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Sister Cities International Marks 60 Years of Citizen Diplomacy

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Diplomats can only do so much to bridge the divides between their countries and the rest of the world. Good bilateral relations start with strong ties at the governmental level. But as public servants, diplomats operate under significant restraints and there is always a layer of formality that may or may not ever melt. Average citizens, on the other hand, can sometimes do more to thaw tensions and build partnerships at the grassroots level than governments can.

This Sept. 11 marks 60 years since President Dwight D. Eisenhower launched a citizen diplomacy campaign that was initially aimed at improving ties with Japan and Germany through a sister cities initiative.

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Photos: Sister Cities International
Sister Cities International is a nonprofit citizen diplomacy network that encourages people-to-people interactions, including travel abroad experiences for young students and other educational exchanges.

The sister cities movement has exploded in recent decades as more and more governments and municipalities recognize the importance of citizen diplomacy in an interconnected world with so many seemingly intractable conflicts. These types of people-to-people interactions range from educational and cultural exchanges to business and trade to humanitarian missions.

Sister Cities International, which will host its annual conference in Washington in mid-July, now has 570 member communities forming 2,300 partnerships in 150 countries spanning six continents.

Mary Kane, a former Maryland secretary of state who was the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor in 2010, has been president and CEO of Sister Cities International since 2011. We spoke with the Delaware native to explore what sister cities are, how they work and where the next frontiers of citizen diplomacy will be.

The Washington Diplomat: Where does your interest in foreign cultures stem from?

Mary Kane: I’m the child of immigrants, so I guess it’s natural for me to be interested in other cultures. I grew up in Wilmington, Delaware. I didn’t do any exchange programs unfortunately, but when I was appointed deputy secretary of state in Maryland, and then secretary of state, one of my duties was Maryland’s Sister States and Sister Cities programs. Unlike most secretaries of state in the country, we didn’t handle elections — we handled international affairs. And Maryland is very forward thinking when it comes to building these relationships across the world.

TWD: I know President Dwight D. Eisenhower is credited with founding the sister cities initiative, but was it originally his idea or someone else’s?

Kane: It was his idea. He called for the White House conference on citizen diplomacy. It was on Sept. 11, 1956. He encouraged people-to-people exchanges between citizens. His idea was that we would never be able to get over issues from World War II until we started meeting each other face to face. And being a general, he knew that people on the ground aren’t the same as the leadership of a country.

TWD: The focus in the beginning, at least in the U.S., was on forging partnerships with cities in Japan and Germany, correct?

Kane: I think the first formal sister city relationship was Toledo, Ohio, and Toledo, Spain. There were a lot of town twinning relationships like that, particularly with Europe. And things really took off after World War II when folks were building these sister city relationships with German and Japanese cities but also France and other European countries.

TWD: During the Cold War, were there quite a few sister city relationships with the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc countries?

Kane: Eisenhower said in that speech that we need to build relationships with the Russian people in spite of our political differences. Today, we have about 75 sister city relationships with Russia that have been going pretty strong.

TWD: You have 575 communities in the United States that have 2,300 partnerships in 150 countries. This leaves 43 countries (as defined by the U.N.) who we don’t have sister city partnerships with?

Kane: Right and we’re working on it.

TWD: Where are the blank spots on the map? Are these 43 countries that aren’t participating scattered around the world or concentrated in one region?

Kane: I’d say the blank spots on the map tend to be in the Middle East and Africa mostly, but also South America. We formed the first sister city relationship with Myanmar last year, with Fort Wayne, Indiana. Minneapolis just formed a sister city relationship with a city in Somalia. So we’re slowly but surely trying to spread the word.

TWD: In countries where we have no sister cities, is that often because there is no diaspora from that country in the U.S.?

Kane: Right. We just met with the Embassy of Madagascar, for example, and they don’t have any sister cities yet but we’re working on that.

TWD: Myanmar is a good example of a country that has recently opened up. Are the impediments to forming these relationships often political?

Kane: For us, we usually work with governments that are recognized by the State Department. With a country like North Korea, for example, the main thing is the prohibition of travel. The inability to get there is one of the main obstacles. We just had one of our honorary board members run a marathon in North Korea, so there is some hope.

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At its conference this year, Sister Cities International is celebrating 60 years of people-to-people exchange.

TWD: Is North Korea a textbook example of a country where we could benefit from more citizen diplomacy?

Kane: I think we have a lot [of places] that we’re working on establishing right now. Los Angeles has a sister city relationship with Tehran. But it needs to be reinvigorated. We don’t prohibit anyone from forming a sister city relationship.

TWD: So if a city wanted to become sister cities with Pyongyang, and our mayor was on board, we could try to make that happen somehow?

Kane: If they wanted to do it, and had the backing, which would be hard to get, it would be OK. They’d have to have local citizens willing to build that relationship though because they don’t happen overnight.

TWD: Do you have any idea how many non-U.S. sister cities there are?

Kane: It’s become a really popular program. In China, for example, there is the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries … that sets up sister city relationships with Chinese cities and other places around the world.

One of our most famous alumni of Sister Cities is [Chinese] President Xi Jinping, whose first trip to the U.S. was on a sister states delegation trip to Muscatine, Iowa, in 1985. When he came back in 2012, to visit Vice President Biden, the State Department told him to go to Washington and Los Angeles, and he said, ‘No, I’m going to visit my host family and have tea with them in Muscatine, Iowa.’ And he did.

On his most recent visit, last September, he met with Microsoft in Seattle, and then he went to Lincoln High School in Tacoma. I was fortunate to be there. He went to an American football practice, an AP government class and then gave a speech in the auditorium.

TWD: And how did he enjoy all this?

Kane: He said, through an interpreter, ‘If we’re going to be the two world superpowers then I have to tell you, we know a lot more about you than you know about us. I’d like you to learn more about us, so I brought you some gifts.’ Then they opened the curtain and there were all these bookshelves, filled with books on Chinese language, history and culture. And then he also announced that he was giving them five Ping-Pong tables.

TWD: An article we wrote on Sister Cities International last year likened one initiative you have as an online dating site for cities looking for partners. How does that work?

Kane: We post it on our website, as part of our cities seeking cities program. For example, someone in Idaho could be seeking a partnership in France. We’ll post their parameters and background, the reasons why they are looking for the partnership and the folks here in our office talk to a lot of Foreign Service officers and public affairs officers in embassies around the world. And we work directly with the State Department and mayors and governor’s offices to help them with these partnerships. Everyone wants to partner with New York City.

TWD: How do you manage that?

Kane: That’s what our cities seeking cities program does. You help people find a good partner, not just people who want to visit New York City. It’s not going to help your city to find a partner with whom you have nothing in common or it’s so large that it won’t focus on you.

TWD: So if, for example, Timbuktu wants to partner with Chicago, you can suggest another city that might be a better match?

Kane: Right. Actually Timbuktu is sister cities with Tempe, Arizona.

TWD: Chicago has banners up at O’Hare Airport advertising all of its sister cities. It seems as though there are dozens. Do they have more sister cities than any other American town?

Kane: Yes, they have 28 sister city partnerships. Their mayors are very insightful; they do a lot of trade with their sister city partnerships. They support the sister city program very strongly.

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Mary Kane, a former Maryland secretary of state who is president and CEO of Sister Cities International, speaks at the group's 59th annual conference last year.

TWD: Are there ever any hard feelings if a city gets spurned by another place they wanted to partner with or are cities usually on the same page?

Kane: It may take a little longer sometimes but if they want it to happen, it usually does. It’s logical that our bigger, more famous cities will get more requests than a place like Wilmington, Delaware, or Chattanooga, Tennessee, because people overseas are more familiar with the big cities.

TWD: You mentioned a new sister city partnership between Minneapolis and a town in Somalia. I wonder how anyone in a war-torn country like Somalia can quality for a visitor’s visa to come to the U.S.

Kane: We live in an interesting age; there are many ways to connect besides just personal travel. It’s much easier to keep these relationships going than to start them up. Some of our partnership signings have been virtual on Skype. For example, there was one between a town in Western Maryland and one in Estonia where they signed their agreement on Skype.

We have a great program going on right now between San Diego and Jalalabad, Afghanistan. High school students bring down barriers by talking directly to students in Afghanistan. They get together once a month via Skype and get online to talk to each other.

TWD: You wrote that we already have nine sister city partnerships with Cuba, including the oldest one, which started in 1993, between Mobile, Alabama, and Havana. With Cuba opening up a bit, are we likely to see many more sister city partnerships with the communist island?

Kane: There are a lot of people interested in building partnerships with Cuba. Some of this depends on how many requests the Cubans are able to handle. But the ones we have set up now are quite active. I think the first exchange was with medical students.

Tacoma, Washington, and Cienfuegos, [Cuba], have been doing a baseball-related exchange. Sports are great for this. Soccer is a universal language. The president of China, he loves the NBA. Winston-Salem, [North Carolina], has a virtual chess exchange with high school students online with their sister cities [in China, Moldova, the Bahamas, Ghana and Liberia].

TWD: Looking at the big picture, we have this incredible amount of tension between Muslims and Christians around the world. Can citizen diplomacy efforts help bridge this divide?

Kane: We don’t look at it as religions; we look at it as citizens. We’re here to encourage citizens to talk to each other no matter what their backgrounds are. Because once you do that, you learn a lot more. That was the purpose of this program when it started 60 years ago. Looking back to what Dwight Eisenhower said back then — I love this quote — ‘Every bomb we can manufacture, every plane, every ship, every gun, in the long run, has no purpose other than negative: to give us time to prevent the other fellow from starting a war, since we know we won’t. The billions we pour into that ought to be supported by a great American effort, a positive constructive effort that leads directly toward what we all want: a true and lasting peace.’

He was talking about the exchange of professors and students and executives, and he was very specific about building these relationships with Russia.

TWD: Right. And Russia was the country we needed to improve ties with during the Cold War. But is there not now a specific need to focus on citizen diplomacy between the U.S. and Muslim countries? It’s fine for a student in Tempe to form a partnership with someone in Latvia or Botswana, but is it not more urgent to expand citizen diplomacy efforts with countries in the Middle East, given the lack of understanding and mistrust on both sides?

Kane: It’s important to form partnerships with every country. Here at Sister Cities International, we are encouraging folks, just as Eisenhower did 60 years ago, to step outside their comfort zone. It was uncomfortable 60 years ago to reach out and make friends with the Germans and Japanese. Now we’re asking folks in the United States to do the same thing with folks they don’t know in the Middle East and North Africa. Our goal is to develop more sister cities partnership in this region because we’ve seen that this works.

TWD: Americans are isolated geographically and we have less vacation time for international travel compared to other countries. Does that make it even more important for more Americans to be citizen diplomats?

Kane: I think it’s always important to be a citizen diplomat and to travel and have exchanges. That’s part of our job to encourage these things. Should everyone have a passport? Yes, they should. Our members get so much out of traveling and meeting people who become like family members.

I just went to Shizuoka, Japan, with 68 members from Omaha. It was like they were going to a family reunion. There had been dozens of student exchanges. You build these relationships over many years. To think that 50 years ago, these folks didn’t even know each other and were probably predisposed not to like each other, and then to see people sobbing at the airport worrying about when they were going to see each other again, it was pretty impactful. It changes people’s lives and their perspective.


About the Author

Dave Seminara (@DaveSem) is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on July 6, 2016