Revisiting the Concept of Diplomacity

Graphic Design: Krizia Angelina

Diplomacity; the first time I heard about this concept was back in 2015 during a public seminar initiated by Dino Patti Djalal, Indonesia’s former ambassador to the United States (U.S.). On that occasion, Dino invited his friend Parag Khanna, who is an expert in international relations as well as a prolific author. The seminar, his presentation, was quite eye-opening in that it caught me in several bouts of reflection, especially the moment after the term diplomacity was mentioned. Parag, who authored the book titled ‘The Future is in Asia’ set to be published next year, was also the same person who coined the term.

I thought that the concept should gain more public exposure on the strength of it heavily related to the sustainability of our world today. A full recording of the seminar can be accessed here (starting from 01:51:00), although I don’t really recommend because it’s disturbingly prone to glitches. On that account, my revisitation of the concept also included reading and listening to secondary sources that don’t involve Parag himself. It’s rather unfortunate that I didn’t get the chance to leaf through his best-selling books. Nonetheless, let’s just consider this article a simple introduction to the concept from my point of view.

Back to the concept of diplomacity. The gist of the term, which is implied in the term itself, lies in ‘city’ and ‘diplomacy’; an international city-to-city diplomacy. Parag departs from the thought that “diplomacy is about relationship between authorities, not sovereignties.” This challenges the Westphalian system that has been formally in operation since 1648. Diplomacy, he averred, shouldn’t just be between states, but between authorities extending across various forms of organization such as, as he instantiated, think tanks, which are intellectual authorities; churches—religious authorities; corporations—financial or resource authorities; and universities—educational or knowledge authorities. This line of thinking is not new at all; the diplomat is the second oldest profession and diplomacy has been actually occurring between entities even before the dawn of the nation-state system. In Parag’s words, “The history of diplomacy since ancient times is in fact the diplomacy among cities, so we are ‘returning’ to something that is actually an eternal reality.” (In case you’re still wondering what is the oldest profession in human history, it’s the prostitute.)  

The “Diplomacy is about relationship between authorities” emerges from the basic presumption that entities—politics aside—who are entitled to become the ‘authority’ should be the best in their respective fields. The bottom line is problems are better be solved by those who are well-versed in the issues. If one can’t solve a problem, then two or more conflation of skills and thoughts would perhaps be adequate. And from here comes the importance of ‘city’ because two of the most multiplex issues facing our world today are inextricably linked with it: climate change and urbanization.

Today, about 55 percent of the global population lives in urban areas, a number that is expected to increase to 68 percent by 2050. According to C40, although occupying only two percent of the world’s landmass, cities consume over two-thirds of the world’s energy and account for more than 70 percent of global CO2 emissions. Not only are cities the primary causes of the climate-change impacts, it also greatly suffers from it. One example pertains to the threat of rising sea levels. Given the fact that about 90 percent of world’s urban areas are situated on coastlines, a small increase in sea level will bring tremendous damages to the millions of people living in coastal areas. Thus, while cities are smaller in term of land size and are sparsely scattered around the world, the problems it can cause are global in scope and of great significance.

At the same time, urbanization has brought cities to the forefront of innovation. The mixing of ideas and skills, the concentration of financial and technological resources, all of these are among the factors that contribute to the creation of innovations. Cities are the primary causes of global problems, but also can be the key driver to the solution of it. This leads us to the idea that cities must be able to solve their own problems in order to solve global problems. True, with the deeply interconnected world, it seems impossible to solve global problems without city-to-city cooperation, making the concept of diplomacity even more relevant. 

It should be noted that cooperation between cities is not a wholly new phenomenon either. There are the ‘sister cities,’ which in some areas are called twin towns, partnership towns, partner towns, friendship towns, or twinned towns. The emergence of sister cities, though not the oldest, can be traced back to 1947 when Bristol and Hannover were committed to helping each other rebuild in the aftermath of the World War II. In Indonesia, Jakarta, Bandung, and Yogyakarta generate the most city-to-city partnerships, spanning from cultural exchanges to knowledge exchanges in health, technology, and many others.

The ‘sister city’ form of partnership, however, is subject to criticism on the basis that “they are token designations, the pairings are random, and that there are not tangible benefits.” Despite that, some also contend that the superficiality vanishes when the cooperation is examined at “the level of coordination and effort that goes into planning and orchestrating the various cultural exchanges” and that “there is significant economic commitment as well.” Even so, the diplomacity that Parag tries to convey goes beyond what benefits a two-cities partnership can reap. Diplomacity requires more actions, more (mega)cities’ multilateral involvement, and the scope is global in nature—in essence, given the sheer importance, cities should be given more prominence in international stage to decide what matters the most for them, and consequently for the world as a whole.

A closest example to diplomacity is C40, which is a network of the world’s megacities committed to addressing climate change. To date, C40 has managed to attract more than 90 megacities to join the organization. Indonesia’s Jakarta has been a member since 2007, albeit being slow off the mark in embracing the concept. This was affirmed by Sandiaga Uno, the then-vice governor of DKI Jakarta, who argued that Jakarta was not a very active member of the C40 and that he wanted the capital to play more parts in the international activities. He later attended the forum ‘C40 Climate Change Leadership Group’ in the U.S., and soon posted on his Facebook account that he already had a technical discussion regarding the ‘Deadline 2020,’ a program designated for world’s megacities to collaborate in reducing greenhouse gases emission, to which Jakarta is committed to.

The concept of diplomacity and its principles are apparently getting the attention they deserve, and most states seems to green-light the rally. What remains to be concerned about are the nuts and bolts that need to be further calibrated, ranging from the cities’ commitment, human resources issues, legal boundaries, and a host of other factors.