Throughout history, cities have been instrumental in creating the economic health, social infrastructure, and literacy rates of their state-country. From 1300BC when Phoenicians were known for the spread of literacy and shipbuilding, to Samarkand of 400BC being positioned in the Silk Road with a reputation for trade and religion, attracting conquerors from Alexander to Genghis Khan, the role of cities has evolved over time. Today’s mega cities generate over 80% of the global GDP as per the World Bank. Cities are economic hubs and hotbeds of innovation. For example, in the United States, California’s population has grown steadily over the past several decades and has surpassed 39 million. Its massive economy ranks the fifth largest world economy, right after Germany. Alone, Hollywood and Silicon Valley are incubators for four million small businesses.
In a post-COVID-19 world, cities will play a critical role in building and reviving the economy, reconnecting nations after lockdown, and loosening the inward, nationalistic approaches that most countries were forced to take to fight the virus. Therefore, we will require the deployment of innovative tools to leverage the power of cities. Raising an important question, can cities be embedded within the foreign policy of state-country, in order to contribute to build a more resilient and sustainable future?
Diplomacy is a tool used by foreign policy; there is strong interconnectedness between the two as diplomacy is shaped by foreign policy objectives, as well as by national interest. We can define city diplomacy as an avenue through which cities share and engage in common interests with non-state actors on an international relations platform. Looking back throughout history, we can see that diplomacy existed far before states, as cities dominated foreign policy. Such was the case of ancient Greece, where diplomats between Athens and Macedon established negotiations of city interests in trade and science.
In the future, will we witness diplomats representing their cities and reaping economic, scientific and governmental benefits for their state country?
However, when the Peace of Westphalia was signed in 1648, it established a new era for international relations and state-to-state interaction as sole authority for sovereign states. Since the end of World War II, other players entered the spectrum of international relations such as NGOs and international organisations. The 21st century pandemic has shifted the global system and cities are anticipated to transform the face of International relations and diplomacy.
To better serve their foreign policy and connect with the international community, governments can leverage City Diplomacy through two concepts. First comes “The Parallel Approach” of City Diplomacy, in which foreign policy on the state level is served and, at the same time, is complemented by efforts of the local government to reach mutual interests and maximally deliver the goals of domestic and foreign policy. The second approach is “Post-conflict societies”, touching on humanitarianism, to which City Diplomacy can contribute to build local governments in post-conflict societies. Especially when foreign governments focus on reconstructing the central government without paying attention to the local government systems and infrastructure, City Diplomacy’s role becomes more crucial to connect non-state actors to benefit each other.
Foreign policy is best served when it is skilfully merged with domestic interests and projects a coherent approach. We cannot neglect the power of cities and the role they play in the international arena, which can expand and open new mutual avenues in diversifying the economy and scientific advancement. In the future, will we witness diplomats representing their cities and reaping economic, scientific and governmental benefits for their state country?
Ruqayya Alblooshi is an Emirati columnist and researcher in the field international relations