Subnational Diplomacy Evolves: From Urban Arenas to City Partners

Editor's note:

This argument appears in Vol. 74, No. 1, "Global Urbanization: Nations, Cities, and Communities in Transformation" (Fall/Winter 2021).

Ian Klaus
April 05, 2022

Like the world’s great cities, the practice of subnational diplomacy adapts to its historical moment. Cities have long sought to carve out a place on the world stage and build relationships across borders, from the early modern networks of the Hanseatic League to the city-to-city connectivity of the British Empire to the “sister cities” of the Cold War.[1] Today, subnational diplomacy is once again being rediscovered as foreign policymakers, diplomats, and scholars come afresh to cities and their diplomatic efforts.

While subnational diplomacy may be a natural practice for relationship-building diplomats, it is not an obvious or easy turn for most strategists or foreign policymakers. After all, international diplomacy is often reactive and crisis-driven; there are yawning gaps in methodology and literature between urban studies and international affairs; and given the scope, scale, and complexity of the urban world, cities and global urbanism pose a massive intelligence challenge. All the same, recent approaches to cities and urbanization by national governments offer a microhistory into the evolution of foreign policymakers’ thinking on subnational diplomacy. In short, cities have moved from being seen as contested, often unstable arenas into geopolitical actors themselves. Ultimately, this rhetorical turn reflects the benefits of a convergence between the policy priorities of cities and city networks and those of foreign policymakers.

The U.S. government’s conception of the role of cities in diplomacy has undergone notable shifts in the last decade. For the U.S. State Department and Department of Defense, quadrennial reviews offer sweeping analysis and policy prescription meant to guide years of activity; these reports are laboriously prepared and heavily litigated. In the State Department’s first Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review (QDDR), released in 2010, urbanization was briefly identified as a potential contributor to conflict.[2] Cities mattered because of their status as population centers, not because of their policy capacities or collective global influence. To the degree that cities themselves were considered to be discrete actors for diplomatic engagement, the focus was on urban settings beyond capital cities. Under the section “Building relations with emerging centers of influence,” the 2010 QDDR recommended that the department “shift consular presence to engage beyond capitals,” further noting, “Consulates historically were established in large cities of key allies, politically sensitive sites, and industrial centers. Today our interests require a robust presence in many new areas including emerging powers and centers of influence from Asia to the Middle East to South America and Africa.”[3] Consistent with the growth of secondary and tertiary cities, this was an important recommendation: It reflected ongoing diplomatic work in Turkey and encouraged further engagement in countries like Colombia. The United States was not alone in approaching cities as arenas of influence for diplomatic relationship building. For example, China—where network engagement and twinning exercises are centrally organized—encouraged a dramatic expansion in city diplomacy efforts in the 2010s.[4]

By 2015, the U.S. framework had started to shift. The 2015 QDDR, “Enduring Leadership in a Dynamic World,” identified cities more explicitly as policy actors and innovators in their own right. While still calling attention to global demographic changes, the report emphasized climate change as the illustrative policy area rather than subnational stability and violence. Eyeing the ongoing Paris Agreement negotiations, it also explicitly identified city halls as sources of potential policy innovation: “While traditional diplomacy will be needed to produce a historic global framework on climate change, our diplomats and development professionals must also engage mayors, governors, chief executive officers, faith leaders, scientists, and engineers to find climate solutions.”[5] This move from viewing cities as arenas to actors is an important analytical jump, and one that follows the dramatic expansion of transnational city networks and philanthropic support for city-based climate action.[6] The move also foreshadowed future approaches to subnational diplomacy, however, in that it drew no fundamental distinction between city leaders and other stakeholders.

Public-facing documents produced by the U.S. intelligence community have followed a similar trajectory to that of the QDDRs. The National Intelligence Council issues its benchmark foresight report, “Global Trends,” every five years. The 2012 assessment, “Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds,” identified urbanization as one of the underlying forces behind megatrends in demography and the diffusion of power.[7] The 2021 report, meanwhile, “Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World,” moves well beyond broad demographics, offering a more robust engagement with the ecosystem of city diplomacy. “Local and city governments—increasingly organized into networks—will take action on international issues such as climate change and migration, getting ahead of national governments in some cases,” offered the council in a striking conclusion.[8]

Such analysis, however, does not offer immediate answers to a thorny organizational question: where to put, in State Department terms, the “cities desk.” In a February 2021 policy brief, Anthony F. Pipa and Max Bouchet of the Brookings Institution offered a helpful history of the bureaucratic machinations around urban affairs.[9] Through the Pearson Fellowship program, the State Department has engaged with cities in the continental United States for decades, including by placing State Department officials in city halls. During the Obama administration, a special representative for intergovernmental affairs—with an office and staff in support—gave way to a senior adviser for global cities. From 2017 to 2020, the portfolio was largely ignored. This question of where to house the portfolio has been a telling area of debate. Pipa and Bouchet, for example, proposed the creation of an office of subnational diplomacy, with an ambassador- or assistant secretary-level lead reporting to the undersecretary for either political or economic affairs. In March 2021, the Truman Center issued a wide-ranging report, “Transforming State: Pathways to a More Just, Equitable, and Innovative Institution.” The report, produced by a task force of dozens of experts and former diplomats and chaired by Ambassador Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, Rep. Joaquin Castro, and Sen. Chris Murphy, recommended the creation of an office of state and local diplomacy, led by an ambassador-at-large and housed within the secretary’s Office of Global Partnerships.[10] Both approaches would enhance subnational diplomacy efforts: the former by integrating them within powerful undersecretariats and the latter by giving the lead flexibility to work with partners across the entire department.

These recommendations were offered in conversation with the City and State Diplomacy Act, which has been winding its way through Congress since 2019. The bill, as introduced by Reps. Ted Lieu and Joe Wilson, housed the office and the ambassadorial position in the Under Secretary for Political Affairs. Such a location would put the office within the department’s most powerful undersecretariat and, at least in theory, link it more closely to the department’s core diplomatic work. The bill is a bipartisan initiative and envisions the office engaging with both mayors and governors—though it is easy to see the focus shifting between Democratic and Republican administrations, with Republicans prioritizing governors and state governments. It includes a crucial definition in the final sentence: “The term ‘subnational engagement’ means formal meetings or events between elected officials of state or municipal governments and their foreign counterparts.”[11] Regardless of party or level of governance, the “elected” part matters, according to the proposed legislation.

The Joe Biden administration appears to take a slightly broader view. The early February 2021 “Memorandum on Revitalizing America’s Foreign Policy and National Security Workforce, Institutions, and Partnerships” and the resulting action were grounded in knowledge of the subnational diplomacy landscape. Like the 2015 QDDR, it highlights climate action, but it goes further than the previous document in acknowledging the leadership role cities had come to play around climate policy. “Cities and States,” the memo observed bluntly and accurately, “have shown they can lead on issues such as climate change.” Importantly, the memo went on:

industry stands on the cutting edge of technological development and is often responsible for securing our critical infrastructure; and social movements advance larger goals by taking coordinated, grassroots action. The United States must engage with all of these actors to best achieve its national security and foreign policy goals.[12]

Cities, the memo suggested, could be one among many partners serving the administration’s “Foreign Policy for the Middle Class.” The resulting organizational recommendations for the National Security Council (NSC) reflected this perspective with the establishment of an NSC Directorate on Partnerships and Global Engagement, which, among its many roles, will organize interagency collaboration with subnational partners. Were the State Department to follow this conceptual and organizational lead, the natural home for its subnational diplomatic efforts would be within the Office of Global Partnerships.

According to the guiding documents of U.S. foreign policymakers, then, cities have moved from contested arenas to actors in their own right. But in doing so, they have joined a crowded field of partners, including civil society groups and the private sector, rather than the elite pantheon of governments. From a practical standpoint, there is much that makes sense in this one-partner-among-many approach. It is consistent with the broader view of stakeholders embraced both within the United Nations and in such wider development frameworks as the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015-2030, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda (2015), the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with its 17 Sustainable Development Goals (2015), and the Paris Agreement on climate change (2015). All four of these frameworks identify the importance of engagement with local authorities, but only alongside other partners. The New Urban Agenda, adopted during the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development, was explicitly concerned with cities and returned repeatedly to the wide array of stakeholders that operate in urban areas.

Perhaps most importantly, city leaders and urbanists frequently describe stakeholder coalitions as prerequisites for urban transformations. In 2018, a group of authors from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in collaboration with city officials and city networks, produced a summary for urban policymakers of the groundbreaking “Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C.” “There are actions,” read the cover note to the report, “that policymakers—along with residents and stakeholders, such as civil society, the academic community, and those in business and finance—can take to help limit warming and adapt to the impacts of climate change.”[13] More specifically, subnational diplomacy often brings traditionally domestic concerns—infrastructure, mobility, energy efficiency—into the domain of foreign affairs, which, from an organizational perspective, requires interagency collaboration that can only be orchestrated from the White House.

As well-articulated and analytically sound as the partner approach may be, it’s not without a downside in the form of lost leverage. In a geopolitical arena increasingly divided between democratic and authoritarian practices, many city leaders—both domestic and foreign—possess a democratic legitimacy not present among other stakeholders. Indeed, city leaders and some city networks use this democratic differentiation to argue for representation at the international forums of the UN, the G20, and other international organizations. For now, cities remain mere stakeholders at the UN, not members; and whether democratic or not, cities are undifferentiated from other non-state actors on the international stage. This tension is more likely an unchanging feature of diplomacy in an urban world than a passing reality. But even so, the absence of precious sovereignty has not inhibited the extraordinary amount of city diplomacy that has developed in the last decade. To the contrary, it may even have prompted subnational diplomacy’s recent, rapid, and still ongoing evolutions.


[1] Nancy Kwak, “Municipalism is an Important Global Movement, and its History Matters,” The Diplomatic Courier, April 21, 2020,

[2] Department of State, The First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review: Leading Through Civilian Power. Washington, DC: 2010, 15.

[3] Department of State, First Quadrennial Diplomacy and Development Review, 50.

[4] Samantha Custer et al., Ties That Bind: Quantifying China’s public diplomacy and its “good neighbor“ effect. Williamsburg, VA: AidData at College of William & Mary, 2018, 12–13.

[5] Department of State, Enduring Leadership in a Dynamic World. Washington, DC: 2015, 9.

[6] Ian Klaus, “The State of City Diplomacy,” Urbanisation 5, no. 1 (2020): 1–6. There is something of an irony to this. The 2010 QDDR, while largely treating urban areas as arenas, also gave great prominence to transnational networks. But while calling attention to those networks of the terrorist, criminal, and digital nature, it never mentioned those that have done so much to alter how cities have been treated in subsequent such efforts.

[7] National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2030: Alternative Worlds. Washington, DC: 2012, 26–29.

[8] National Intelligence Council, Global Trends 2040: A More Contested World. Washington, DC: 2021, 88. The author served as a consultant to this report.

[9] Anthony F. Pipa and Max Bouchet, “Partnership among cities, states, and the federal government: Creating an office of subnational diplomacy at the US Department of State,” Brookings Institution, February 17, 2021,

[10] The Truman Center, “Transforming State: Pathways to a More Just, Equitable, and Innovative Institution,” The Truman Center, March 2021,

[11] U.S. Congress, “Text - S.4426 - 116th Congress (2019-2020): City and State Diplomacy Act,”, August 4, 2020,

[12] The White House, “Memorandum on Revitalizing America’s Foreign Policy and National Security Workforce, Institutions, and Partnerships,” February 4, 2021,

[13] Amir Bazaz et al., “Summary for Urban Policymakers: What the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C Means for Cities,” C40 Cities and the Global Covenant of Mayors for Energy & Climate, December 2018, 6.

Ian Klaus is a senior fellow in global cities at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Previously, he was senior adviser for global cities, deputy United States negotiator for Habitat III, and a member of the policy planning staff at the U.S. Department of State.