Exchange Matters / August 29, 2019

The Value of City Diplomacy

By Jennifer Karbowsky, Manager of Professional Exchanges, World Learning

(Above) International visitors on the IVLP project “City Diplomacy and Global Engagement” enjoy lunch in Washington, DC. Photo by Sarah Schauber.


“The promise of powerful urban diplomacy is undeniable,” writes Nina Hachigian, former U.S. Ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and current Deputy Mayor of International Affairs for the City of Los Angeles, in an April 2019 article in Foreign Policy on the role of city diplomacy in global affairs. According to Hachigian, mayors around the world are taking leadership roles on issues including trade and the environment, while recognizing the value of global cultural, educational, and business linkages for their citizens.

It was in this context that 16 international mayors and city leaders gathered from July 10-20 in the U.S. to explore city diplomacy and global engagement through the International Visitor Leadership Program. The program was coordinated by World Learning, a National Program Agency, and implemented by the World Trade Center Institute and the International Institute of Wisconsin (IIW), both Global Ties U.S. Community-Based Members.

The goal of the program was to explore key areas for global engagement and cooperation at the city level, such as higher education, industry, tourism, government, and civil society. Given the broad range of cities the participants hailed from—Swan, Australia; Phnom Penh, Cambodia; Guayaquil, Ecuador; Bitola, North Macedonia; and Arusha, Tanzania—the group brought unique expertise and perspective on engaging local audiences in global issues.

The group first traveled to Baltimore, MD to examine the efforts of the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts to launch Light City, an international cultural festival. In Milwaukee, WI, they visited Marquette University to discuss international education and research partnerships. They met Alexander Durtka, Jr., who serves as President and CEO of IIW as well as State Coordinator for Wisconsin Sister Cities International, two organizations that exemplify the efforts of U.S. cities to reach international audiences, promote economic growth, and prepare U.S. citizens to succeed in a global setting.

International visitors from Vietnam, South Africa, and South Korea pose with their home hospitality hosts in Milwaukee, WI. Photo by Heide Crossley.


In Houston, TX, the participants attended the Sister Cities International Annual Conference which was themed “Cities Mean Business.” In addition to a focus on the economic benefits of city diplomacy, the participants pursued topics
and discussions most relevant to their work, such as sports diplomacy and entrepreneurship. They networked with counterparts from across the U.S. In addition, they met Assistant Secretary of State for Educational and Cultural Affairs Marie Royce, and attended an awards dinner where former President George W. Bush provided keynote remarks.

For the participants, the IVLP offered insights that might inform city diplomacy work across the Global Ties Network. They were struck by the significant role of volunteers in U.S. nonprofits and noted the importance of engaging a broad variety of stakeholders in international activities. Public-private partnerships between city officials, the private sector, and civil society offered a sustainable approach to vibrant global programs.

As we see every day in the network, cities of all sizes can engage meaningfully in international partnerships and exchanges.