October 15, 2021

IntelBrief: The Future of Diplomacy is Local

(AP Photo/Jennifer Peltz)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • Long gone are the days of traditional diplomacy that existed solely between foreign ministries, with more government and nongovernmental actors increasingly involved. 
  • New York City, as host of the United Nations and epicenter of world finance, is uniquely situated to become a leader in subnational diplomacy.
  • City and state diplomacy efforts can achieve progress on evolving threats and challenges, from cybersecurity and terrorism, to public health and climate change.  
  • Congress and the U.S. State Department can formalize city diplomacy by establishing a city and state office for subnational diplomacy and provide the resources, staff and support for cities to take on global engagement. 

Long gone are the days of traditional diplomacy that only existed between the foreign ministries of nations. Emergent threats and challenges require local action and knowledge to tackle, and the increasingly technical nature of many diplomatic challenges is bringing in a range of government ministries and actors in addition to the leads on Foreign Affairs.  In addition to global coordination,  more subnational and non-governmental actors are getting engaged in international relations, as reflected in new networks like the Strong Cities Network or Nordic Safe Cities, for example. U.S. President Joe Biden, shortly after his election, met with U.S. Mayors and pledged to work with them in a new partnership between local and federal governments as part of his “Build Back Better” agenda. He emphasized the need to “ensure that the needs of working Americans are front and center in our national security policymaking.” A group of bipartisan foreign policy experts agreed in a September 2020 report that “to help expand and sustain America’s middle class, U.S. foreign policy makers need a new agenda that will rebuild trust at home and abroad.” Thus, rebuilding the trustof the American people is another reason why city diplomacy is urgently needed. And New York City, as host of the United Nations and epicenter of world finance and investment, and having proved relatively successful in navigating the pandemic despite having paid a devastating cost for it early on, is uniquely situated to become a leader in this ever-evolving city diplomacy arena.

Subnational diplomacy is not a new concept and there is a long historical precedent of states assuming significant roles as diplomatic actors; the medieval tensions between Florence and Siena, for example, come to mind. In the post-World War II era, the earliest examples of subnational diplomacy began during the Eisenhower administration with the Sister Cities program. These efforts were part of a larger push to promote people-to-people exchanges and build mutual understanding and goodwill. More modern state and local diplomatic engagement is typically based on a local government’s interests around trade, economic development, security, and climate, which can be traced to Governor Jimmy Carter’s opening of Georgia’s Agricultural Trade Office in Japan in the 1970s, an office that still exists today. Subnational diplomacy as we know it today has expanded rapidly over the last few decades, and no one can deny that cities - New York, Chicago, and Washington D.C., to name a few, are now on the frontlines of building their own global footprint by responding to the global challenges of the 21st century.

From equitable vaccine distribution during pandemics to forging bonds with cities around the world to address climate change in arrangements like C40 Cities, city and state legislators, mayors and governors now sit at the nexus of global and local policy. As New York engages in pandemic recovery efforts in 2021 and beyond, it will be crucial for the next Mayoral administration, City Council, and State leadership to consider expanding engagement in international affairs to support local success and take advantage of the many opportunities for New York, and by extension the United States, to reclaim its leadership on the world stage.

There is no better example to point to than the Covid-19 pandemic to illustrate the impact of subnational diplomacy on everyday lives. Under the Trump administration’s isolationist policies and its failure to command a federal response, it was up to city and state leaders to step up to the plate, engaging in ways they hadn’t before, including with international actors. NYC Mayor DeBlasio and Commissioner for International Affairs Penny Abeywardena’s decision to accept the donation of 250,000 masks from the UN to support NYC health workers during the height of the pandemic in March 2020 had real impact on New Yorker’s lives - in some cases it meant life or death. Similarly, their decision to require vaccination for the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) this year and provide mobile covid-19 testing and vaccinations was a gamechanger, and ensured UNGA high level week did not become a super spreader event. The power of city diplomacy was also clearly demonstrated by the reaction of the international community to the withdrawal of the United States under then-President Trump, from the Paris Climate Agreement. Mayors from across the country sent a message that their respective pledges to fighting climate change were unwavering. As such, they committed to continuing to carry out the agreement, and similarly undertook local efforts to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Imagine how our response to the pandemic could have been different if NYC was part of a global network of health commissioners from around the world who shared information about the pandemic and engaged in exchanges on solutions?

There are several areas where current and incoming local NYC leadership can meaningfully expand New York’s global footprint in strategic ways, while also including local communities and centering equity as a primary part of the effort. Leadership in cyber security, climate change, local development, counterterrorism, public health and safety, and even food insecurity are as local as they are global and require the expertise of people on the ground, as well as the expert diplomats who convene and help craft, implement, and assess policies on these issues. On climate change, NYC can be a major convener of local and global leaders to share expertise and learn from other major cities on mitigation efforts. New York City has a unique lens and experience to present, especially following the devastation of Hurricane Ida: mitigating climate change while fighting for climate justice, as it has become clear that the communities hardest hit by climate change have been the most marginalized.

On public safety and security, NYC already plays a critical role in addressing hate crimes and terrorism. The rise in violent white supremacy and anti-government hate, including that which the world witnessed in our nation’s capital on January 6, is a local as much as it is an international phenomenon. The Strong Cities network can be a useful arena for NYC to engage and lead, and law enforcement agencies have already done much to work with international partners on investigations and recovery. In a world where cyber attacks are becoming the norm, cities can learn from each other on how best to guard small businesses and local elections from attacks online by sharing local expertise and threat information as appropriate. Finally, on economic development and trade, NYC already hosts a few offices with local city representation – including from Japan and South Korea. NYC can expand such city representation and build stronger global economic intercity networks.

This is not a zero-sum game; cities and states can help build back better, while nation state diplomacy continues—the two activities are not mutually exclusive. Congress and the State Department can play a major supporting role by establishing a city and state office for subnational diplomacy, which would provide the necessary resources and support for cities to take on global engagement more intentionally. Passing The “City and State Diplomacy Act” introduced by U.S. Congressional Representatives Ted Lieu (D-CA), Joe Wilson (D-SC), and Gregory Meeks (D-NY), would create the Office of Subnational Diplomacy. The office would be the connective tissue between the State Department and mayors, governors, and local officials across the country and enable more effective coordination and facilitation of local expertise on global issues of concern. The United States should be keeping pace to engage local leaders globally to build relationships and meaningfully engage in solving global challenges.