How U.S. foreign policy came to embrace urban issues — and may change under Trump

Ian Klaus was Senior Adviser for Global Cities at the U.S. State Department under President Obama. (Ahmed Najeeb)

The U. S. government has undergone a sudden and rapid change since the inauguration of Donald Trump as president. An “out with the old, in with the new” attitude prevails in Washington, which means that many initiatives of the Obama era are potentially on the chopping block.

One that could be vulnerable is Cities @ State, an internal network in the U. S. State Department designed to augment the work of individual embassies, overseas missions, and internal bureaus who wanted to leverage U. S. diplomacy to engage on urban issues. Founded in October 2015, Cities @ State was coordinated by Ian Klaus, Senior Adviser for Global Cities. Klaus was also the Deputy Negotiator for the U. S. during last year’s process leading up to Habitat III, the U. N.’s once-every 20 years summit on cities.

The two roles often overlapped. Klaus worked with partners inside the State Department to bolster international diplomacy on topics like climate change and violent extremism. At the same time, while  representing U. S. interests in the sometimes heated Habitat III negotiations, he gleaned tidbits on how other countries manage urban issues at the national level.

With the arrival of the Trump administration, Klaus, a political appointee, tendered his resignation earlier this month. Next, he will be a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania and intends to start an organization that will help U. S. mayors improve the efficacy and political perception of their forays abroad as they engage with international city networks.

I spoke with Klaus by telephone last week during Trump’s first few days in office. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gregory Scruggs: How did the U. S. State Department view urban issues prior to the Cities @ State initiative?

Ian Klaus: Prior to Secretary [John] Kerry’s arrival, there was an office called the Special Representative for Intergovernmental Affairs led by Rita Jo Louis. She had a number of accomplishments in subnational diplomacy to cities in places like Brazil, India and China.

One of them was the Joint Initiative on Urban Sustainability between Philadelphia and Rio de Janeiro. There was important leadership from a U. S. mayor – Michael Nutter – and also a very forward-leaning U. S. ambassador in Brazil at the time, Tom Shannon, one of the intellectual leaders in recognizing that what happens in cities matters to our foreign policy.

You also had ambassadors who understood urban issues and were developing their own independent initiatives. The ambassador in Colombia, Kevin Whittaker, has engaged extensively with secondary and tertiary cities. Our ambassador in Quito has a mission that recognizes the importance of a wide number of cities in Ecuador beyond the capital city.

Q: How did Cities @ State change the department’s modus operandi from this previous approach?

A: Rather than focusing on a single individual out doing the diplomacy, we decided to focus on helping everyone within the department who was interested in urban issues. So internal advocacy and then internal support, rather than actually being out there ourselves doing sub-national diplomacy.

You could of course have a single shop. You could have a single person who flew around the world doing this. One of our approaches within the State Department over the last couple years, and I think it’s been to our benefit, is that we’ve encouraged lots of different shops and missions to think about urban issues and then help them implement or approach them.

Each of the accomplishments that the State Department advanced during the past four years in the urban space was a collaboration within the department. And so those of us who worked on urban issues were always collaborating with a bureau or an office that in fact would be the implementer. What one has to be clear about is no person should stand up and say, “I was the person that did urban at the State Department.”

Q: In what areas did you find the most success?

A: If you look at the record of the State Department over the last four years it increased its engagement at the city level on a number of priority issues, from climate change to countering violent extremism to promoting economic opportunity and equality.

On climate change, Our Cities, Our Climate was a collaboration between the U. S. State Department and Bloomberg Philanthropies. It brought sustainability directors from around the world to American cities and helped create a network of sustainability directors who could work together globally.

[See: U. S. to push for formal participation of cities, non-state actors in climate negotiations]

There’s a similar organization if you look at the Strong Cities Network, an effort by the Bureau of Counterterrorism that the urban team helped develop. It’s an approach to countering violent extremism in which cities could learn from each other, in which there were networks sharing their best practices.

And of course, our team and our mission at the OECD has supported work with the Ford Foundation on economic inequality. The secretary general of the OECD developed a team of mayors that are going to work together on economic inequality issues, and [New York City] Mayor [Bill] de Blasio has also been a leader among those cities and in that effort.

Q: What was the learning curve for diplomats who come out of a school of foreign service and don’t have specialized training in urbanism?

A: The global urban landscape is an incredibly crowded one. And there are so many networks, foundations, philanthropies who are working actively and doing great work. Even if you recognize that cities are important political actors, it’s difficult to, one, understand the cities and what’s going on in them, because of course they are incredibly complicated places. And then two, it’s difficult to get to know what the global activity looks like.

Almost everyone we engaged with in that space was open to sharing with us and also to working with us. That was actually very refreshing. Very rarely, as someone who works for a national government, did I find any pushback at all when we tried to get information or learn from some of the networks and people who obviously had been active in the space for quite a bit of time.

Q: What was it like engaging with your counterparts around the world in the Habitat III process?

A: If you look at the number of different ministry types that were represented in the Habitat III negotiations, there isn’t a natural diplomatic framework for national ministries to talk about urban issues. And so you had ministries of transportation, ministries of development, simply the UN mission at times, you had foreign ministries.

Those ministries don’t necessarily talk to each other around the world. The U. S. State Department doesn’t necessarily talk to ministries of transportation every day. So there was the challenge of an issue such as urbanization that includes development, transportation and global issues such as climate change. Figuring out which ministries should talk to whom and have the lead is challenging.

[See: Why are U. S. mayors missing Habitat III?]

I’m really proud of the work we did with the Department of Housing and Urban Development [HUD]. We developed strong relationships with HUD, and even engaged internationally together, and what that did was merge diplomatic expertise and urban expertise in a way that it’s very difficult to find in a single person. So rather you need to work across agencies, across ministries to take advantage of various expertise.

Q: Which other countries are models of this kind of cross-sectoral collaboration?

A: There are certainly different organizations around the world that we looked up to. And if I were to get to invent anew how a foreign ministry approached urban issues, I would want them to advocate internally like we did.

But you also do need to have a single point person eventually who could engage in theory with other urban shops. So it’s not enough just to have a single diplomat flying around the world. Rather, you need to have a shop that shares expertise into what’s happening in cities and what’s happening with the global actors that influence cities with offices and with embassies.

But you also need someone that can engage with foreign dignitaries at the national level. So I think you would like to have a combination of the two. Looking out across the world, it was striking to see the divergence between various countries, and how far along they were in thinking about this.

The way that I looked at the global landscape, it seems to me right now that Paris is in essence the capital of the world. They’re innovating locally but advocating globally in a way that I think is unrivaled.

If you look at development agencies or organizations that think in terms of development, including partnership, the Germans at GIZ were just about everywhere I went and have a great reputation. 

Q: Would you add any developing countries alongside Paris and Germany?

A: At the national ministry level, quite frequently we engaged with mayors from developing countries who are playing a leadership role. We have heard increasingly from South African cities and from organizations of South African cities, and they are engaging globally in a way that might not be advanced by their national government or conceiving of themselves as global actors. That’s been striking.

Q: The inauguration of Donald Trump as U. S. president has led to immediate changes across the federal government. Many State Department websites – including pages about programs you mentioned, like Our Cities, Our Climate and the Strong Cities Network – have been scrubbed from the Internet. What are the prospects for an urban perspective going forward at the State Department?

A: State Department employees around the world are professionals. They serve American interests and values, not their own, and so those are the sorts of individuals that make me feel comfortable. They’re why you work within a bureaucracy and try to turn on the bureaucratic machine, so to speak, because of their professionalism.

But there’s a catch, and this isn’t with regard to the State Department but rather with regard to cities. We approached the global landscape of urban actors and their networks and foundations very humbly, because to a certain extent we were a little late to the game. They’ve been developing for some time, and of course the literature on global cities dates back decades. The logic of those networks was in part that cities had to act because there were global issues that were affecting them that national governments weren’t acting on. It was cities taking action because national governments in certain instances were failing through inaction. We’re in a moment now where if you’ve read the news over the past week, these aren’t cities replacing inaction, these are cities in opposition.

[See: In Mexico City for climate talks, U. S. mayors get advice on how to deal with Donald Trump]

So how urban issues operate within the State Department when cities are increasingly taking an oppositional role, as opposed to just a leadership role, on a number of issues, I think has an effect on the degree to which the organization and individuals within it can continue to advance work at the urban level. The State Department does work on a wide number of issues, some of which include women’s issues, some of which include advocacy of human rights issues, and cities have certainly taken up the leadership mantle on climate change, on economic inequality. But if a national government, and not just the United States, but if other national governments take a step back on some of those issues, I think it’s an open question about whether cities take up the leadership mantle on those as well.

What we’re most proud of isn’t that there are trophies or networks or engagement patterns that we can point to in particular, but rather that as a whole, a very large bureaucracy of dedicated public servants started thinking about working at that level. It’s part of the bureaucratic machinery.  It’s part of the way that the State Department thinks now, and because of that it means that the work will keep going.

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Gregory Scruggs is a senior correspondent for Citiscope. Full bio

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