Cities are embracing their role as international actors, but more resources are needed to fully realize the benefits of their global engagements.
Cities are the nerve centers of the global economy and generators of culture and ideas that spread across borders. Increasingly, they are also becoming nodes in the international political system, embracing their role as international actors, and creating networks to help solve global challenges such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite these attributes that place cities at the center of global conversations, local governments are relatively constrained in their formal ability to conduct their own international affairs. A recent report produced by the Council and the Melbourne Centre for Cities at the University of Melbourne underscores this point.
The 2022 Cities and International Engagement Survey finds that, while a majority of city officials surveyed said local diplomacy had a positive impact on their cities, only half reported that staff who conduct international activities had relevant training for that role. Furthermore, limited budgets mean that cities’ dedicated international offices lack the staff and resources to fully leverage these engagements.
How can cities successfully overcome these challenges to assert their influence on the national and global stage? And what is pushing cities to engage globally in the first place?
The Need for Global City Engagement
Given the many demands and constraints on their budgets, it’s fair to ask why cities should invest precious resources conducting diplomacy or building global networks, when this has traditionally been the responsibility of national governments.
City leaders themselves are best positioned to articulate the benefits of international engagement, and our 2022 City Diplomacy report offers a number of key insights on this front. According to the survey, 71 percent of respondents identified adapting policies from other cities as one of the top benefits of global engagement. For example, international engagement was critical to cities as they shaped their responses to the pandemic, with nearly two-thirds of those surveyed reporting working with other cities on pandemic-related policies.
Another reason cities engage in diplomacy is to drive international action by elevating urban interests to the top of the global agenda. In our survey, 49 percent of respondents said collective advocacy is a key benefit of their international engagements. This is the explicit aim of city networks like C40 Cities, which makes the case that “when cities work together, they have greater impact in the global policy arena than they would typically achieve by acting alone.”
Ultimately, the results demonstrate that the issues city leaders care most about—from climate change to public health and economic development—are global in nature and cannot be solved by individual communities, further highlighting the need for international engagement.
How Can Cities Successfully Engage in Diplomacy?
As the responses from urban administrations make clear, cities require additional resources to realize the full benefits of their diplomatic efforts. Those resources can be broken down into three categories: financing, competency training, and coordination.
Since many cities, especially in the U.S., are inhibited by constitutional constraints in their authority to raise revenue, this leaves national governments—and their broad ability to tax and spend—as best positioned to invest in their cities’ diplomatic efforts. The survey highlights the missed opportunity here, with 80 percent of cities stating they would increase their international engagements if they had access to dedicated funds.
At the same time, national governments have an interest in providing the training necessary for cities to gain competency in international relations—a highly specialized field that requires a deep understanding of the cultural and historical context of the cities and countries practitioners engage with. In fact, in only 10 percent of cases where international officers received training was this a formal certificate. It’s no wonder, then, why two-thirds of cities agreed they would engage more in diplomacy if they had access to better training.
Coordination between local and national actors could also be improved. Although most survey respondents reported some form of engagement with national governments on their international activities, 73 percent said these were ad hoc in nature. Formalizing these relationships would allow cities to better leverage the expertise of their national counterparts.
And while national assistance is key, the survey also finds that “overall, cities wanted to retain independence over their international engagements, with only 20 percent believing national governments should have a say in these affairs.” Therefore, a hands-off approach from national authorities may offer the best chance for success.
As the percentage of the world’s population living in urban areas continues to rise, the influence of cities on the world stage is likely to grow in tandem. As the 2022 City Diplomacy survey shows, urban leaders believe international engagement is an important tool for addressing global challenges, and city diplomacy is likely to grow institutionally and in importance over time.
Yet, to improve the efficacy of these efforts, cities would benefit from additional financial resources, training, and coordination with national governments – who in turn can benefit from thriving cities. And based on cities’ responses, this assistance should complement, rather than compete with, cities’ own engagements.