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City Leaders Finally Get an ‘Open Door’ to US Foreign Diplomacy

This article first appeared on the Bloomberg CityLab website. MMC engages in content partnerships with several organizations, and cross-posting does not indicate an endorsement or agreement.

Denver will become a global hub this week as mayors and other city leaders from across the Western Hemisphere gather at the same table as federal officials, ambassadors and international policymakers. They’ll discuss topics like sustainable infrastructure, the energy transition and affordable housing — issues that are local but have regional and international implications.

The event, dubbed the Cities Summit of the Americas, is part of the US State Department’s new initiative to put local officials at the forefront of conversations that advance the country’s broader foreign policy goals.

At the helm of the new initiative is Nina Hachigian, the first US special representative for city and state diplomacy. She was appointed in October as part of President Joe Biden’s pledge to foster formal partnerships among the different levels of governments, and create an “open door for mayors” to the federal government as they tackle urban challenges.

“It’s one thing to make policy at the national level, but they’re the ones actually doing the measuring, digging, planting, educating, treating, responding and mobilizing,” says Hachigian, a former US ambassador who previously served as Los Angeles’ first deputy mayor of international affairs under then-Mayor Eric Garcetti.

Hachigian and her team have been fielding queries from local leaders looking to engage with foreign officials in their cities or abroad, or to connect to trade and investment opportunities. They also serve to deliver on Biden’s vision of a “foreign policy for the middle class,” in part by bringing the tangible benefits of international relationships directly to cities — like jobs and state-sponsored travel opportunities for residents. Hachigian also hopes that direct engagement with cities will encourage diplomats within the State Department to approach international issues with a local lens.

Both her position and the upcoming summit signal the federal government’s recognition of cities as increasingly crucial — and experienced — players in US foreign diplomacy. Indeed, US cities have recently emerged as global leaders on issues like sustainability and equity, sometimes at odds with national leadership.

When former president Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Paris climate accords in 2017, for instance, more than 200 US mayors pledged to uphold the country’s greenhouse gas commitments. Then, at the height of the pandemic, local leaders were left to their own accord to secure personal protective equipment from overseas — even as Trump’s Federal Emergency Management Agency began seizing supplies.

During Hachigian’s time as part of Garcetti’s administration, which lasted from 2017 to this past January, she helped Los Angeles attract foreign investment as part of a larger effort to boost the city’s local economy and bring job opportunities, and set up a free travel abroad program for low-income community college students.

Hachigian also aided Garcetti as he chaired C40, a coalition of climate mayors, from 2019 to 2021. “I think the biggest deliverable in terms of solving global problems was bringing over a thousand cities to COP 26 to pledge to do their fair share in halving greenhouse gas by 2030 and [reaching] net zero by 2050,” she says.

C40 is one of a number of groups that have already formed to coordinate local leaders on diplomacy and information-sharing. Others, including the Mayors Migration Council and the National League of Cities, will directly lead several of the discussions at the State Department’s summit in Denver, in recognition of the groundwork local leaders have already laid toward subnational diplomacy.

“Cities have gotten increasingly well organized on the global stage,” says Ian Klaus, founding director of Carnegie California and an expert on subnational diplomacy who has served as a senior advisor for global cities at the State Department. (He has also been a contributor to Bloomberg CityLab). “They share policies, and they work within these networks as a single voice, which is a pretty important historical development on the power of networks in the last 10, 20 years.”

Read More: Why a Dark Future Demands Urban Leadership

Yet there is a limit to what cities can do without support from higher levels of government, or from institutions like the World Bank. That’s why Klaus thinks US cities can benefit from a State Department team that not only understands how cities work and what they need, but also has access to other national leaders and institutions of global governance.

“The team includes people who’ve thought about cities and urban areas, and works closely with State Department diplomats and other bureaus who’ve also thought about this a lot,” he says. “When I was in the State Department, this wasn’t necessarily the case, so it’s a really fortunate development.”

Linda Poon is a writer for CityLab in Washington, D.C., focused on climate change and urban life. She also writes the CityLab Daily newsletter.


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