By Mario Saavedra
At different times in history it has been Athens, Venice and Milan. Today it’s São Paulo, Shanghai, Istanbul and Barcelona: large cities that sign international diplomatic agreements directly with other governments, either local or national, without necessarily going through their capital city. Mayors or governors have thus become the new diplomats. “While nations talk, cities act,” said the former mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. “Cities are the gorilla in the international studies room,” wrote Michele Acuto, a specialist in the future of cities at the University of Oxford.
What’s behind city diplomacy? It may be winning the award to hold the Olympic Games; reducing the factors that increase climate change; replicating successful sustainable models, or even achieving peace or avoiding war.
Here are some examples of institutions that promote city-level diplomacy.
São Paulo, economic diplomacy on a grand scale
A couple of years ago, São Paulo, the city and the state it represents, signed the initiation of formal bilateral relations with the UK and the US.
“This is about establishing diplomatic relations adapted to the new times,” explains Rodrigo Tavares, head of Foreign Affairs in the São Paulo government. “The key to achieving your goals is in the use of paradiplomacy, or international relations conducted by subnational bodies.” Among other reasons, says Tavares, diplomacy must also be exercised at the local level because it’s too expensive and unproductive for foreign ministries to undertake certain tasks. “It makes no sense for, say, the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to spend his time discussing international tenders for a subway line. In the past, paradiplomacy was reserved for regions that flirted with national sovereignty, such as Catalonia and Quebec; today it has become more universal.”
São Paulo is the richest state in Latin America. With 42 million inhabitants, on its own it is the world’s 20th largest economy. Bypassing Brasilia, São Paulo city, Brazil’s main economic engine, now signs its own international agreements directly with dozens of countries over infrastructure, security, the environment or education. “Their governor, Geraldo Alckmin, has signed 50 international commitments every year, received more foreign delegations (450 per year), and managed more international cooperation programmes (150) than any other regional governor in Latin America, surpassed only by Brazilian President, Dilma Rousseff, in the number of heads of state he has received” writes Tavares.
São Paulo has become the epitome of so-called city diplomacy. It has more than 50 consulates scattered around the metropolis, which positions it as the city with the largest diplomatic corps in the world after New York. Thus, it is able to sign agreements by being the catalyst of its own diplomacy; agreements that once would have been the exclusive privilege of Brasilia. The government has transferred over to them part of the country’s foreign relations. Defence or national security will never be negotiated by this megalopolis on its own account – but issues such as student exchanges or health technologies do have a place on its agenda.
Istanbul and the Consensus over Water
Istanbul is a fascinating megacity. Europe’s most populous, with nearly 15 million inhabitants, it is sandwiched between two oceans and two continents, always between two cultures. This geographical situation has added symbolism to the agreement signed there in 2009, which has since become known as the Istanbul Water Consensus.
Signed by more than 600 mayors and 250 local and regional representatives, it is one of the clearest examples of city diplomacy. It was the initiative of the mayor of Istanbul, Kadir Topbas, along with organizations such as the UCLG (United Cities and Local Governments) or Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), bringing together thousands of local administrations.
The Consensus was a declaration through which the signatories undertook to inventory and share best practices in water in large cities, and along with their governments, find urban solutions on the responsible use of this scarce resource, managing water-related disasters, or developing a better relationship between water consumption and food produced. Since then, cities like Paris, Vienna, Buenos Aires or Incheon have been at the forefront of this new global diplomatic exchange on water.
Barcelona, beyond independent diplomacy
Lately, paradiplomacy in Barcelona has been identified with the efforts of the Generalitat (Catalonian regional government), based in the Catalonian capital, to promote the cause of a referendum on independence. However, Barcelona has, for some time now, been a symbol of city-based diplomacy, beyond the political arena.
In 2013, for example, the mayor, Xavier Trias, signed a diplomatic agreement with San Francisco, designed to promote this new fashionable concept: smart cities. Soon after, Cisco, one of the most important companies in the world of Information Technology, announced a plan to open a centre devoted to the Internet of Things in Barcelona, together with the city government. Wit by 800,000 euros by 800,000 euros h an initial investment of 30 million, there are several cities that have announced that they will apply the smart city framework designed at this centre.
Of course, Barcelona, the seat of government of the Generalitat, is the epicentre of paradiplomacy aimed at the international projection of Catalonia. The greatest symbol of these efforts is the so-called Catalonian embassies abroad (technically offices of representation). In the budget this year the Catalonian government has increased the budget for their offices abroad by 800,000 euros. Barcelona aims to open new offices of representation in China, Eastern Europe, Morocco and Latin America, along with the Rome and Vienna offices opened this year.
The Generalitat’s budget for international policy has increased by three million euros to nearly €20 million in 2015, of which eight are devoted to cooperation aid and the rest, about 12 million, to paradiplomacy.
London: private paradiplomacy
Megacity diplomacy does not always have to be carried out by mayors or public servants, or necessarily be orientated towards other countries.
In London, London First is one of the most important organizations in city diplomacy. On the one hand, this is a lobby to advance the interests of its members, which are some of the most important companies in the City. Among its numerous public diplomacy campaigns, the best known is the attempt to launch its own Internet domain for London: .london.
If London and its Executive also deserve a key place in city diplomacy this is partly due to the Olympic Games being held there in 2012, with its ever controversial and highly media-orientated mayor, the Conservative, Boris Johnson.
In general, the British capital forges together some 700,000 jobs that depend in some way or another on foreign companies or tourism, and this has fostered a network of embassies abroad: in Brussels, Beijing and Shanghai, New Delhi and Bombay, Caracas etc.
Shanghai: city diplomacy under control
The years leading from the award of the Universal Exhibition to the city of Shanghai in 2002, up to its conclusion in 2010, served the Chinese city and the Beijing government as a rehearsal for how to try to exercise city diplomacy in a rigid, authoritarian system such as the one run by the Chinese Communist Party. The city which is the de facto economic capital of the country was to pull out all the stops for the international community as a kind of “special economic zone”, distanced from the rigidities of Beijing and its Olympics. Nevertheless, the efforts of the city government were always controlled and directed from Zhongnanghai, the headquarters of the Chinese government.
During the years of the lead-up to the event, they organised the so-called “Shanghai weeks” in the various global capitals – but always linked to the overall image of the country: in London, for example, the Shanghai week “Stimulating Shanghai, Splendid Expo 2010” was organized at the same time as an exhibition of Chinese bronze at the British Museum, explains Ingrid d’Hooghe, author of the book, China’s Public Diplomacy. These events attempted to attract “intellectuals to debate on sustainable urban development”, but always with a view to promoting and enhancing the influence of China as a country abroad, she concludes.
The Chinese government itself used the success of the influx of public to the Expo for their diplomatic efforts abroad, assuring all that this was an example for organising large events abroad.
The Shanghai Expo put the city at the epicentre of city diplomacy. Now people talk of the “Shanghai Consensus”; conclusions on the power of this type of relationships between cities, which have emerged after the third International Forum on Public Diplomacy held in the city in November 2014.
The consensus describes the outlines of what must be the role of cities in international relations. For starters, it is dynamic, and includes bottom up interaction (from local level to state), but also in the opposite direction. It suggests that cities should try to have an impact on the international system through United Nations programmes; cities have also become the interface in agreements between governments to solve global problems and day-to-day questions. Members of the public themselves should be at the forefront of these changes. Cities also represent the most efficient way to stimulate creative solutions for global challenges. Moreover, they represent the diversity and continuity necessary to implement real change.
Networks of networks: The Committee of the Regions, Eurocities, ICLEI and UCGL
Today 55% of the world population lives in cities. However, the bulk of diplomacy between states and major international decisions are taken with their backs to local governments: the G20, the UN or bilateral summits. To bring pressure to bear in the opposite direction, towards local level, groups are appearing which are catalysts of paradiplomacy, city diplomacy and urban diplomacy. Often they bring together hundreds or thousands of local governments or institutions.
In Europe, the Committee of the Regions (CoR) consists of 355 European regions and municipalities. Its mission is to lobby and set forth local views to Brussels: to give new legislation from the European Union a close-up focus, whether this be territorial cohesiveness, economic and social policy, environment or governance.
The world network of United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), based in Barcelona, is especially active in the face of the large international organisations. They want, for example, to make the voice of local governments heard in the Urban Habitat Agenda III, which the United Nations is to launch next year and which is attempting to give impetus to a global agenda for sustainable urban development. In the same vein, the UCGL is lobbying the global process of economic and social improvement known as Post-2015, the sequel to the Rio + 20 Conference, based in part on the Millennium Development Goals of reducing poverty, malnutrition and infant mortality and increasing the level of education, among others. More than 1,000 cities and 112 national associations are part of the UCGL, according to the organization.
The Association of Local Governments for Sustainability, ICLEI, founded in New York, claims to have more than 1,200 cities in 84 countries among its members committed to sustainable development and the environment. Its aim is to push for a local design in global sustainability policies. This organisation is extremely active within the framework of the United Nations programme to combat climate change, biodiversity, combat desertification and meet the Millennium Development Goals.