The storming of the US Capitol on January 6 underlines the extent of the challenge Donald Trump leaves to his successor, Joe Biden: to rebuild North American leadership globally and bridge the deepening divide between urban and rural areas in the United States.
During Trump's tenure, much of the opposition to both his domestic and foreign policy was led by cities. One of the most controversial measures of his administration was to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, which sets common goals to reduce carbon emissions and fight climate change. And so the mayors of 400 North American cities – including Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, Boston, Chicago and San Francisco – announced that they would maintain their original plans and goals. And indeed they continued to move in that direction. These so-called "climate mayors" are a bipartisan network of local leaders working to combat climate change.
Now, just weeks after the United States' exit from the Paris Agreement became effective, Biden has appointed John Kerry as his special envoy on climate change and declared that one of his priorities will be to return to the accord. To achieve this, he will build on progress achieved by these mayors’ international commitments, in a new demonstration of the growing influence of city diplomacy at global level. One important organisation supporting greater urban climate commitments is the C40, a group of 96 cities around the world that represent a quarter of the global economy, and is led by Buenos Aires and Bogotá in Latin America. The agreements, alliances and networks woven by cities in recent years provide Biden with a platform to revitalise US global relationships.
Biden's Cabinet picks also reflect the weight city agendas will have: Boston Mayor Marty Walsh as Labor secretary, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg as Transportation secretary, and Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo as Commerce secretary. The announcements were celebrated by the Conference of Mayors, a non-partisan organisation that brings together leaders of cities of more than 30,000 residents. A few weeks ago, Eric Garcetti, mayor of Los Angeles, current president of the C40 and one of the most active climate action leaders, confirmed that he had turned down a position in Biden’s administration to continue to manage his city and control the pandemic.
In an eminently urban world, global cities have become key players in the development agenda, leading on urgent issues like climate change, gender equality and inclusion. Biden will rely on them to outline the priorities of his government. Garcetti himself recently said that “the on-the-ground experience of mayors, whether on issues of climate change, immigration, gender, racial equity, Covid-19, or beyond, can help inform more effective and just national policies. The Biden administration should take note.”
Cities across the world are bridges between the local and the global, and the influence of subnational diplomacy extends beyond cities themselves. Agreements between cities have been shown to be critical for international action on issues like climate change and gender equality, and they are increasingly a means to influence the design of global commitments that impact relationships not just between cities but between nations themselves.