U.S. ADVISORY COMMISSION ON PUBLIC DIPLOMACY
Minutes and transcript from the June 1, 2022 quarterly public meeting to examine city diplomacy as a form of domestic public diplomacy and to highlight the release of the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy’s report on Exploring Public Diplomacy’s Domestic Dimensions: Purviews, Publics, and Policies.
U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy Quarterly Meeting
Wednesday, June 1, 2022, 12:00 PM – 1:15 PM ET
Virtual Public Meeting via Videoconference
COMMISSION MEMBERS PRESENT:
TH Sim Farar, Chair
TH William Hybl, Vice-Chair
TH Anne Terman Wedner
COMMISSION STAFF MEMBERS PRESENT:
Dr. Vivian S. Walker, Executive Director
Ms. Deneyse Kirkpatrick, Senior Advisor
Ms. Kristy Zamary, Program Assistant
The U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy met in an open virtual session from 12:00 p.m. to 1:15 p.m. on Wednesday, June 1, 2022, to examine city diplomacy as a form of domestic public diplomacy.
A distinguished group of municipal diplomacy professionals from three key regions provided firsthand insights into the relationship between city diplomacy and domestic public diplomacy.
and the panelists highlighted the release of the Commission’s April 2022 special report, Exploring U.S. Public Diplomacy’s Domestic Dimensions: Purviews, Publics, and Policies. Panelists included Tony Pipa, Senior Fellow, Brookings Institute, Center for Sustainable Development; Christopher Olson, Director of Trade & International Affairs, City of Houston; Vanessa Ibarra, Director of International Affairs, City of Atlanta; and Sherry Dowlatshahi, Chief Diplomacy & Chief Protocol Officer, City of San Antonio.
ACPD Executive Director Vivian Walker opened the session, and Chairman Sim Farar provided introductory remarks. Vivian Walker moderated the Q&A and provided a discussion wrap-up; Vice-Chairman Bill Hybl closed the meeting. The speakers took questions from the Commissioners and the online audience, as detailed in the transcript below.
Approximately 200 participants registered and 115 attended this virtual public meeting, including:
- PD practitioners and PD leadership from the Department of State, USAGM, and other agencies;
- Members of the foreign affairs and PD think tank communities;
- Academics in communications, foreign affairs, and other fields;
- Congressional staff members;
- Retired USIA and State PD officers;
- Members of the international diplomatic corps; and
- Members of the public.
Note: The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.
Vivian Walker: Hello, everyone. My name is Vivian Walker and I have the distinct honor of being the Executive Director and Designated Federal Officer for the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy. Along with Commission Chair Sim Farar, Vice Chairman Bill Hybl, and Commissioner Anne Wedner, it is my pleasure to welcome you to today’s quarterly public meeting, which is held in partial fulfillment of the Commission’s mandate to keep the American people informed about U.S. government public diplomacy policies and practices and international broadcasting activities.
Today’s meeting will focus on a recently published special report by the ACPD on public diplomacy’s domestic dimension. I hope some of you have had the opportunity to look at it. It is available on our website, https://www.state.gov/reports-u-s-advisory-commission-on-public-diplomacy/.
Intended as an exploration of domestic engagement with foreign policy issues, this report was produced in cooperation with the collaboration and support of Jay Wang, director of the Center on Public Diplomacy at USC Annenberg and Kathy Fitzpatrick, director of the Zimmerman School at the University of South Florida.
Together, the three of us envisioned this workshop and the subsequent report on public diplomacy’s domestic dimension as the starting point for a national conversation about what it means to engage in public diplomacy domestically—both the challenges and the opportunities.
At the same time, we were eager to join what is already a truly robust international conversation about these issues, whether you frame them as questions of domestic public diplomacy, sub-national diplomacy, or para diplomacy.
I think we can all agree that city diplomacy or engaging in domestic public diplomacy outreach from city, municipal, and regional platforms, is an important component of domestic public diplomacy. And today, we are fortunate to have a distinguished panel of city diplomacy practitioners to walk us through their perspectives on the work, its risks, and its benefits.
You’ve had a chance, I hope, to review the panelists’ biographies, but just to remind you, we have with us today Tony Pipa, a Senior Fellow at the Center for Sustainable Development at Brookings here in D.C., Chris Olsen the Director of Trade and International Affairs at the Office of the Mayor in the City of Houston and a former U.S. Foreign Service Officer, Vanessa Ibarra, a Director at the Mayor’s Office of International Affairs in the city of Atlanta, and Sherry Dowlatshahi, the Chief Diplomacy and Protocol Officer, and Head of Global Engagement for the City of San Antonio.
Before we turn to Chairman Farar for his opening remarks, I just want to remind you about process. First, our four panelists will be speaking consecutively. There will be no breaks between their presentations. We ask that you enter your questions into the Q&A function on the bottom right of your screen, and we will try to get to as many of them as we can in the Q&A session that follows.
The other note I’d like to make is that while we will not have a video recording available of this event, we will produce a full transcript of the proceedings, and we will alert all of you attending today to its availability. It will also be on our website.
With that, I’m very pleased to turn this over to Chairman Sim Farar. Sim?
Sim Farar: Thank you, Vivian, and all of you who have joined us today. With my distinguished colleagues from the Commission, Vice Chairman Bill Hybl from Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Anne Wedner from Miami Beach, Florida, I am pleased to welcome you to this quarterly meeting. Thank you all for joining us.
As always, we sincerely appreciate your continued interest and commitment to the practice of public diplomacy. I’d also like to extend a warm welcome to Jay Wang, and Kathy Fitzpatrick, and thank them for their invaluable contributions. Thanks too to our panelists who have agreed to share their insights and expertise with us today.
Our bipartisan Commission was created by Congress in 1948 to appraise U.S. government activities intended to understand, inform, and influence foreign publics and to increase the understanding of, and support of, these activities.
For nearly three-quarters of a century, the Commission has represented the public interest through regular reviews of U.S. government’s global information, media, cultural, and educational exchange programs. The Commission also assess the effectiveness of these public diplomacy activities, recommends changes when needed, and reports its findings and recommendations to the President of the United States, Congress, the Secretary of State, and, of course, the American people.
Our newest special report on public diplomacy’s domestic dimensions gives us an opportunity today to explore how American cities play an integral and fascinating role in facilitating global cooperation among local governments on transnational issues. Our expert panel will explore cities’ engagements with foreign political actors in the public as well as private sectors. We will also examine the process and institutions through which cities represents their interests on the international stage.
Once again, thank you all very much for joining us.
Vivian Walker: Thank you, Sim. It is my distinct pleasure to turn to today’s panelists. We will be going in the order in which I introduced them. As I noted before, there will be no break between their presentations.
Again, the Q&A function on the bottom right is available in case you have any questions.
With that, Tony, please, the floor is yours.
Tony Pipa: Thank you, Vivian. Thanks for the invitation to be here and to be part of this panel with the people who really do the work. And so, coming from the Brookings Institution, what I’ll attempt to do is lay out a bit of context for where the field of city diplomacy is and particularly the opportunity that it provides for U.S. foreign policy. The leadership that mayors and others from the U.S. are showing on the global stage offer an example of what diplomacy at the local level looks like.
So, first, I think the thing to keep in mind is that many of the global issues that we are facing today, in which our national foreign policy is involved multilaterally, have very concrete implications at the local level.
So, Covid-19 pandemic is certainly a case in point. A global health crisis with very real implications for and disruptions of not just our own personal lives, but the lives of our communities, our neighborhoods, our cities, and our local institutions.
But Covid-19 is not the only issue that knows no national or political boundaries. Climate change is also another one. Cities taking action have an enormous ability to affect climate change because more than 70% of the global greenhouse emissions are produced by urban areas.
Migration is another issue that knows no boundaries. But our neighborhoods and our cities are on the front lines. Mayors often deal with the concrete implications of these kinds of issues.
Because of that, city diplomacy as a field has grown substantially in breadth and importance over the last two decades. Mayors are reaching out to their counterparts to exchange information and best practices, and the innovations that they’re creating ensure that their constituents are being served well in a time of crisis.
We’ve seen an explosion of what I would call city-to-city operation on a global level. This reflects what we would typically describe in foreign policy circles as the international world order. Most of those multilateral institutions are member state-led and those member states are nation states. Diplomats who are at the World Bank or the international finance institutions, for example, are grounded in the theory and practice of nation states.
U.S. mayors are increasingly involved in global development and are seeking economic ways to benefit their constituents. City governments increasingly want to be involved in the development and the practice of global policy and agreements on tough transnational issues because they are already on the front lines showing a great deal of leadership on these particular issues.
In fact, I’ll just come back to Covid-19. It was Mayor Eric Garcetti in Los Angeles who chaired the Network of C40 (cities taking action on climate change) that actually convened mayors from across the world. Through Garcetti’s work, mayors from Italy, where some of the most rapid transmission was happening early in the pandemic, met to discuss lessons learned from their response with others who needed to be ready because they knew it was coming to their cities.
Based the work that Mayor Garcetti and other mayors were doing, the C40 came up with an agenda for what recovery from Covid-19 ought to look like and how to advance on issues such as climate change, economic and social inequities, and other challenges that the world ought to be thinking about as we look to recover.
The final point is that national foreign policy hasn’t kept pace with the emerging leadership by mayors at the local and global levels. There’s been a lack of synergy and even communication between U.S. diplomats and national policymakers.
Mayors can make the link between the local, and the global, and how global issues relate to U.S. interests at home in a way that is often actually more concrete and tangible for everyday citizens than the efforts of State Department diplomats.
And that is one of the reasons that Brookings—through a report that I did—recommended the creation of an office on city and state diplomacy to open the communications between U.S. diplomats and policymakers.
Vivian Walker: Thank you so much. With that, I’ll now turn to Chris Olson.
Chris Olson: Thank you very much, Vivian, and I hope everybody can hear me okay. And certainly, good afternoon or good morning depending on where you might be joining us from.
I want to start by thanking the ACPD and the State Department for all their work on engaging, on building public diplomacy capacity, and for bringing us as cities together here today. As a former State Department officer, I had often discounted the role of cities and local officials and really didn’t recognize how much impact that they could have, not only on U.S. policy, but really on helping promote and deliver U.S. foreign policy to our residents.
My perspective changed, and I am glad the State Department is now leading these kinds of discussions. It showcases how the role of cities is changing not only within cities, but also at the federal level. And how cities are changing that landscape as part of what I’ve often called the rise of the modern city state.
The work being done by Tony Pipa and Brookings on urban diplomacy has really helped drive this narrative forward, along with the efforts of my colleagues from Atlanta and San Antonio. It’s always a pleasure to see both of you again. I must thank Sherry because she helped me immensely when I started this position in Houston about four years ago.
As the first city speaker today, I was trying to think how to address this challenge and my comments. But I decided it’s probably best to reintroduce Houston to the audience to frame my thoughts.
Houston’s a city that was founded back in 1836 when two brothers from New York saw Houston’s potential as a global export and important center connecting the rich middle of the United States to markets around the world. From these humble beginnings, the city of Houston has become the fourth largest city in the United States. One in four of our residents are foreign born. More than 140 different languages are spoken here. And Houston is home to more than 94 foreign diplomatic missions comprising the third largest counselor corps in the United States, a corps that continues to grow.
Houston is known around the world as the energy capital of the world. In addition to its history in the petrol chemical industry, Houston is leading the energy transition by cutting greenhouse gas submissions and supporting wind, solar and other renewables. As of last year, our city now runs on 100% renewable energy for all our municipal facilities.
Houston’s also home to the largest medical complex in the world, employing more than 100,0000. People from around the world come to Houston for medical treatment, and hospitals around the world partner with Houston area hospitals to build foreign capacity. Houston is also a center for manned space flight with the NASA Johnson Space Center and home to the only urban commercial space port.
We also have the largest port in the United States for international and foreign tunnage. We have trade relationships with more than 200 different countries. Houston has more than 1,700 foreign owned companies and 16 foreign banks. And Houston companies operate nearly 3,000 foreign subsidiaries around the world.
I highlight this background because Houston is a city that was built on international trade. So, making the case for the importance of global engagement or the impact of international policy on Houston to Houston’s residents is a lot less of a challenge than it is in other cities in the United States.
Explaining to Houston’s public why global security, the war on Ukraine, trade issues with Mexico, and other policy issues matter is just easier because we see it through the impacts of energy prices on our local companies, through the foreign patients that are coming to Houston to be treated in Houston-area hospitals, through the migration into our city, and through our trade actions across our southern border.
So, this global perspective is really built into the DNA of what Houston is and is also built into the framework of how we as a city and a municipality engage with our global partners. We undertook our first post-pandemic trade mission to Mexico in March. We’re launching a trade mission to France at the end of June, and a trade mission is planned for Japan in the fall.
On big global issues like climate action, Mayor Turner spoke at COP 26 last November, and Houston is Chair of the Global Resilience City Network, the World Energy City Partnership. As Tony mentioned, we’re actively engaged with the Urban 20, the C40, and a myriad of other climate focused global city networks.
On connecting our local population to global culture—during Ramadan in March, we hosted one of the largest communities Iftar dinners. We celebrated Africa Day last week with over 20 ambassadors from Africa as well as senior officials who attended a day of culture, politics, and business development. And we’ve already welcomed more than 20 inbound government and trade delegations in the last four months.
In all this Houston-level engagement with our international community, we still continually face the challenge of how we can best work with the foreign marketplace and government knowing that our citizenry is fairly engaged in this.
One of the ways that we engage—which again, surprised me coming from the State Department—is at the national level with foreign governments. As an example, when we were in Mexico last month, we met with the Ministers of Economy and Commerce, Tourism and Foreign Affairs as well as state and local level officials.
When we were in India two years ago, right before the pandemic started, we met with the Vice President and seven different ministers. We have found that national level governments want to engage with cities because of what cities do and what cities are.
We’re pragmatic. We need to find tangible solutions to meet near-term needs of our residents. We also engage at the global business level because we’re finding that these same tangible needs are met through foreign-direct investment via increased import and export opportunities for Houston businesses and foreign businesses that want to work here.
We engage bilaterally at the city level as well because cities around the world are trying to address the same challenges: “How do we create more affordable housing for our people?”; “How do we build more equitable economic development?”; and “How do we increase resiliency to withstand external shocks?”
Cities like Houston are directly facing the consequences of climate change. Houston has experienced seven nationally declared disasters over seven years. We’ve experienced three 500-year flood events in three consecutive years.
Economic shocks such as a downturn in global energy prices, and health shocks like the pandemic also have direct local impacts and require local solutions.
But local solutions to these challenges must be informed by global perspectives—which is where offices like mine come in. We also need national level assistance and support.
I’ve spent a lot of time talking with Tony at Brookings and many other groups that focus on subnational diplomacy initiatives, lead task forces on city engagement, and develop legislative approaches. The State Department is uniquely positioned to enable cities to engage at that national political level.
But this also needs to be carefully considered. One of the concerns I always voice from the city perspective is that federal support can go both ways. Cities really value their autonomy and the ability to act as fairly independent actors to serve the needs of their local citizens.
Any conversation on city interaction with national level policies and priorities such as human rights, climate, and free trade must also consider the city level imperative to meet tangible and pragmatic local needs. We must prevent national level politics from interfering with local priorities, especially when federal, state, and local policies and politics might not necessarily be aligned.
So, with that, I certainly thank everybody for what they’ve done and for the opportunity to join you all today. I welcome the questions that will come.
Vivian Walker: Thank you so much, Chris. Now it’s my pleasure to turn to Vanessa Ibarra.
Vanessa Ibarra: Thank you so much. Good Afternoon, Bonjour, Guten Tag, Buenos Dias. Very excited to be here on behalf of Mayor Andre Dickens and the various representatives from the City of Atlanta who do this incredible work.
As Vivian mentioned, my name is Vanessa Ibarra, and I’m the Director of the Mayor’s Office of International Affairs for the city of Atlanta. I’ve had the great pleasure of working under three administrations as a chief of protocol, as a deputy director, and then as an interim director, and then finally as a director. I’ve been leading the office for four and a half years now. We are a team of three. There are other cities around the world with teams of as many as 30, 50, or a 100.
To give you a little bit of background, as all of you may know, the city of Atlanta is known for being the birthplace of the civil rights movement and the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as Ambassador Andrew Young, John Lewis and various other giants who pushed Atlanta forward and really put us on the global stage.
Many of you may also know that we have the most efficient and well-traveled airport in the world.
Outside of the civil rights movement, outside of the airport, we also have the third highest concentration of Fortune500 companies. You may be familiar with Delta, Coca-Cola, and UPS. But we’re also very much focused on innovation and technology. We have about 40 innovation centers. We have been rated as one of the best cities for diversity in the tech workforce. And we’ve also been working very closely with the state of Georgia, which was voted “Best to do Business” for the eighth year in a row with $166 billion worth of trade.
I say all of this to share that we are a very international city. In Atlanta there are about 70 countries with a diplomatic presence, 30 bi-national chambers of commerce, and 17 sister cities. Around 2,700 international businesses have chosen Atlanta to expand their U.S. operations. A number of educational institutions call Atlanta home.
I will say that the new diplomats are our mayors, governors, and our various local leaders. Our mayor, for instance, is co-chair of the Truman Task Force for City and State Diplomacy. The task force also includes the Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles, Nina Hachigian, Senator Chris Murphy, Representative Ted Lieu, and Michigan State Secretary Jocelyn Benson. Mayor Dickens always says that diplomacy does not have to be limited to the senior level. It can also be done throughout the various departments. He always says, “You all are the ones who are going to be implementing the changes that I’m discussing.”
In Atlanta, we always like to talk about what’s great about our city, to include our ability to connect with our communities. The change of leadership and the change of vision we see at the national level also takes place on a local level. We also like to be transparent about the challenges we, like so many cities around the world, are facing, such as income inequality, affordable housing, the burden of sustainability and climate change, and the affordability of energy for our constituents.
The pandemic certainly accelerated our engagement with cities around the U.S. and the world. When the pandemic started, we reached out to Houston. We reached out to Denver. We asked, “What are you doing with the delegations visiting the United States?” We asked this question because we weren’t getting much guidance from the federal level. And that really helped us to start thinking about what we can do to keep visiting delegations safe.
Since the establishment of our office in 2013 we have welcomed over 1,000 delegations to Atlanta. Hosting one hundred delegations a year gives us the opportunity to have meaningful exchanges on issues such as sustainability, affordable housing, and climate change. We can also talk about infrastructure, transportation, economic recovery, and enabling small and medium-sized businesses to go global.
Our priorities include economic diplomacy. We participate in trade missions in collaboration with the state and the metro region (our population is 600,000 in the city of Atlanta and in the metro area we have a population of around six million inhabitants).
We must be careful and selective with the various industries that we choose to work with. Bandwidth is important, whether it be syntax, creative industries, health, IT, cybersecurity, supply chain logistics, or management. Within these sectors, we focus on helping medium-sized businesses and minority-owned businesses.
We also work very closely with major corporations, such as UPS for the Women Export University Program to ensure women owned businesses are globally competitive, and the Metro Atlanta Chamber for the Metro Atlanta Export Challenge Grant, which provides about $140,000 in grants to support Metro Atlanta, including Atlanta based companies to expand globally.
We are also focused on global education. We work with all the educational institutions in the Atlanta region. We work with sports organizations because we believe in sports diplomacy. We work with the airport. As a matter of fact, right after this panel, I will go to the airport because Air Canada is launching its inaugural flight at the airport.
I think it will be great for the State Department to come to the city and see the type of work that we do. We already work with the Office of Foreign Missions and are now doing more with State Department programs than before. But I think it is important for the State Department to see what we focus on here. The city has become very autonomous in many ways. As Chris mentioned, cities like their flexibility. They like that the mayor can meet with the mayor of Dusseldorf and talk about different opportunities.
I would love for the State Department to see how smaller cities across the United States like ours offer a model for engagement and how our work can be replicated.
The new diplomacy is mayors and governors in the lead, talking about global issues and local solutions.
Vivian Walker: Thank you so much. And finally, to round out our panel, I’m pleased to welcome Sherry Dowlatshahi.
Sherry Dowlatshahi: Good morning, and thank you, Vivian, for the invitation to participate in the panel today. And congratulations to the ACPD on the report that you’ve produced. I’m honored to join Tony, Chris, and Vanessa here today. My name is Sherry Dowlatshahi, and it is a privilege for me to lead international relations for the City of San Antonio.
I’d like to start also with a short introduction about my city. I think it helps the context, especially when we’re looking at the other cities here—Houston and Atlanta. Located in south central Texas, two hours from the U.S.-Mexico border, San Antonio is the seventh largest city by population in the United States. However, it ranks 24th in the nation for its Metropolitan Statistical Area, putting it well behind Atlanta and Houston, both of which have much larger MSAs.
We are a minority majority city with a 64% Hispanic population and 43% who speak a language other than English. And we’ve traditionally been a bicultural community, but we’re increasingly becoming multicultural.
In fact, over the last few decades, our Asian American population has been one of our fastest growing communities. And we’re increasingly seeing more global diversity within this community, with residents from different diaspora groups with a diversity of cultural offerings, and international trade and foreign direct investment activities.
Additionally, we are the fourth largest receiving city of Afghan refugees currently in the United States. And in the past year alone, we’ve had more than 175,000 migrants transmitting through our city from across the U.S.-Mexico border originating from many countries, not just from the Americas.
A long-time believer in international trade—very similar to Houston and to Atlanta—San Antonio hosted the signing of the North American Free-Trade Agreement back in 1992 when the three leaders of the U.S., Canada and Mexico signed the Agreement.
San Antonio has a diverse economy with tourism, financial services, biomedical and healthcare services, tech and cybersecurity, advanced manufacturing, aerospace, etc. We have always supported and advocated for defense related economic development, including the recent passage of the USMCA, also known as the Military City USA. Also, the Joint Base in San Antonio is the largest single Department of Defense installation in the country and is home to 260 mission partners.
Its military units conduct missions central to national security, including installation support, basic military training, security corporation with foreign militaries, cybersecurity, intelligence, aviation, and medical services. Joint Base-San Antonio is home to U.S. Army North and U.S. Army South, whose partners include nearly every country in North, Central and South America, and the Caribbean.
Here in San Antonio, we also host the Defense Language Institute and the Inter-American Air Force Academy, which conduct language, leadership, and aviation maintenance training for military personnel from allied nations.
I say all of this to set the stage for why this topic is so important to us. We are fortunate that the city has invested in a team of international relations practitioners since 1986 and understands the relevance of the work. Currently, we’re a team of six people in San Antonio and two in Mexico City. Our office is situated in the Economic Development Department. My team and I have seen a gradual and notable shift in the work that we do and how roles played by staff throughout the City of San Antonio are increasingly engaged with international work.
The powerful impact of a globally engaged mayor who understands the power of public diplomacy is worth noting. The mayor of San Antonio, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, previously held the role of chair of Sister Cities International and is supportive of the City’s many global initiatives.
City diplomacy is at the forefront of the work we do. Many city departments are now engaging in global conversations, partnerships, technical exchanges, and memberships in multilateral organizations. Topics covered include art and culture, public health, air and water quality, climate change, global migration, human rights, social justice and equity, international trade, and supply chains.
But I want to drill down at a micro level just to give you some concrete examples of some of these interactions at the local government level. For instance, our role as international practitioners has evolved in that we are no longer the sole interlocutors on behalf of our municipality. Increasingly we’re the facilitators who provide guidance and support for other actors within our city government.
The City of San Antonio has had a foreign office in Mexico since 1981, with city staff who work there primarily to promote trade in international business development but who also support our sister city relationships.
The Municipality created a World Heritage Office that directly represents the city’s participation in our two UNESCO designations, strengthening the visibility of world heritage and creative industries on the global stage. And this office is completely separate from the International Relations Office.
Our Office of Sustainability is increasingly connected to wide-ranging conversations and projects advocating for climate action. As such we participate in a meaningful way in international organizations such as ICLEI and the Bloomberg Global Mayor’s Challenge.
It’s interesting to see how pervasively global issues have permeated the organization. Promoting and facilitating people-to-people diplomacy has always been important in our understanding of international relations. We have 11 sister cities, and we are directly involved with local organizations in our community working across several pillars, to include youth and education, trade and economic development, cultural diplomacy best practices and humanitarian exchange. Despite not being able to travel in the last few years, we hosted many virtual engagements with our city partners around the world.
I’m not going to throw numbers at you. But we have hundreds of points of engagement every year internationally, including inbound and outbound delegations. We think global and act local, which reflects how we do business with trade groups and organizations like the World Affairs Council of San Antonio, the International Visitor Leadership Program and programs run by schools, colleges, and universities. Right now, as we speak, we’re planning trade and cultural missions to Panama, Columbia, and India and an investment mission to Japan.
The reality is that public diplomacy is happening every day at a granular level in our cities through trade and cultural missions around the world, sister city relationships, best practices and professional exchanges, cultural and educational engagement, refugee management, engagements with local multicultural community groups, all of which focus on inclusivity, compassion, and equity in government services.
The work at the local level is vital to the public diplomacy work carried out by the federal government.
Thank you for your attention.
Vivian Walker: Thank you so much, Sherry and to all our panelists. You have me convinced city diplomacy is the new global diplomacy.
To frame the upcoming Q&A, let me highlight what I think are some of the most interesting and compelling takeaways of the panel so far.
I was struck by Tony’s important observation that what happens at the level of city or municipal diplomacy reflects—although it’s not necessarily tied to—the international world order, and that the people working on the domestic level of city diplomacy are also on the front lines of truly tough international issues.
I also appreciated his acknowledgement of emerging leadership roles at the local level as well as his insight that national foreign policy hasn’t necessarily kept pace with actions and initiatives on the local level.
Chris provided a wonderful overview of the evolution of Houston’s city diplomacy. I was particularly intrigued by and agree with his note of caution about the autonomy that cities value even as they integrate into a larger global order, especially the need to balance national security and economic priorities with more pragmatic city interests, even when it’s possible that national level views may conflict with local level views.
Vanessa helpfully highlighted existing challenges to local stakeholders and audiences around issues of income, sustainability, infrastructure, and the pandemic—and how those existing challenges drive city diplomacy engagement.
Sherry usefully emphasized the multinational space in which the City of San Antonio operates, highlighting, for example, the multiple linguistic streams and the migrant and refugee issues that are such an important component of city diplomacy.
I also appreciated her insight that city diplomacy is not limited to the office of city diplomacy or international engagement, and that increasingly, every aspect of city diplomacy has an international component. In that sense, city diplomacy practitioners, like diplomats, are facilitators as well as content or subject matter experts.
With that, let us now turn to our questions. Traditionally, we offer the first question to one of our commissioners. This one comes from Commissioner Anne Wedner.
Her query is the following: “Do you see a retrenchment or a turning away from global integration?” She adds, “I would say that many citizens believe that our age of global exchange may be closing, that there will be less international travel, perhaps because it’s less safe (think the pandemic) and less trade because we need to guarantee domestic supplies of critical materials from energy resources to medicines and so on.”
What do you think? Do you see a retrenchment or turning away from globalization? And how do you see that impacting your respective mandates?
Anyone want to take that on?
Vanessa Ibarra: Yes, happy to take that on. I’m going to talk about it from a human level. This is something that we have been doing at the Office of International Affairs. I call it the human level because you really need to educate your constituents and a range of city departments about why it is important to engage in global affairs.
I always tell everybody that we are storytellers, because as Sherry mentioned, we are the connectors. What we do is we break it down in different ways. For instance, much of our focus is on income and inequality. A lot of our youth do not have the ability to travel abroad so we have been bringing global experiences to the city of Atlanta, whether it be the German Christmas market or a cultural immersion program with a local organization. What we are learning is that we need to start exposing our youth very early on to different cultures. We talk to the parents about why a global perspective is important, and we break down silos by bringing educational institutions, corporations, and youth all in one room.
Vivian Walker: Thank you. Before I ask the next panelist to respond to that question, I just want to remind you that if you have any questions for either Jay Wang or Kathy Fitzpatrick—the co-authors of the report on public diplomacy’s domestic dimensions, they would welcome them as well.
But to go back to our question about a possible turn away from globalization and its impacts, did anyone of our other panelists want to take that on? Chris, please go ahead.
Chris Olsen: Thank you Vanessa, for touching on that – on making it local and the importance of education. I wholly agree. I think that’s something our cities are challenged by and trying to work on, especially those that operate in the international world.
I’ll touch on two other aspects. One is from the perspective of government engagement. I don’t think we’ve really seen a lot of change despite the global rhetoric around this pullback from globalization.
I think we’re just seeing a different iteration or refinement of supply chains. We have a lot more foreign direct investment coming into our region. We’re partnering with different countries for supply chain diversification, and supply chains are moving closer to home. We have several large international companies that are looking to set up their manufacturing or logistics facilities to bring those supply chains closer to the market. I’ve heard this described as near shoring.
With respect to our global engagement, the slowdown that we saw during Covid has come roaring back. We certainly haven’t seen any slowdown in the desire for interaction from local cultural opportunities, our sister cities initiatives, and foreign diplomatic engagement with ministers and subministers coming to Houston to see what they can do. How can we continue to deliver on these bilateral and global initiative that cities are well-positioned to facilitate?
Sherry Dowlatshahi: If I may jump in, I’d like to just add my voice to this. I totally agree with Vanessa and Chris. I think one thing that has completely changed is the world after the pandemic. During the pandemic, of course, we all engaged in other ways. And we found these virtual outlets.
And of course, now we’re shifting back into full-gear, in-person activities. And as Chris says, “Everything’s roaring back.” But guess what? It’s roaring back, but the virtual hasn’t gone away. It’s almost like there’s this completely new level of engagement that is sometimes rather overwhelming. But it’s there. Maybe there’s a perception that countries want to pull away from the international scene. But that’s not the reality.
The virtual world has impacted everybody from school children to college students, to businesspeople. The amount of work that we are doing now virtually –business meetings that we’re having with other countries on a regular basis—has completed shifted that dynamic.
Vivian Walker: Thank you so much for that. I know that Sim Farar had something to add. Sim, over to you.
Sim Farar: I would like to share a personal observation. Houston, San Antonio, Atlanta – I mean, it seems like Sherry, and Chris, and Vanessa not only love their jobs, but they love their cities. It was fascinating to hear the background of those cities—especially Houston, founded by two New Yorkers. I wanted to thank you very much for being here. And I’m ready to move to any one of those cities!
Vivian Walker: Thanks, Sim. Tony, did you have something to add, or should we move on to the next question?
Tony Pipa: Well, I was going to let you move on, but I do just have one reflection: political issues continue to rise in importance. I do think cities are going to be challenged with respect to their ability—as Chris was saying in his opening remarks—to be pragmatic in the kinds of relationships they’ve been building. There is likely to be – although I wouldn’t call it retrenchment–a greater emphasis on working directly with other cities that share their values.
And you can see this with what’s happening between Russia and Ukraine. You can imagine that there must be some carefulness. Even with the near shoring that Chris talked about—you’re likely to look for dependability through shared values and a certain level of trust.
I think politics have started to seep into the relationships that cities have had with each other, which over the past couple of decades had been primarily described as “pragmatic and solutions-oriented.” It’s a lot harder now just to build an economic and pragmatic relationship w/a Chinese city – the politics are getting in the way.
Vivian Walker: Thank you. I want to switch gears a little bit and take a question that focuses on a group that we really haven’t talked about–the actual audience—the people we are reaching out to domestically, as well as national and international partners.
The question is as follows, “In what ways are cities educating their citizenry about diplomacy and its value, including citizen diplomacy? How does your office address this?”
You want to engage people, absolutely. But how do you bring them to the point of understanding that engagement is required and that moreover, engagement in these issues has consequences?
I see Sherry’s hand up.
Sherry Dowlatshahi: Yes, if you don’t mind, I’ll start with that one. Public engagement is more important than ever before and very important in terms of the work that we do.
There are so many initiatives happening across the board. When it comes to the work we’re doing internationally from our office, we have our own social media. We put information out. We tag. We try to pick up followers. That kind of engagement helps to multiply the messaging.
And then there is the collaboration within the community–engagement with our local groups, which include colleges, universities, and other associations. We try to make ourselves as accessible as possible, so that we’re not just reacting to requests but that we’re working with organizations and making sure that we know what’s going on in our city and among the different groups. What is happening? What are the interests, and where are the priorities?
Vivian Walker: Thank you. Vanessa?
Vanessa Ibarra: We also do protocol training with all the departments. And sometimes, of course, they say, “Well, why do I need to bring tea?” or “Why do I need to worry about a gift?” or “How do I exchange a business card?”
We always tell everybody that “You’re an ambassador of the city.” When you welcome somebody, you are an extension of the mayor. You’re an extension of the office. We want to give you all the tools so that it is just like when you welcome somebody to your home, and you bring out your best china. You roll out the red carpet. That’s what we’re going to be doing.
People get excited and invested in this. We teach them words in different languages, and they come with their own stories. For example, Atlanta has the second largest foreign-born population. So, for immigrant heritage month, we educate our constituents and our employees on that legacy,
During the pandemic we realized that we had to increase the level of engagement. And so, we created a website: www.atlinternationalaffairs.com. We created a YouTube channel. We have Twitter. We have Instagram. We have LinkedIn. Following these efforts, we realized that we had the most followers and viewers on LinkedIn–close to 2,000 people. People wait for our monthly newsletter.
We also highlight what universities like Georgia State University are doing. We’ll highlight what the Atlanta Global Studies Center is doing. We also participate in World Languages Day with the center for international initiatives and various other local organizations to talk to thousands of students about what it is that they can do. Often, they believe that you can only become a translator or a teacher if you engage in international work.
Everybody feels a part of what we like to call the global ecosystem. Everybody has a role to play. But we want to make sure that people feel that they can rely on us because at the end of the day, people like to do business with people they like and trust as well.
Vivian Walker: Thank you so much for that! Tony, it looks like you would like to add to the discussion.
Tony Pipa: Just to add onto what Vanessa and Sherry were saying, I think this is a real opportunity for the State Department itself.
Foreign policy isn’t just something that happens in Washington amongst a small cadre of people.
But when you look at the economic and political influence of the cities represented today, comparatively speaking, their staffs are small compared to what the international staffs might be of European cities or of other cities. Therefore, when we recommended that a city diplomacy office be created at the State Department, we also recommended increasing the number of Senior Foreign Service officers staffing cities through that office.
This would provide a real opportunity to build the muscle of those diplomats in reinforcing the importance of foreign policy for everyday Americans. This is something that this administration has elevated as a priority. You just heard Vanessa and Sherry talk about how actively they are doing that on a regular basis with their citizens and their constituents.
And I would add that such engagement provides an opportunity to build a different kind of pipeline for diplomacy itself, both at the city level and at the national level because youth and others in those communities can see the impact of international relations on their own lives. This allows them to say “Hey, you know, I see an opportunity for myself as well to be part of that.” Perhaps they can even see themselves doing that work, which would provide a real opportunity to broaden and deepen the ranks of diplomacy in the U.S.
Vivian Walker: Thank you. Before we move on to what I think will have to be our last question, Chris, did you want to add to that or are you good to go? Not to put you on the spot or anything.
Chris Olsen: Well, no, I’m happy to be put on the spot, you know.
Sherry and Vanessa have it right. It’s a lot of us pushing information out. The pandemic did some positive things in terms of giving us time to refocus on how we put out our message.
But to build on Tony’s last point, I think what we have done is to create a feedback loop through which we are putting information out to showcase not only what we as a city are doing, but why it’s important.
And that, in turn, generates interest, which generates more demand and more interest in how we’re doing. But that also raised some pragmatic questions, as Tony pointed out, about “Why are we doing this and who are we doing it with?”
It has become a conversation with the public about their expectations of their cities. It is about leveraging the universities, the student and community associations, the chambers of commerce to articulate not only what we as a city are doing, but what our international community needs and wants.
I also agree with Tony’s point earlier about the need to move beyond pragmatic solutions to some of the broader concerns such as working with like-minded cities or highlighting some of the more challenging sides of international diplomacy.
And then, just to highlight one specific example, during the pandemic the U.S. government decided to close the Chinese Consulate here in Houston. And suddenly, we saw massive geopolitical and national security issues coalescing very quickly into local impacts because we have very strong trade relations with China. We have sister cities with China. We have membership agreements. We have huge exchanges, a huge cultural association. And suddenly the centerpiece for all that was taken away. The city had no ability to influence that decision process. We weren’t even informed about it until it happened.
But now we as a city are in the middle of dealing with the public diplomacy consequences of this geopolitical issue on a localized level. So, to Tony’s point and to this discussion as a whole—how can we as cities be a part of such conversations, especially as we work to increase the foreign policy awareness of our local populations?
Vivian Walker: Thank you so much. Now we’ll move to our final question. Fair warning to panelists. I’d like to handle this as a lightning round. I’m looking for your one-minute gut-level reaction to the question.
Here’s the question. We have been focusing—quite rightly—on domestic public diplomacy and the importance of foreign policy for everyday Americans. As the White House has said, “All domestic policy is foreign policy and vice versa.”
But let’s flip this equation and look at it from the perspective of a foreign audience. In other words, what do you think about the increasing dominance of city diplomacy and its potential to change the image of the United States abroad, using either actual examples or blue-sky thinking?
In other words, if public diplomacy is defined as informing and influencing foreign audiences, what is the role of city diplomacy in that external influence effort?
Okay, over to you, panelists.
Chris Olsen: I’m going to take it first, and I’ll give two quick tangible examples that go both directions.
One is when the U.S. pulled out of the Paris climate accords. Immediately, L.A., Houston, Boston, and several other cities formed the “Climate Mayors” platform by which cities demonstrated their commitment to meeting the Paris climate accords and their commitment to climate action. That helped, I think, to fend off some of the criticism of the U.S. because we as cities—with the biggest polluters and the biggest challenges—were able to showcase our desire to honor our international commitment to climate action.
Secondly, I’ve talked to a number of national level foreign government officials who say that they don’t get traction with our federal government, so they go going to cities instead because they want to have national level priorities put forward at a municipal level with the hope of influencing the federal level.
Both anecdotes offer interesting examples of the convergence of federal and local government interests and illustrate the need for increased dialogue between city and federal government.
Vivian Walker: Who’s next? Sherry?
Sherry Dowlatshahi: So, I want to talk about our experience with Mexico and China over the last two years.
When the relationship between Mexico and the U.S. became particularly difficult at a certain point, we found that the federal government in Mexico was reaching out in a very purposeful way to cities. Mexican officials understood that while things were getting stuck at a national level, dialogue at the local level was still possible. We were functioning. Our relationships with Mexico were good, and we were doing all of these things in different areas.” And that shifted the messaging.
With China, our work is more focused on our sister cities and our partners in cultural diplomacy That people-to-people engagement keeps those conversations open. That communication and collaboration –that agile way of working–translates into positive messaging at the local level.
Vivian Walker: All right, thank you. Vanessa?
Vanessa Ibarra: I’ve always been very straightforward. I think under the previous administrations, we always welcomed delegations. The question they would always ask is, “Do you think the same as the federal government?”
We also used to be a blue island in a red state. Now I’d say we are a purple state depending on how you look at it.
Now, when we have delegations—ministers, ambassadors, prime ministers—coming through, they meet with mayors who in many ways are aligned with their core values, which allows us to promote investment and opportunities.
As we’re talking about how cities can work more closely with the State Department, there’s always this perception that when our mayors—I’ve worked with three—go overseas, they’re going on vacation.
Our constituents don’t always understand that it is important for us to build these relationships to attract tourism and to travel to generate economic opportunities. It would be great if State Department would advocate for these type of trade missions. We often welcome tons of delegations, but how many times do our mayors go overseas?
I can fly to every single city around the world, but at the end of the day what really makes a difference is when my mayor is out there talking about the opportunities in our city.
Vivian Walker: Thank you. Tony?
Tony Pipa: Today we’ve talked a lot about global, policy economics, and trade, and things like that. But we need to remember the importance of soft power—how influential the cultural aspects of U.S. cities also can be in terms of advancing the global interests of the United States.
Their diversity, their creativity, their innovation, and their people working together in neighborhoods, the entertainment that comes out all of that, is really what the rest of the world watches. The world is hungry for and is eager to learn from, and take part in, U.S. creativity.
I think we cannot underestimate the value that our U.S. cities bring to the global interest and purviews of the United States in that way as well.
Vivian Walker: Thank you so much. That’s a great note to end on, Tony.
I must echo what one of your many admirers in today’s audience said of all of you. And that is—and I quote, “You all are amazing city diplomats. And your cities are indeed very lucky to have you managing these issues on the local, but also on the regional, national, and international levels as you do.”
So, thank you so much for your service in addition to all the great insights that you brought to us today.
And with that, I’d like to turn to our Vice Chairman Bill Hybl. Bill, would you like to close out this public meeting for today?
Bill Hybl: Thank you, Vivian. You know, this was a great session. And our sincere thanks to our distinguished panelists and the members out there—those of you that participated with thoughtful questions and by being part of this process.
We appreciate your sustained interest in public diplomacy, and we’ll be back in the third quarter with another meeting, which we invite all of you to attend.
Finally, thanks to Vivian and her staff for the great work they are doing.
This concludes today’s event. Thank you for being here.