a catalyst for engagement efforts as a way to potentially raise that city’s profile and position within its respective national hierarchy. In part to balance the influence of London as the United Kingdom’s only megacity, 10 secondary cities formed the “Core Cities” network as an urban advocacy coalition capable of taking policy stances on issues of national and international importance.4 This prompted 21 tertiary cities (more or less surrounding those secondary cities) to form the “Key Cities” network as a similarly constituted advocacy coalition.5 There is a diplomatic and engagement role for each of these types of cities to play, but it is unhelpful to pretend that all of these cities have the same resources, clout, or even interests when it comes to pursuing external engagement and taking policy stances on national and internationally relevant issues.

Differences in resources and political clout also emerge across international urban systems when looking at cities in dramatically different stages of physical and economic development. At a recent international mayoral dialogue among city leaders considering urban action on strategic infrastructure investments, the mayor of a megacity from a developing country context made the comment that just as there are high, middle, and low income residents of a city, so too are there high, middle, and low income mayors around the world. The comment was part of a larger conversation about how efforts to mobilize collective urban action and engagement across cities should more directly speak to the priorities of a broader range of mayors, some of whom are still trying to meet basic service needs for their residents.

Finally, there are differences in national political context that will affect how and when cities choose to engage internationally. As a practical concern, the degree to which a national political system is highly centralized or decentralized will influence the ways in which authority, both formal and informal, are delegated to cities. This in turn will affect the legal and normative environments that determine whether a city is inclined to independently engage on the international stage.

At a more principled and ideological level, however, differences in national political values are also relevant. Much of the discussion that happens between and among cities on international platforms involves peer-to-peer knowledge sharing on particular subject matter areas. These conversations are often rooted in normative “best practices,” which in turn are often rooted in academic and policy analysis that privileges liberal democratic values: public participation, free expression, administrative transparency, etc. Rightly or wrongly, a privileging of these types of values will inevitably make certain international urban engagement conversations less relevant for cities embedded in national political contexts where these type of political values are not the norm. Just as in state-to-state diplomacy, there are sensitivities to issues of human rights, good governance, and democratic values that can complicate the landscape of which cities will engage with which topics on which types of platforms.

All of this discussion of “difference” matters because city diplomacy and increased urban global engagement requires individual city administrations to make conscious decisions to mobilize actual resources. For a mayor to mobilize those resources, he or she must see something in it for their cities—that engaging internationally will tangibly advance local priorities and speak to the concerns of his or her local administration. More explicitly acknowledging and accommodating difference within spaces of international urban engagement increases the chance that a given city will see their own specific needs and priorities reflected in that conversation.

There is good work being done to this end. For example, the Brookings Institution has developed a typology of global cities to emphasize that there are different types of urban areas specifically with regard to the role they play vis-à-vis the global economy.6 On the practitioner end of the spectrum, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group has specifically distinguished larger megacities and smaller-scale innovator cities as discrete urban forms that each come with distinct advantages, risks, and challenges.7

There needs to be more of this type of differentiation, not less. As the field of city diplomacy continues to grow and mature, practitioners and observers alike should get used to the idea of cities organizing themselves into caucuses, cohorts, coalitions, and working groups that operate underneath larger platforms and fora that champion international urban engagement.

Advocates for city diplomacy should consider ways in which both current and future systems of global urban engagement can more meaningfully account for and ultimately harness the power of diversity across cities. The field—and its prospects for enhancing urban prosperity—will be better for it.


1 For detailed treatment of the definition and limits of city diplomacy as an emergent field, see Rogier van der Pluijm and Jan Melissen, “City Diplomacy: The Expanding Role of Cities in International Politics,” Netherlands Institute of International Relations Clingendael, April 2007; see also Michele Acuto, “City Diplomacy,” in Costas M Constantinou, Pauline Kerr, and Paul Sharp (Eds.), The Sage Handbook of Diplomacy, SAGE Publishing: Los Angeles, 2016.

2 For an expanded discussion of the role that city networks are playing in the landscape of contemporary city diplomacy, see Michele Acuto and Steve Rayner, “City networks: breaking gridlocks or forging (new) lock-ins?” International Affairs, September 2016, 92(5), pp. 1147-1166.

3 For a broad discussion of the various ways in which urban systems theory has been conceptualized and studied, see William Coffey, “Urban Systems Research: An Overview,” Canadian Journal of Regional Science, 1998, 21(3), 327-364.

4 See “Our Work,” Core Cities UK, August 24, 2016, https://www.corecities.com/about-us/our-work

5 See “About Key Cities,” Key Cities, Accessed April 20, 2017, http://www.keycities.co.uk/about

6 See Jesus Leal Trujillo and Joseph Parilla, “Redefining Global Cities: The Seven Types of Global Metro Economies,” The Brookings Institution, September 2016, https://www.brookings.edu/wp-content/uploads/2016/09/metro_20160928_gcitypes.pdf

7 See “C40 Announces New Membership Guidelines,” C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, October 3, 2012, http://www.c40.org/blog_posts/c40-announces-new-membership-guidelines

Sam Tabory currently works for the Sustainable Healthy Cities Network at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. At the time he authored this piece, he worked for the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. In his role at the Council, he supported research programs on city diplomacy, infrastructure financing, and urban energy transformation. He holds Master’s degrees in City and Regional Planning and Latin American Studies from the University of Texas at Austin.