Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and Waukegan, Illinois Mayor Sam Cunningham sign the Chicago Climate Charter in December, as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel looks on.
Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson (right) and Mayor Sam Cunningham of Waukegan, Illinois, (left) sign the Chicago Climate Charter in December, as Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel looks on. Kamil Krzaczynski/Reuters

In 2017, city leaders took center stage as international diplomatic players.

By the end of 2017, it may have seemed like there weren’t any political or diplomatic precedents left to break. Nonetheless, the Trump Administration managed to break one more in November at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany, when it declined to establish a pavilion space for American diplomats, NGOs, and business leaders to gather. Instead, there was an unofficial American pavilion, featuring California Governor Jerry Brown and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg as chief diplomats. And it was, in fact, bigger than that of any country.

If that sounds a bit performative, that’s because it was. At one of the signature diplomatic meetings of the year focused around a global crisis, the most well-orchestrated, ambitious, and visible U.S. presence was not the U.S. government itself—it was a combination of cities, states, and companies.

2017 turned out to be a watershed year for urban issues on the international stage. Four weeks in particular, from mid-November to mid-December, featured especially intense international engagement by mayors and illustrated that some of the defining features of city diplomacy may be changing.

Urban issues were once peripheral to most major international gatherings, but they are now receiving attention from leading international organizations and national governments. And while city leaders, planners, innovation officers and sustainability directors have long focused on policy exchange and technical expertise, the gatherings of mayors increasingly look and feel political in nature.  

This is part of a fundamental reordering of the diplomatic arena in what was a very tough year for traditional diplomacy. The Trump Administration abandoned milestone international agreements, weakened long-standing alliances, and imperiled the relationships of the United States with some of its closest allies. In urban-focused diplomacy, meanwhile, 2017 was supposed to be a quiet year. Habitat 3 in Quito dominated 2016; 2018 begins with World Urban Forum 9 in Kuala Lumpur.

As cities organized into the opposition, however, and longtime partners of the United States looked to hedge, city diplomacy has moved closer to center stage. If urban issues and summits were once the alternative music of the diplomatic airwaves, they’re now doing mashups with pop stars—and the volume is turned way up.

Let’s start in Bonn for the UN Climate Change Conference, also known as COP 23. The drama had been set in June, when the White House announced that the United States would exit the Paris Agreement, eventually leaving the U.S. the only country in the world not party to the accord. In response to that announcement, over 380 U.S. cities, along with states, businesses and universities, organized around the “We Are Still In” campaign, promising to help the U.S. fulfill its international obligations under the agreement themselves.

The landscape in Bonn was littered with mayors, city networks, and NGOs. Policy and technical exchange has long defined urban-focused gatherings. And that continued with notable developments, including the announcement by the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy—an initiative gathering more than 7,000 signatories cities around the world—of a new global standard for cities to report greenhouse gas emissions inventories. Such standards are as much diplomatic accomplishments as they are technical. International standards around GDP, for instance, are at once the result of diplomatic processes between nations states and drivers of policy within them. Thousands of cities now, with the Global Covenant acting as secretariat, will be able to report and compare data.

The real fireworks in Bonn, however, came in the form of the unorthodox U.S. exhibition space and “America’s Pledge,” a robust plan for developing, tracking, and reporting subnational, local, and private sector action on emissions. Mayors had played a very visible role at COP 21 in France during the final negotiations of the Paris Agreement, but this engagement in Bonn by U.S. mayors was categorically different, for two reasons. First, it sought not only to help muster political support, but also to contribute to an ongoing multilateral process. And, second, while still within their elected mandates, they were also acting in opposition to the stated policy position of the White House. The terms were technical and the negotiations laborious, but the point from a diplomatic perspective and the standing of cities internationally was significant: Cities sought to play on the global stage alongside nation states, rather than merely as components of them.

That opposition continued in an even more pronounced way at December’s North America Climate Summit in Chicago, co-hosted by the city of Chicago and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy. Mayors from over sixty cities signed the Chicago Climate Charter, which, among other things, included specific steps each city would take to help the U.S. meet its Paris Agreement obligations. And, as in Bonn, the exchange of technical expertise and policy guidance continued, with side sessions for city officials on science, data, and technology.

Also as in Bonn, it was the political optics of the summit that stood out. Former President Barack Obama recognized the climate leadership role cities now play, as did Prime Minister Justin Trudeau by video. Mayor Rahm Emanuel, in less than a minute, found his rhetorical target in President Trump. In pairs, mayors from cities including Nashville, Salt Lake City, and San Francisco signed a compact that both recognized the need for international agreements on climate change and criticized the White House for failing to meet the challenge.

The participation of non-American leaders was equally telling. No White House or State Department officials participated, but the EU Ambassador to the U.S. did. So did the Chinese Consul General and other foreign diplomats. In other words, if you measured the EU common market as a single economy, senior diplomats from two of the world’s three largest economies attended a summit of mayors and cities.

What are we to make of this?

This development builds on years—decades in some cases—of network building. Groups like Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI), the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, and C40 Cities have long facilitated the exchange of technical expertise. And, as recent research by University College London and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs suggests, these networks frequently lead to innovation and policy experimentation. But something else is happening now as well.

National leaders and foreign diplomats are engaging with U.S. mayors and cities directly. Just as China has been doing with California and Canada with a number of U.S. states, foreign leaders are explicitly recognizing that, on issues of shared interest like combating climate change, cities are among the most reliable and effective of U.S. partners.

Meanwhile, the city networks and the political and personal relationships that buttress them are—in network-theory speak—thickening. Diplomacy is about interests and even deception, but it’s also about reliable, trusting, personal relationships. The relationships between the world’s leading mayors are stronger now than they likely ever have been.

Cities are more organized as a collective around the climate change challenge than any other policy issue. But climate change is not a discrete problem. When combined with political and economic stability, it is also a major force behind today’s protracted refugee crises, which are likely to deepen in severity over this century thanks to climate-related displacement. In early December, as mayors from around the U.S. gathered in Chicago, a dozen U.S. cities, including New York and Los Angeles, also formerly petitioned for a seat at the Mexico-hosted meetings on the UN global compact on migration. If the close of 2017 is any indication, the diplomatic activity of cities is only set to increase in 2018. Or, as the adage has it, watch this space.

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