Vilified Sister Cities: Chicago, Mexico City and The Case for Citizen Diplomacy

The following was written after participating in the US-Mexico Leaders Initiative with the Center for American Progress (CAP) in Mexico City.

Much has been written about subnational and local diplomacy as a foreign policy strategy and antidote to populist xenophobic rhetoric. Urbanists and mayors from Bruce Katz to Mike Bloomberg have sounded the clarion trumpet that we no longer have to wait for our federal governments; we can build allies ourselves. This is especially true for the US and Mexico. As John Creamer, the Chargé d’Affaires at the U.S. Embassy Mexico City shared with me recently, citizen diplomacy is the glue that holds the bilateral relationship together even when the national government throws it away. Around the globe, government and business-leaders, lawmakers and entrepreneurs, academics and community organizers are replacing national actors in areas where federal responsibility has been abdicated. Examples include Mayor Bloomberg’s American Cities Initiative which organizes city leaders for local advocacy in Washington. C40 cities also organizes mayors around adhering to the goals of the Paris Agreement, even if their national governments dismiss it. C40’s slogan, “Cities Will Shape our Future” is a bold assertion as to the preeminence of the local role.

Chicago and Mexico City have particularly unique shared interests in citizen collaboration. Both cities are a part of an international network of “sister cities”. Sister Cities was started by President Eisenhower over 60 years ago to foster productive civic, political, people-to-people and business-to-business exchanges. In addition to sibling ties, Chicago and Mexico City are also perhaps the two most favorite villains of President Trump. Trump has built an image around hate-speech directed towards Mexico and Chicago from the infancy of his presidential campaign. He has particularly used Mexicans as an electoral piñata to build his brand. In his theatre, nefarious Mexicans scratch at the fringes of the border while murderous black and brown thugs recklessly turn Chicago into killing fields in the Midwest. Trump has called Mexicans “drug dealers, criminals and rapists” and has offered the construction of a wall (or steel slats) of separation as the best path forward. Of Chicago, he tweeted “Sadly, the overwhelming amount of violent crime in our major cities is committed by blacks and Hispanics — a tough subject — must be discussed.” He said at a rally in Florida on Dec. 2017, “The City of Chicago. What the hell is going on in Chicago? There are those who say that Afghanistan is safer than Chicago, okay?”

Subnational diplomacy has its limits and national leadership should not be given a pass or be allowed to abdicate responsibility unchecked. Chicago and Mexico City however must continue to bypass toxic federal actors and advance critical goals on their own if necessary. So far, Mexico’s new leader, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has been focused on his domestic agenda with less attention given to combating Trump’s rhetoric. Nonetheless, Chicago and Mexico City are both at critical moments. Mexico City recently elected its first female Mayor — a Nobel Peace Prize winner for her work on climate change. Chicago will also be electing a new mayor this year. Both should look for ways to share resources and strategies that point the way forward and address common problems like income-inequality, climate change, and immigration together. Both must also engage citizens actively working in these areas to forge alliances and relationships that can last long after national leaders have moved on.

Kelwin Harris is a city planner in Chicago.

Kelwin Harris is a city planner in Chicago.