Cities, the next frontier for foreign policy

Thursday, 6 October 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Cities have become so central to civilisation they are fast outstripping nation-states as key players in international relations. An overwhelming majority of cities and states are conducting foreign affairs, and therefore thousands of brand-new actors are rising to add their voices to global governance and economic growth. UN estimates show about 75% of the world’s population will live in cities by 2050, meaning paradiplomacy is here to say.  

Cities and states manage their own diplomatic networks, observes a new report released by the World Economic Forum (WEF), which points out an increasing number of local governments have seen the need to open representations in foreign countries to protect and advance their specific interests. For Canadian provinces, US states or German länder, this is a common foreign policy instrument.

Alberta, for instance, has 12 offices in Asia, Europe and the Americas. Cities are following the same track. Gothenburg, Lodz and Liverpool, among several others, have their own official representations in Brussels to tap into opportunities generated by the European Union.

Cities and states are also members of international organisations. There are approximately 125 multilateral arrangements of subnational governments, including the Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) or the Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40). It is difficult to find a city with over one million inhabitants that does not participate in international multilateral arrangements.

These arrangements are growing at a rate that far exceeds the establishment of conventional national-state international organisations. Just last month in The Hague, over 60 mayors established the Global Parliament of Mayors to “leverage the collective political power of cities”. In 2014, the Compact of Mayors was established as the “world’s largest cooperative effort among mayors and city officials to reduce greenhouse gas emissions”.

Other subnational governments even participate formally in multilateral bodies of nation-states. Hong Kong and Macao, for instance, are members of the World Trade Organization, whereas Flanders, Hong Kong, Macao and Madeira are associated members of the United Nations World Tourism Organization. Flanders has had diplomatic bonds with UNESCO for nearly 20 years.

Paradiplomacy also differs from diplomacy when it comes to modus operandi. The first is more pragmatic, targeted and opportunistic, whereas the latter tends to be more ceremonial, institutionalized and ritualistic, point out observers. Subnational partnerships have the advantage of being far more flexible than nation-to-nation agreements. This makes it easier to target specific needs across national borders, largely absent from foreign policy agendas of countries.

Paradiplomacy is more oriented towards the needs of citizens, as its ultimate objective is to perfect the tools available to local governments for adoption of policies that benefit the welfare of the population. In countries that are not directly touched by international conflicts or terrorism, and enjoy stable commercial ties with other nations, it is difficult for the population to see the immediate impact of their country’s foreign policy on their individual welfare. That is not the case with paradiplomacy. Cities, particularly capital cities, also tend to have deep pockets and cater to upwardly mobile aspirations of their citizens. This would mean that they have different priorities and stronger incentives to achieve them. 

Colombo, with its vast ambitions of becoming a megapolis, needs to tap into these global trends to eventually stand a chance of counting on the world stage.