The Urban 20: A Contemporary Diplomatic History

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Written by Ian Klaus

The Group of Twenty (G20) has long been the diplomatic white whale of city diplomats and urbanists. More than the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, the BRICs, the Group of Seven (G7), or even the United Nations Security Council, G20 members most accurately represent economic and political power in the world today. And yet, with over fifty percent of the world urbanized and with cities driving economic growth and increasingly the global climate change agenda, city leaders have for years had no formal avenue for engaging the G20. That changed in December, 2017, with the announcement by the city of Buenos Aires in Paris of the Urban 20 (U20) and the convening in October, 2018, of the first U20 Mayors Summit in Buenos Aires.

It has become commonplace to note that the global order—with its bedrock post-World War II institutions, alliances, and diplomatic norms—is under strain. The absence of consensus communiqués from the 2017 G20 in Germany and 2018 G7 in Canada both reveal the high diplomatic costs of sudden shifts in policy priorities and disregard for diplomatic practice. The advent of the U20 is meant to elevate the role of cities on this uncertain global stage. It has emerged from the leadership of networks and mayors, and in that sense is part of the larger megatrends of the twenty-first century. But it is not meant to overturn any order, to challenge the Westphalian system. It stems, instead, from a realization that cities cannot act alone to solve global challenges like climate change and income inequality. And it reflects the fundamental truth that nation-states cannot solve those problems without working hand-in-hand with cities. In short, the U20 is part of a larger effort to evolve the global order, including the G20, to reflect the reality of power in the twenty-first century and to meet its challenges.

Why Now?

The G20 has seven engagement groups—including the Business 20, Science 20, and Civil 20—to allow non-state expertise and perspective into its process. While each has the ability to include issues facing cities, until 2018 no formal group or platform existed to allow municipal officials and city-perspectives to communicate as a collective to G20 leaders and Sherpas. This is not necessarily for lack of effort, and recognition of the need for a collective-city voice is not new. The Obama Administration gave consideration to integrating urban concerns into G20 processes, and Germany possessed ambitions to elevate urban issues at Hamburg. Leading urbanists, economists and academics like Aromar Revi, Director of the Indian Institute for Human Settlements, and Michael Cohen, Director of the International Affairs Program at the New School, have been advocating for such a development for years. C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group (C40) and other leading networks in the climate change space, meanwhile, have increasingly recognized the need to broaden their diplomatic efforts to include the G20.

Indeed, the realization of the U20 is less an intellectual innovation than it is a diplomatic development. Its development is the result of both larger trends and discrete political leadership. On the structural side, cities now possess the ability to organize quickly and efficiently. According to ongoing research at the University of Melbourne, there are currently over 300 city networks. These networks consistently lead to policy exchange and frequent dialogue between officials. Two of these networks, C40 and United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), have played central roles in the creation and orchestration of the U20, with C40 serving as the convener in collaboration with UCLG. C40 is comprised of 96 of the world’s largest cities, while UCLG’s network represents 70% of the world’s total population and is present on six continents. Such networks are now experienced at producing communiqués and charters and have helped develop the practice of city diplomacy.

The G20, unlike many other multilateral institutions, does not have a secretariat, making the role of the presidency—or host member—all the more important. The leadership of the City of Buenos Aires thus proved crucial to the launch and subsequent direction of the U20.  In the summer of 2017, Buenos Aires Mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta proposed the idea to the Mayor of Paris and Chair of C40, Anne Hidalgo, who would ultimately serve alongside Larreta as co-chair. The idea was rather simple: global cities, subject to global economic pressures and possessing significant political power, communicating on global issues, like climate change, to the targeted audience of G20 leaders and sherpas. The leadership of Buenos Aires and Paris combined with the strength of their city networks, and, Mayors Larreta and Hidalgo launched the U20 on the margins of the One Planet Summit in Paris in December, 2017.

There’s No Going It Alone

The growth of subnational diplomacy over the last decades has been fueled, in part, by a recognition that nation-states are not moving fast enough to meet global challenges. These alternative efforts are only part of the story, however. As the participation of scores of cities at COP 21 in Paris also shows, many of the more robust diplomatic efforts by cities and city-networks have in fact sought to influence international organizations, nation-states, and their treaties and agreements.

These efforts of diplomatic influence are informed by two strategic assumptions: first, that nation-states can only deliver on the best of their ambitions if they learn to work with, and in some cases empower, cities; and, second, that no matter how many commitments cities make or networks they build, they cannot do it alone. In most cases, rapidly growing cities, for instance, do not possess the financing needed to undertake necessary infrastructure projects.  In many cases, they do not possess the authority. Or put another way, to undertake the systemic transition to a zero-carbon society, cities need to work with multilateral and national finance organizations; and to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement on climate change, nations need cities to reduce their energy use and change urban behavior patterns.

The diplomatic logic is collaboration and action rather than resistance. The U20 affirmed this approach in its first public declaration, a Joint Statement in April 2018: “We stand ready to work constructively and collaboratively with G20 leaders to find solutions for our common global challenges.”

The twin goals of collaboration and influence, meanwhile, had obvious implications for U20 policy priorities. U20 statements, and adjoining engagement efforts with respective national Sherpas, needed to track roughly to the G20 agenda developed by Argentina. U20 commitments and statements were negotiated through a series of Sherpa meetings, the first hosted by Paris in February, 2018, and second in New York City in June, 2018. In addition to the cities, these meetings included a wide array of expert participants and observers, including the Business 20, the World Bank, the International Finance Corporation, and the OECD, as well as the Development Bank of Latin America, the Inter-American Development Bank, the French Development Agency, UN Habitat, and many others. The commitments offered by cities emerging from these meetings and ongoing bilateral discussions hewed closely to the priorities of the G20 Presidency. The initial Joint Statement coming from the first U20 Sherpas’ meeting prioritized climate change, the future of work, and social inclusion. Subsequent statements, including the communiqué, presented a combination of priorities of the G20 presidency along with those of cities.  Oftentimes, as was the case with food security and gender equality, priorities converged.

Diplomacy Evolves

The U20 was conceived in the image of the G20: cities of political and economic power from geo-politically active countries working together on shared goals. And like the G20, the U20 will likely always suffer from institutional ambiguity: Is the goal to deepen diplomatic relationships or to manage crises? Should it have a secretariat? Should its membership be more open? The cities of U20 were nearly unanimous that they did not want a new organization or network.  Instead, U20 is a platform, and as such, the chair will prove crucial in managing diplomatic interactions and building relationships with the G20 presidency. In 2019, that role will fall to Tokyo during the Japanese presidency of the G20.  That means exciting policy issues around smart cities and pressing ones around aging populations could theoretically be on the table alongside climate change and sustainable development.

True to the platform itself, pressing diplomatic questions will also need to be addressed. As the post-World War II order continues to evolve, speed and flexibility in mobilizing collective effort are now key to meeting global challenges, from the counter-ISIL coalition to the 2014 international response to the Ebola outbreak. But such efforts require extensive diplomatic engagement. And perhaps even more pressing, they require someone able to forge consensus. U20 cities include Tokyo, Berlin, Mexico City, Moscow, Beijing, and Tshwane. As with the G20 in times of challenging geopolitics, the U20 chairs may well face moments where they must balance the difficult choice between consensus and progress.  The platform is there now for such negotiations and choices. And the diplomat, of course, must believe a path can be found serving both ends.

About the author: Ian Klaus is diplomatic adviser to the Urban 20. He is non-resident senior fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Previously, he was senior adviser for global cities at the US Department of State, and deputy United States negotiator for the United Nations Conference on Housing and Sustainable Development (Habitat III).