In Defense of City Diplomacy

by Gary Barnabo

Millennials understand that global peace and prosperity depends on building broad and deep relationships across sectors, cultures, and borders. The next generation of global leaders realizes that international affairs is no longer only under the purview of governments and countries—people and networks matter just as much. But the importance of citizen-led diplomacy is not a novelty. Sister Cities International was founded on this exact idea nearly sixty years ago—by an unlikely champion of the power of person-to-person connections to rebuild the world.

At a White House summit on citizen diplomacy in 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower—General Dwight D. Eisenhower—shared a vision for a rebuilt world founded on the mutual understanding and respect of people from cities around the globe. Eisenhower explained that citizen diplomacy “is the most worthwhile purpose in the world today: to help build the road to peace, to help build the road to an enduring peace.” He understood that personal connections cut across political borders and social divides in ways that governments and militaries do not.

Solutions to global challenges often come from surprising places. City-to-city relationships, managed by committed individuals with shared purpose and belief, offer a way to conduct international relations that receives far less appreciation than it deserves.

Eisenhower never would have predicted that U.S. cities would form 199 relationships with sister cities in Japan. No other country has more sister city partnerships with American communities. And today, few people would have imagined local officials from Colorado who, after supporting the development of new local governments in Iraq in 2003-2004, developed a deep partnership between Denver and Baghdad that endures today. The power of people-to-people connections is enduring and powerful and it stands up in the face of great adversity.

The world our generation has inherited is more volatile, more complex and more dynamic than in the past. The same technology that connects us reveals, with increasing clarity, our differences. Schisms emerge. Violent extremism, jingoism, protectionism, and revanchism are the outcomes of allowing misunderstanding of cultures, of histories, and of aspirations to split people apart.

Citizen exchanges and sister city relationships bring people together to discover what we have in common. The relationships we build today, people-to-people, city-to-city, are the foundation of the type of society we envision for tomorrow.

This article originally appeared in The Diplomatic Courier.

Gary Barnabo is president of Young Professionals in Foreign Policy and serves on the Board of Directors of Sister Cities International. He is also a member of the upcoming Sister Cities International Diplomatic Gala’s Young Professional Host Committee: http://www.sistercities.org/gala.