City Diplomacy and the Future of Multilateralism
Text by Banu Pekol
The city diplomacy session, facilitated by Annegret Warth, brought together GDL members involved in conventional, national diplomacy and city-level international activities as well as a variety of external network partners to discuss the contribution of cities to the future of multilateralism. It aimed to develop a common understanding of city diplomacy within the GDL framework and to discuss how GDL members can engage in this emerging diplomatic area. Cities have a key role to play in the context of national contributions, for example in climate change. Thus, diplomacy must evolve to include cities. At the same time, cities should also learn how to engage with diplomacy.
Achim Schkade, Head of Climate and Environment Foreign Policy at the Federal Foreign Office, addressed how conventional diplomacy integrates and activates the voices of cities. He talked about the fact that the Federal Foreign Office has been working on a new approach to city diplomacy for the past two years. In this context, one important question relates to definitions: is urban diplomacy a question of diplomacy by cities, or is it diplomacy vis-à-vis cities? Cities are arenas and actors of global challenges, and the FFO aims to convey ideas on global political challenges to cities. One way to achieve this is the inclusion of civil society in projects.
Onur Eryüce, Counsellor to the Mayor at Izmir Metropolitan Municipality, Secretary General of the Association of Social Democratic Municipalities in Turkey, drew attention to how diplomacy is about increasing the connectivity of individual cities with rest of the world. Connectivity leads to interaction as cities have begun collaborating on a multi-national scale. Onur Eryüce argued that legal and formal institutional structures and global institutional reform are needed, as well as the recognition of the global strength of cities. He also shared his perception that the current multilateral governmental system is outdated, with failed global governance taking its toll, and stressed that cities had stepped up as important actors, especially in the context of the ongoing pandemic.
Max Bouchet, a Research Analyst at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC shared his view of the landscape of city networks, and on measuring the effective influence of city diplomacy. He talked about how city diplomacy does not usually connect with conventional diplomacy. However, he contended, as the world faces the COVID-19 crisis, the multilateral environment appears to be weakened by the renewed unilateralism of major powers and the gridlock of international cooperation (such as the G7, G20 and the UN) over migration, global health and climate change. He therefore raised an important question: is the global order using the right tools? Bouchet argued that these tools are slow and that cities are stepping up. Mayors and local governments, on the frontline of most of these challenges, have been filling the gap by connecting across borders in city networks such as C40 and the Urban 20 (U20) to coordinate their efforts and advocacy to influence global agendas. There are examples of great leadership at the city level today, as Max Bouchet pointed out. Local governments are becoming not spectators, but actors. However, at the same time he stressed the need to question whether cities can indeed do everything, and what new responsibilities might mean for organising city diplomacy and channelling the impact of cities.
Adva Vilcihinski, Consul for Public Diplomacy at the Israeli Consulate General in New York City, talked about her experience transitioning from the NGO to the governmental sector and the insights this change offered. She also touched on how the Israeli Embassy is working to share the heritage of NYC and how its aim – to have a social impact – is important in this context. She explored how the Consulate General is working to encourage Israeli NGOs to collaborate and partner with various governmental organisations and how it is working with different generations in ongoing projects, as people relate to the city in very different ways depending on their age and experience.
With numerous questions from the participants relating to the practice of city diplomacy, the session was most interactive. Participants were interested in the challenges encountered in the relationship between cities engaged in diplomacy and MFAs, and in how MFAs could engage with local actors who become relevant in diplomacy to strengthen their capacity and stay connected to national foreign policy objectives. Another discussion centred on how rapid and effective communication via the internet allowed remote cities to be more connected at the level of governance than ever before. Today, cities are able to share information and experiences globally on their existing networks. This change has increased their capacity, learning from best practices at the international level.
Further discussions in break-out rooms enabled smaller groups to share personal experiences and develop ideas on how to engage in city diplomacy as GDL members. The questions discussed in the break-out sessions were as follows:
What is the potential of city diplomacy? What can city diplomacy achieve?
What opportunities does it create for the GDL? How could the GDL as an innovative global network and think tank support city diplomacy?
The session provided many insights, and participants agreed that more webinars and forums like this should be organised. Initiatives relating to city diplomacy have great potential because they can contribute to solving both local and global problems and bring positive changes to communities. The GDL has the potential to transcend boundaries and to be a platform lending a voice to both popular and less known cities. The GDL can connect cities by strengthening civil society with its capacity to bring together civil changemakers and city diplomats from around the world.
The GDL regional Lab Global Leadership and the SDGs: What Role for Local Communities? connected GDL members and local stakeholders in order to come up with solutions that enable local communities to become more prominent in global partnerships to achieve the SDGs – this has been a point of departure for the GDL to continue its work in the emerging arena of city diplomacy.