2017 Chicago Forum Workshop

The Foreign Policy of Global Cities

Global cities are the vanguards of openess, shaping norms well beyond city limits. But despite the globalization that connects us, most city leaders do not have a global engagement strategy--a foreign policy--to engage the world and unify city leaders around common goals. In discussing this new paradigm, workshop participants identified three priorities:

Traditional ways of thinking about international relations are no longer sufficient. Globalization and the digitization of the global economy have made it easier for substate actors to shape affairs on the world stage—particularly as many major challenges facing the world such as urban violence, climate change, and inequality have a greater impact on urban centers than on nations as a whole. At the same time, urbanization is concentrating more people and power in cities—a trend that is expected to continue throughout the century. Yet political power held by cities on the global stage lags behind their immense and growing economic and cultural might. At times cities find their interests in conflict with, or ignored by, national government agendas.


To examine how cities might develop their own foreign policies, a group of leaders—including former prime ministers, ambassadors, scholars, mayors, and CEOs—came together in a private workshop at the 2017 Chicago Forum on Global Cities. The following is the problem statement around which the workshop was framed and a summary of the highlights of their discussion—including the challenges that remain top of mind for the world’s leading experts on this issue.

Problem statement


Global cities are the hubs of the world, and increasingly influential players on the world stage. Their banks and markets finance the global economy and their corporations shape the economy. Their universities examine the past, imagine the future, and train the next generations to make it happen. Global communications and a globalized culture radiate from global cities. Furthermore, the urban impact of the challenges facing the world—security threats, climate change, inequality—means city leaders are at the center of the search for solutions.


The actions of global cities transcend national borders. Today, global cities need coherent strategies to engage a globalized world and unify one another around a common goal—a strategy akin to a nation’s foreign policy. Those that fail to develop explicit strategies for global engagement risk falling behind other more ambitious cities. Can global cities have their own foreign policy, and if so what would it look like?
New York City, New York, USA

Discussion highlights


Communication and coordination around a coherent strategy, both within cities and among them, will be key to developing city foreign policies. But what does that look like in practice?

Establish greater coordination within cities. Most global cities and the institutions within them already engage globally, albeit in disparate, siloed ways. Corporations and universities in cities, for instance, have been operating globally for decades. Yet their activities are independent both of City Hall and of overlapping ventures, wasting opportunities and duplicating efforts. If cities want to protect, defend, and exercise their interests—with or without the cooperation of nation-states—mayors and other city leaders must lead in efforts to coordinate such interactions and ambitions within a unified framework. Mayors should take the lead in bringing together city leaders and stakeholders to clearly define and promote a common agenda.


Of course, community support is needed for mayors and other civic and business leaders to spearhead a city’s foreign policy. Day-to-day governing puts heavy demands on mayors to stay put in their cities. Spending money and time to engage with or visit other cities must be rigorously justified to local constituents. Demonstrated, tangible benefits of global engagement are key for gaining the support of residents.

For further discussion:

  • Which key city players should be involved in the development and implementation of a foreign policy?

  • How can cities achieve citizen buy-in for a foreign policy?

Work with nation-state institutions. Even as cities gain more political power, nation-states will still hold constitutional and political powers unavailable to cities. City leaders need to make their interests and ambitions clear to their national governments, particularly when their priorities do not align with national agendas. National governments are also encouraged to develop strategies to better respond to the needs of their cities and understand that to do their job well, they must work at the urban level as well as at the national level.

For further discussion:

  • On what issues does your city’s perspective differ from that of your national government? How can your city make progress on those issues?

  • What can national governments do to strengthen their partnerships with cities both inside and outside their borders?

Dubai, UAE

Engage in urban networks. A key point of influence for increased city diplomacy is the power of collective local action on a global scale. On issues such as climate change, trade, and immigration, working together adds credibility and urgency when city leaders want to influence their national governments and international institutions. One mayor trying to persuade a national leader can be ignored; dozens, even hundreds, cannot. This support need not be bound by traditional borders. The challenge is to formalize such collective signaling of interests and preferences by cities so it is recognized by national and international bodies.


Stronger, more organized city-to-city relationships are required. With so many major cities in the world, costs are high for cities to develop and maintain individual relationships. Networks that facilitate city-to-city coordination offer opportunities to share best practices with each other and learn what works, what does not, and why. Existing networks provide an opportunity to establish city-to-city communications that are both more cost-effective and more inclusive for medium-tier and emerging cities. The networks that have been most successful to date, such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and 100 Resilient Cities, have focused on research and mobilization around one specific issue. There is opportunity for new institutions that focus less on specific issues and specialize more on providing the mechanisms of city-to-city coordination for whatever major issues arise.

For further discussion:

  • What gaps exist in today’s urban networks?

  • What types of organizational governance need to be developed to give cities a “seat at the table” on key issues—and who will take the lead?


There is no reason for the international system of the future to look like the system of the past 400 years. Whether cities work within existing networks and organizations, such as the United Nations, or create entirely new parallel institutions, such as the C40, city leaders need to embrace their role in shaping economic, social, and political policies around the world. Through their influence and actions, a new international system will emerge.

How will your city craft its foreign policy? Join the conversation @ChicagoForum.

The 2017 Chicago Forum on Global Cities was made possible by the following forward-thinking companies: AbbVie, UL, Grant Thornton, Hyatt Hotels Foundation, Motorola Solutions, United Airlines, and USG Corporation.

Save the date, June 6-8, for the 2018 Chicago Forum on Global Cities. Learn more at

Workshop notes drafted by John Cookson, Special Assistant to the President, Chicago Council on Global Affairs.