The world is ready for city foreign policies

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ report on Chicago’s Global Strategy.

Last week, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs hosted its third annual Chicago Forum on Global Cities, a conference that draws mayors, urban planners, philanthropists, businesspeople, and others concerned with how cities can learn from one another. I’ve attended the conference every year, and the conversation has evolved significantly as the US and international political landscape has shifted.

In 2015, the Forum spent most of its time talking about the world’s largest and most powerful cities—those that tend to top global city rankings—and explaining why the Forum was needed in the first place. Is there a seat at the table alongside nations to lead progress? In that year’s final event, panelists including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright discussed whether cities should have a foreign policy, separate from the national agenda. Most people (with the exception of celebrated political theorist and author Benjamin Barber) seemed skeptical of the idea. At the 2016 conference, the conversation evolved but still focused considerable energy on the world’s most powerful cities and the question of what role, if any, they can play as global leaders.

This year, the tone shifted dramatically. The backdrop of the Trump administration has lent considerable credibility to the notion that cities can be leaders on issues such as climate change. In the wake of the administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, for example, a growing group of US cities, states, universities, and companies have committed to adhering to the agreement. The New York Times quotes former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg as writing that “the bulk of the decisions which drive U.S. climate action in the aggregate are made by cities, states, businesses, and civil society . . . Collectively, these actors remain committed to the Paris accord.” And just like that, the Forum found itself in the midst of a much broader discussion not of whether cities should take a stand—but how. The Paris Agreement is currently structured so that only countries can be signatories, but the swell of voices pushing for the inclusion of local governments and other organizations is getting louder by the day.

The other significant departure at this year’s Forum was how much time we spent discussing cities in emerging nations, or what we’re apparently now calling the Global South. As Martin Kimani, the director of Kenya’s Counter-Terrorism Center, quipped, “The future of cities looks less like London and more like Nairobi.”

But what does a foreign policy actually look like?

The day before this year’s Forum started, Council President Ivo Daalder published an eloquent explanation of how cities are stepping in when the federal government pulls back—and he called for cities to formulate their own foreign policies. “[C]ities need an institutional structure that in some ways mirror[s] the foreign policy apparatus at the national level,” he wrote. “The [cities] that thrive in the global competition are those that identify their global interests, frame a foreign policy to meet those interests, and sell it to the world and to their citizens at home.”

And the Council put its money where its mouth is. The next day it released a report, Chicago’s global strategy: A model for effectively engaging with the world, which is a first crack at such a city foreign policy. The report reflects the thought process behind the Forum itself: how do we coordinate actors across the civic, commerce, artistic and cultural, and education communities to achieve more effective global engagement that benefits all citizens?

The report breaks down Chicago’s assets and liabilities in each of these spheres and offers a customized set of recommendations to harness the city’s international relationships and activities—and to coordinate them. Say, for example, that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is traveling to China. Other organizations focused on the city’s China-relevant activities could provide support or even coordinate trade missions, student trips, and other simultaneous exhibitions of Chicago culture. Such coordination can cut down on duplication of efforts, saving resources, maximizing economies of scale, and bolstering relationships at home and around the world.

At Leff Communications, we are proud to work with the Council and other organizations committed to developing our beloved city. It was an honor to be involved in the research, writing, and design of this report, and we hope it proves to be just the beginning of the conversation. The evolution of the Forum is a strong indicator that progress is underway, that the right people are gathering and sharing the ideas that will lift up all cities—large and small, developed and emerging.

As of today, Leff Communications has joined the growing list of businesses, municipalities, states, and universities that will remain committed to the Paris Agreement. If your business would like to join us in taking this stand for our planet, sign up at

Brittany Williams

Brittany is the editorial director at Leff. She is passionate about helping clients tell their stories through incisive, fact-based narratives. Every once in awhile, she takes a break to muse on rhetorical devices, grammar, and content strategy on the Leff Communications blog. Follow Brittany on Twitter @britpetersen.

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