Skip main navigation

Cities as cultural diplomacy actors

This video explains the domains of intervention of cities in international relations and the role of culture.
How did cities emerge as diplomatic actors? Well, 1648 marked the rise of a monopoly of states on the conduct of international relations. It was in the 20th century that cities emerged as actors in the international field, and decentralised cooperation increased. At the start of the 20th century, there were cases of cultural exchange that involved associations and schools, as well as cases of cross-border cooperation between municipalities of neighbouring towns in different countries for mutual benefit. For example, in school exchanges. Along this trend, after World War II, town twinning projects were developed to promote peace between east and west.
Twin towns or sister cities usually have similar demographics and size, and the reasons for their partnership land business connections, similar industries, vast broad communities, or shared history. Moreover, assistance programmes were launched to support cities in newly independent African countries, such as in the case of Marseille, in Abidjan initiated in 1958, which provided support for higher education. In 1964, the UN recognises town twinning as a means of international relations and the following year, encourages UNESCO to foster this practise. Cities have also been increasingly involved in lobbying on subjects like climate change and people’s mobility.
In fact, the 1992 Rio Earth Summit sees local governments participating for the first time in a UN summit and recognises their role in the environment action plan. In 1996, the UN Habitat II conference involves local governments in the deliberations and recognises them as essential partners for the habitat agenda implementation. And in 2000, the UN Habitat establishes the United Nations Advisory Committee of Local Authorities with the aim to promote dialogue of the UN system with local authorities. In 2016, at the UN Habitat III Conference, local authorities are involved in defining the new urban agenda. Over time, cities intervened, also in domains usually associated with state politics, such as security and development.
In fact, while states remain the main actors in conflict resolutions, cities can play a role, as their action is perceived as more neutral. Take the example of Mayors for Peace, the International Organisation of Cities established in 1982 at the initiative of the then mayor of Hiroshima to lobby against nuclear weapons. And of the Cities for Peace movement launched in the US to lobby against the war in Iraq. Moreover, cities can support development, for example, by providing loans or grants, building schools, setting up training programmes. This is the case, for example, of the actions taken by Australian cities in East Timor and Sri Lanka or of Canadian cities in Brazil.
It can also consist in bringing assistance in emergency situations, such as earthquakes, tsunamis, and other natural catastrophes. Culture has always been central and interaction between cities, allowing young people to travel and experience different cultures, setting up exchanges and sports and schools. Cultural practises remain a key modality of exchange between cities. Cities have been using culture to promote themselves on an international scale. This logic, referred to as urban marketing or urban branding, has become popular for cities wishing to give a positive image of themselves. Such strategies lead many cities to compete to host mega events, like the Olympic games, in order to attract media attention.
Finally, cities today cooperate more and more to exchange know-how and develop cultural policies that can contribute to social, economic, and urban development.

How did cities emerge as diplomatic actors? This video explains the domains of intervention of cities in international relations and the role of culture.

This article is from the free online

Cultural Diplomacy

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Reach your personal and professional goals

Unlock access to hundreds of expert online courses and degrees from top universities and educators to gain accredited qualifications and professional CV-building certificates.

Join over 18 million learners to launch, switch or build upon your career, all at your own pace, across a wide range of topic areas.

Start Learning now