A sign indicates the distance and direction of Los Angeles’ various sister cities—Photo by Jim Winstead, Flickr Creative Commons   

By Mary Kane

Every bomb we can manufacture, every plane, every ship, every gun, in the long run has no purpose but the negative: to give us time to prevent the other fellow from starting a war… The billions we pour into that ought to be supported by a great American effort, a positive, constructive effort that leads directly toward what we all want: a true and lasting peace… I am talking about the exchange of professors and students and executives, the providing of technical assistance, and of the ordinary traveler abroad. I am talking about doctors helping in the conquering of disease… if we are going to take advantage of the assumption that all people want peace, then the problem is for people to get together and to leap governments, if necessary to evade governments—to work out not one method but thousands of methods by which people can gradually learn a little bit more of each other.” 1

On September 11, 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower convened the White House Conference on Citizen Diplomacy to discuss those thousands of methods. He brought together 40 representatives of government, industry, business, labor unions, education, law, and medicine from all over the country to discuss the “most worthwhile purpose there is in the world today: to help build the road to peace, to help build the road to an enduring peace.”2 With the majority of the world’s population living in cities, Eisenhower dreamed of a program that would facilitate the creation of links between people of one city to another, so friendships could be established. By becoming friends, he reasoned that people of different cultures could celebrate and appreciate their differences, instead of deriding them, fostering suspicion, and sowing new seeds for war.

Sister Cities International (SCI) has a membership of over 550 U.S. communities with 2,100 partnerships in 145 countries. Our members engage in youth and educational exchanges; arts and culture exchanges; business, trade, and economic development opportunities; and municipal, professional, medical, and humanitarian assistance programs. In 2015, this network engaged 1.13 million U.S. residents and contributed over $500 million to the U.S. economy.  Approximately 50 percent of the cities within the SCI network have populations under 50,000 and 79 percent have a budget of less than $25,000 per year. SCI is considered a public private partner of the U.S. Department of State and receives about $400,000 in grant funds. The impact of this global network demonstrates that an investment in citizen or city diplomacy yields long-term results in both peace building and economic development.3

We were all watching as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump met to discuss our respective countries’ relationship. Let’s put ourselves in the place of many older Americans who were watching this interaction and who were also remembering that terrible day when President Franklin Roosevelt announced that Pearl Harbor had been attacked and that we were going to war. Japanese residents in the United States were brought out of their homes and sent to internment camps. Hitler was racing through Europe, intent on making Germany the world’s most powerful nation. After the war was over, Americans held out our hands and offered our help to rebuild.

Today, just 70 years later, Japan and Germany are two of our strongest allies. This happened not just because we helped to rebuild these countries, but also through programs like SCI, which educate Americans and others around the world that the majority of people want the same basic things—a better life for their children and a peaceful world.

Here are just a few examples of city diplomacy over the past 60 years:

In the 1950s, rebuilding and healing was our priority. Denver, Colorado, high school teacher Amanda Knecht visited Brest, France, after the war. When she returned, Knecht told her students in Denver about the devastation. Over the next year, her students raised more than $32,000 in nickels, pennies, and dimes. The funds were presented to the city of Brest to be used to rebuild the children’s wing of the Brest City Hospital. This relationship remains strong to this day with student, municipal, cultural, and business exchanges. In fact, wine tastings are common.

In the 1960s, America did not always see people of different races break bread together. That was not the case with SCI. During this turbulent decade, we were developing relationships in Africa, Asia, and Latin America through student and municipal exchanges leading to substantial benefits for each community. Civil rights leaders used Montego Bay, Jamaica, as a base to plan their strategies on pursuing many of their civil rights goals. It was therefore fitting that in 1972 Atlanta and Montego Bay saw the need to formalize a partnership under the umbrella of SCI.

In the 1970s, the Technical Assistance Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of State was started in conjunction with SCI. The first exchange occurred between Hialeah, Florida, and Managua, Nicaragua, when they began a paramedic-training program. Today emergency response training programs are common between sister city communities. Just last year Virginia Beach developed a fire emergency training exchange program with their partner, Olongapo, in the Philippines.

As we approached the 1980s—in 1979, specifically—St. Louis signed the first Chinese sister city relationship with Nanjing immediately following the reinstitution of diplomatic relations. There are close to 200 sister city relationships with China that have evolved from humanitarian assistance to student exchanges and economic development. In fact, President Xi Jinping is leading the China friendship cities (a.k.a. sister cities) movement.

How did the president of China get involved in a local grassroots citizen diplomacy program? In 1985, President Xi made his first trip to the United States on a sister state delegation to Muscatine, Iowa, as part of an agricultural exchange. He returned in 2012 to have tea with his host family and also signed a $4.3 billion agreement to buy soybeans from Iowa farmers. On this trip he stood up at a dinner in Des Moines and said, “When I think of America, I think of my host family.” The governor at the time of his visit in 1985 and again in 2012 was Governor Terry Branstead, the next U.S. ambassador to China.

In 2015, President Xi once again traveled to the United States and unbeknownst to many went to visit his friends in Tacoma, Washington, after meeting with tech officials in Seattle. It was President Xi who signed the sister cities agreement between Fuzhou and Tacoma 22 years ago. His motorcade arrived at Lincoln High School with books on Chinese culture, language, and history, five Ping-Pong tables, and an offer to host 100 students in Beijing last year. His goal was to give American students the opportunity to build personal relationships with citizens in his country just as he was able to 32 years ago.

Also in the 1980s, the Cold War was in its final throes. SCI stepped up to build partnerships within the Eastern Bloc. In 1988, Council Bluffs, Iowa, and their sister city of Tobolsk, Russian Federation, initiated a project called, “Let the First Strike Be a Knock on the Door.” After a number of exchanges, a dinner between the communities was held in Russia in 1992. The mayor of Tobolosk, Sergei Belken, stood up and reflected on his visit, saying, “I have been thinking very hard about this all week. On your first day here, I met Ridge [Hein-Snyder]. We discovered that we not only are the same age, but also served our military service at the same time—I in Moscow, Ridge in Vietnam. I thank God that we never had to clash on the field of battle.”

In the meantime, our original partnerships with Germany and Japan that began in the 1950s and 60s had evolved into strong economic development opportunities as evidenced by Toyota building their first plant in the United States in 1998 due to the sister city partnership between Kumamoto and San Antonio. Why such an evolution from assistance to commerce? Trust was built due to long-term, personal, international relationships.

On September 11, 2001, exactly 45 years after the White House conference on Citizen Diplomacy, terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in New York. The outpouring of support from New York’s sister cities was incredible. Tokyo sent $5 million to the city and another $5 million to New York State. Jerusalem sent supplies for the first responders. The mayor of Rome withdrew their bid for the 2012 Olympics and urged that New York City be awarded the honor.

But one thing we did not do was to follow Eisenhower’s recommendation about looking for a lasting peace—we should have started building sister city relationships immediately with our neighbors in the Middle East and North Africa. We currently have only four partnerships with Afghanistan and eight with Iraq.

In this current decade, Sister Cities International is encouraging our members to stretch beyond their comfort zones and grow, to take on something uncomfortable—which is why we have seen relationships with Cuba strengthened, and the first signed partnerships with Somalia and Myanmar. We are challenging our communities, as Eisenhower did, to become active in building world peace instead of watching helplessly as attacks unfold on television. The mission of Sister Cities International to promote peace through mutual respect, understanding, and cooperation is just as relevant today as it was 60 years ago.

In other words: peace through people.


1 President Dwight Eisenhower’s speech, White House Conference on Citizen Diplomacy, September 11, 1956; District Red Cross Building, Washington, DC

2 Ibid.

3 Mary Kane, Jay Mather, Measures that Matter, (Washington, DC: Sister Cities International, 2015), 4-5.

Mary Kane is the president and CEO of Sister Cities International. Prior to joining Sister Cities International, she was an executive director with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where she was responsible for identifying and building business partnerships and strategic alliances for the Chamber. Before joining the Chamber, Ms. Kane was the secretary of state in Maryland and a former assistant state’s attorney.