Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, left, introduces Ali Vayeghan, an Iranian citizen with a valid U.S. visa who was previously turned away from LAX under President Donald Trump's executive order barring people from seven Muslim-majority nations. Damian Dovarganes/AP

For those who care about combating climate change, keeping the country safe for immigrants, and prioritizing LGBT and other human rights issues, it might now be time for mayors to take up the fight.

Three weeks before the presidential election, I wrote a piece for CityLab asking, “What Can a Foreign Minister do for a City?” Given early indications from the Trump administration on issues such as climate change and global engagement, perhaps it’s time to flip the question. What can cities do to create their own foreign policy?

The first article laid out four steps a foreign ministry might take to help cities engage on global challenges: supporting city-based networks, helping to deploy civic technology, working with counterpart ministries abroad to encourage vertical policy integration, and convening the global community to build momentum behind significant and widespread municipal challenges such as access to debt finance. I discussed some work that was ongoing at the U.S. Department of State and optimistically included other steps that would require more time to carry out.

In some ways, and despite the seemingly extraordinary times, this question isn’t new at all: Cities have been engaging in trade and commercial diplomacy long before the development of the modern nation state. But more recently, cities have added to the list of issues they engaged on internationally, particularly, climate change and sustainability. While this work reflected a sense among leading cities that they were on the front lines of global challenges, it was also a reaction to a perceived inactivity or impotence among nation states. Nations are not acting, so we must, said mayors around the world.

This was not intentionally zero-sum. “City leaders seek not to displace their national counterparts,” wrote former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who was appointed Special Envoy for Climate Change and Cities by the UN Secretary-General in 2014, in an article for Foreign Affairs, “but rather to be full partners in their work—an arrangement that national leaders increasingly view as not just beneficial but also necessary.”

Indeed, over the last eight years, and particularly the last four, we’ve seen such partnerships and collaboration develop. Mayors participated in unprecedented ways at international gatherings such as the Paris Climate Conference. Traditional institutions of the international order, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, recognized the importance of working at the municipal level and with city leadership.  

What now? As U.S. mayors made clear with respect to climate action at the recent C40 Mayors Summit in Mexico City, and as many have made clear on immigration, cities are not going to take a step back on international issues that affect their own residents. But the emerging dynamic of oppositional relationships between Washington and dozens of U.S. cities on these issues is only the beginning of the challenge from a foreign policy perspective.

Previously, while cities adopted an active leadership model on certain issues in response to a perceived absence of national leadership, a large number of policy areas in the international arena were left to the traditional foreign policy apparatus.  

Over the past eight years, the State Department has built out its global work—and internal bureaucracy—on issues affecting women, LGBT communities, and the disabled, and interfaith relations. It has spent hundreds of millions of dollars a year advocating for human rights. There is a serious and long-standing debate within the foreign policy community about whether such work serves American interests or is in fact distracting, even dangerous. But one thing is clear: The residents of cities whose mayors were out front on climate change over the last two decades care about these issues. 

Now, not only do cities (and states) have to once again take up the lead on combating climate change, they must decide whether they are going to expand their advocacy role on a wider number of issues—and not just at home, but internationally as well. The speeches, advocacy, and policy support that were once the business of the foreign policy apparatus might well now become that of cities. Indeed, at a meeting with the Pacific Council late last month, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti articulated his vision to help make that city the “activism capital of the world.” Such a vision cannot be developed without international engagement.

But following through on this and enlisting more cities will not be easy.  While cities and mayors may have been more active on the global stage in recent years, their first concerns still sit at home with issues such as affordable housing, budgets and transportation. So how might such engagement most effectively and realistically move forward?

First, while international engagement by mayors or other senior officials often has economic and security benefits for their residents, it does expose them to political risk. Mayors feel this acutely. It’s much more difficult for a mayor to become a global voice on women’s safety in cities or to dispatch a senior official dealing with homeless LGBT communities to share best policy practices abroad if they are attacked by media or political opponents.  

It would be naïve to think international engagement by a mayor will be above politicization, but certain steps can be taken. City halls must actively engage with residents and civil society to formulate a foreign policy platform, and in doing so, make clear that such a platform is not simply about a mayor’s engagement internationally, but enabling local civil society to do so as well. And with the support of civil society and the community, cities might consider dispatching their community liaisons in a targeted manner to share best practices and advocate on an annual basis. 

If—despite British Prime Minister Theresa May’s suggestion to the contrary —you are a citizen of your city and of the world, if your patriotism is in part defined by a concern for others beyond your borders, such politics is required.

Second, the increased engagement must be supported by philanthropy and, on certain issues, the private sector.  Municipal budgets—some of which are under newfound duress owing to cuts (threatened and real) from Washington—are stretched. Indeed, the most active city leadership, both in terms of advocacy and implementation, has depended upon support from organizations like Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, among others. The leadership of these organizations, and perhaps more importantly others that have not yet funded international engagement or focused efforts at the municipal level, will have to decide to support international engagement and local implementation.

Third, the mustering of such political and financial capital will depend, in part, on whether vehicles for such advocacy and policy exchange at the city level can be developed. Some such networks and organizations already exist. There are, according to University College London’s City Leadership Laboratory, over 200 city networks active today, some of which focus on issues such as governance, women’s safety and inclusion, and access for the disabled. Some of these can be enhanced or expanded. Others networks and organizations, like C40 in 2005, may well need to be established.

Finally, there is a role for former federal officials as well. Alumni of the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and its Office of Religious Engagement, and senior officials who led engagement on LGBT issues should meet with experts on international municipal engagement to map existing opportunities and those that might be born yet.

The concept of American leadership may well seem parochial or off-putting to many urban-residing Americans, associated by some with coalitions and foreign interventions. But for those who care about combating climate change, keeping the country safe for immigrants, and prioritizing LGBT and other human rights issues, it might now be time for mayors to take up the fight.

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