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Conducting City Diplomacy: A Survey of International Engagement in 47 Cities

RESEARCH Report by Anna Kosovac , Kris Hartley , Michele Acuto , and Darcy Gunning
Aerial view of the city of Chicago and its lakefront
Haseeb Hussain

The impact of global challenges such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic manifests most acutely in urban settings, rendering cities essential players on the global stage. 

Executive Summary

In the 2018 report Toward City Diplomacy, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs presented findings from a survey of 27 cities on the capacity of local governments around the world to network internationally—and the perceived barriers to that engagement. The report found that cities "need to invest in resources, expertise, and capacity to manage their relationships and responsibilities to conduct city diplomacy effectively."

In our new survey of 47 cities, we find that advice to still ring true. City officials broadly recognize the importance of engaging internationally but lack the necessary formal diplomacy training and resources for conducting that engagement to maximum effect. Nevertheless, cities maintain a strong commitment to global agendas, and international frameworks are increasingly influential in municipal affairs. For example, more than half of survey respondents said they track their city’s performance against the metrics of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Furthermore, we found that cities and their leaders are confident in their capacity to tackle global challenges. For instance, the majority of survey respondents said that city governments have greater potential for impact on climate change mitigation than their national government counterparts do, especially when acting collaboratively through city networks and multilateral urban programs.

The individual stories of five cities whose officials participated in the study offer lessons for a variety of challenges and approaches to city diplomacy. Based on the survey results, we discuss the three primary obstacles cities must overcome in order to strengthen the role of city diplomacy globally: inadequate funding and resources for international engagement, insufficient training in city diplomacy, and the failure of national and multilateral bodies to fully recognize and formalize city engagement in diplomacy.

We conclude with a framework for ensuring that city-diplomacy efforts are systematic and institutionalized rather than reliant on the personalities and connections of powerful city leaders. This capacity-building strategy can help cities leverage international coordination, information sharing, and intersectoral collaboration to address the complex and interconnected problems that will characterize the 21st century.

About the Authors
Anna Kosovac
Research Fellow, International Urban Policy, University of Melbourne’s Connected Cities Lab
Anna Kosovac is a research fellow on international urban policy at University of Melbourne’s Connected Cities Lab.
Kris Hartley
Nonresident Fellow, Global Cities
Headshot for Kris Hartley
Kris Hartley is assistant professor of public policy at City University of Hong Kong and a nonresident fellow at the Council since 2015. He researches power and knowledge in the policymaking process, focusing on technology and the environment. Hartley has served as a Fulbright Scholar in Thailand and has published three books, including one with Cambridge University Press.
Headshot for Kris Hartley
Michele Acuto
Former Nonresident Senior Fellow, Global Cities
Council expert Michele Acuto
Michele Acuto is director of the Melbourne Centre for Cities and professor of global urban politics at the University of Melbourne, where he also serves as associate dean (research) in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning. He is a recognized voice on the intersection between international affairs and urban governance, with extensive work on questions of urban health, waste management, nighttime economy, and city networks.
Council expert Michele Acuto
Darcy Gunning
Research Assistant, University of Melbourne’s Connected Cities Lab
Darcy Gunning is a research assistant at University of Melbourne’s Connected Cities Lab.