Theater of Cruelty

Ordinary diplomacy serves the state, urban diplomacy the people

Eric Berg
Erik Berg
Erik Berg worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs / NORAD from 1978 to 2013. He now heads Habitat Norway.
CITIES / America's new leaders have noted China's use of cities in its diplomacy. Is urban policy emerging as the new foreign policy?


Da Ine Eriksen Soreide was chair of the Storting's foreign affairs committee, she claimed in Dagsavisen (August 2011) that «it happens that municipal councils and county councils discuss foreign policy…. But we can not have 430 different foreign policies in this country ", she concluded. Ten years and a municipal reform later, it can be stated that this is what we are about to get: 356 Norwegian municipalities are increasingly working for their interests in global arenas.

Paraq Khanna shows in the book Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization (2016) that cities in the world bind more closely to each other. They are forging a new diplomacy which he calls "diplomacity". Others may refer to this as mayoral diplomacy or sub-national diplomacy. Khanna claims that cities, not states, are becoming drivers in a new world foreign policy system where internal and external cooperation will be crucial for economic growth. In recent decades, city authorities have taken leading roles with regard to global issues such as climate, refugees / migrants and health. Covid-19 is the new, acute challenge.

We have got new foreign policy actors. In addition to bilateral city-to-city cooperation, more than 300 new global urban networks have emerged in the last 30 years. Networks that in critical contexts have been able to expand their original one-case focus. For example. C 40, of which Oslo is a member, which now also integrates health and inequality in its climate work. And cities competing for investment, industrial establishments, jobs, knowledge and technology institutions are now united in the fight against a global pandemic. They contribute to concrete solutions and resources.

All politics are local

The fact that all policy – including foreign policy – is based on local conditions has become clearer in the last year. The Covid-19 pandemic has put cities' use of resources, expertise and capacity to the test. Since 90 per cent of cases of infection have developed in urban areas, the ability of city politicians – such as Raymond Johansen in Oslo – to innovate and be flexible has become crucial to people's lives. International cooperation provides opportunities: to achieve economic and material benefits, to share experience and knowledge and to gather collectively to influence global governments and financial institutions.

Unlike the state, it is based here on local competence and capacity. These are challenges related to health, climate, refugees, schools, business development, transport, culture and so on. City authorities cooperate more directly with business and civil society. Their diplomacy is more flexible, pragmatic and targeted, while the state often appears ritual and ceremonial. Subnational partnerships make it possible to meet local needs across national borders. When states get involved in other countries' local affairs, there is often "interference in internal affairs". The collaboration between Kirkenes and Murmansk is one example of results being achieved concretely and quickly at the local level. Chinese cities also see this: They are getting involved in the fight to expand northern Norwegian ports.

One example of new urban diplomacy is that the G-20 group in 2017 established an "Urban 20" network. FThe G-20 meeting in Saudi Arabia-Arabia this autumn, mayors and representatives of the most important cities met to formulate an urban agenda for å influence their heads of state. U-20 is unique because it means a direct channel for cities to å influence an established, influential multilateral player. All G-20 countries, except India, have their largest cities represented in the network. Most rapporteurs also do not represent their respective state-supporting parties. Other cities have also participated as observers, including Amman, Amsterdam, Helsinki, Miami and Singapore. Norway, which is not a member of the G-20, has not sent city observers to the U-20 meetings. It is the host country that invites.

 USA: "Build back"

From day one, the Biden-Harris administration signaled the need for a more proactive role for the United States in global cooperation. Trump's "America First" policy was to be replaced by Biden's "Build back agenda". The first necessary measure will, according to the research group Brookings, be to rebuild a foreign service that is now in ruins. The United States has, Brookings claims, a demoralized diplomatic corps depleted of expertise. The research group believes that there is a lack of innovative tools, up-to-date knowledge and political support to promote American interests. America's new leaders have also noted China's use of cities in its diplomacy. Especially within the worldwide "Belt and Road" initiative.

Strong forces in the foreign policy professional community in the United States, such as Brookings, are advocating for the establishment of a department for sub-national diplomacy in the State Department. One will benefit from the diplomatic experience gained by American cities in the vacuum created by President Trump in areas such as climate, immigration and trade. Cities will be stimulated to engage globally with partners in business, culture and social development. The plan is to deploy experienced diplomats in cities and states to build local expertise. Legislative processes have been ongoing since 2019: Representatives Ted Lieu (R) and Joe Wilson (D) then proposed a "City and State Diplomacy Act". A year later, Senators Chris Murphy (D) and David Perdue (R) put forward a similar proposal.

City department at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs?

Will a similar department be realistic in Norwegian OUT? After the crippling reorganization processes and covid-lockdown of recent years, new approaches and ideas are needed. Not least to open doors and guide our local authorities with regard to players in global finance, business, technology and knowledge. It is necessary to strengthen diplomatic competence. Especially in the long-term "reconstruction" processes that are now gaining momentum in many global urban networks and within the UN and the World Bank. Cities are becoming more and more important players due to population growth and economic development – new cities are being built in Africa and Asia.

Norway must increase its assistance to social urban development and strengthen knowledge of the extreme socio-economic conditions that prevail in poor urban communities worldwide.

Solberg Government's action plan for UN Sustainability targets, presented in May, will need to integrate local, national and global considerations and measures. The plan must benefit from, guide and coordinate local authorities, business, civil society and academia within a new sustainable global policy.


See The world of cities. Action for the UN's sustainability goals. (2020 / 21).

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