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Los Angeles’s Deputy Mayor of International Affairs—the first in America to hold such a position—on global cities as strongholds of progressive values, competition and collaboration with foreign partners and rethinking opportunities for those who have borne the brunt of COVID


AR: You’re very much at the forefront of cities as actors in international affairs, and, among other things, are supportive of the City and State Diplomacy Act making its way through Congress. Why is this a critical time for cities to be recognized as such actors, and to be more fully integrated into the national foreign policy apparatus? What sort of unique attributes and strengths do cities bring to that equation?

NH: Thanks for the question. Yes, I am the first Deputy Mayor of International Affairs. I think I’m the only one in the United States. There are a few cities in the US that are pretty active internationally. But we are really playing catch up in the US to most of the rest of the globe, where cities have been engaging on issues and networking and sharing best practices with each other for quite a while now. And not just in Europe, but Asia, Africa and Latin America.

When you think about some of the big issues that we’re grappling with as humanity today, one being COVID and the other being climate, I’d say that the case for why cities need to be involved is pretty clear. Even when you have a national government—and we didn’t for a while—but when you do have a national government that’s doing everything that it can on COVID, for example, at the end of the day, shots still need to go into arms. People still need to be tested. Reluctant individuals or communities need to be coaxed. And certainly, when you look at the economic effects of the shutdown, where some communities, especially communities of color, were hit so hard.

All that knowledge about how you deal with those challenges is at the local level. And the apparatus to do it is at the local level. So, for example, we set up Dodger Stadium as a huge testing site, and then as a huge vaccination site. But our data indicated that, in communities of color and Black community and Latinx community, there was not as good take-up on the vaccines, for example. So, we created a mobile vaccine program. That’s not something you can really do at a federal level. It really needs local knowledge and local partners. We can only do that because we work with people in the community every day. Those are two pretty key examples of why we ought to be seen as national security actors, if you consider national security as things that can harm Americans where they live.

Climate change is the other one, where cities have authority over transportation systems and more. We in LA own our own utility, water systems, waste in general. We also have control over building codes. All of those systems have levers in the government. And you need cities to be doing everything we can to move to a no-carbon grid, and zero waste of water, and all-electric transportation, for example. And we are doing that in LA. We have very aggressive goals on climate. And we do it in partnership with an organization called C40 that the mayor chairs, which is around 100 global cities that are all pledging to cut their emissions in half by 2030, and to zero by 2050. And that’s a lot of emissions that come from cities.

I would put cybersecurity and terrorism, for that matter, in the category with pandemics and climate change as real security risks to Americans that the local level has to handle at least to some degree. We were talking with some federal partners yesterday about this exact topic. They made a strong case for collaborating with local governments and with the private sector, given that cities often own the critical infrastructure that is the target of an attack. We’ve already seen some cities disabled by cyber-attacks. There’s also some amount of data sharing—being helpful to both sides, in terms of where the attacks are coming from, and what their ultimate aim is.

If we’re really going to get our arms around the problem, we have to have the different levels of government working together. And LA was the first to create a cyber lab where we share data with businesses in real-time about the kinds of threats that we’re seeing. So, that’s a good model of collaboration that other cities can work on,  that they probably have by now.

For all those reasons, you have to have cities engaged. It really helps to have a gung-ho national partner. It helps tremendously. But during the whole time of the Trump presidency when we did not have a gung-ho national partner—in fact, quite the opposite, we had a partner that wanted to not let us have stricter standards for car emissions, for example—we kept the flame alive during those four years. And so, when Biden came in, we weren’t in as bad a place as we could have been if cities and states hadn’t been doing that work.

Do you think that stability and the focus on continuing to advance progressive policies during that period were important factors in maintaining, and even strengthening some of our international alliances at a time when there were challenges from the federal level, but also a time of uncertainty for investors economically?

Yeah, I think so. When President Trump took us out of the Paris Accord, Mayor Garcetti got on the phone and created an organization called Climate Mayors, which has I think around 500 US mayors that are pledged to meet the goals of the Paris Accord. So, there was some amount of policy stability there. And states were doing all kinds of things as well, especially California.

And then we had heads of state visit. When we had Justin Trudeau visit and Nikol Pashinyan, who was the first democratically elected leader of Armenia, and many others. But just to be able to affirm our traditional American values of democracy and pluralism and diversity and welcoming immigrants was, I think, important. It’s interesting: there was a gaming company that decided to expand in LA, specifically because of some things the mayor said about really wanting to stay open to the world and developing international collaborations and partnerships. So, it had a direct positive economic effect for us too.

The whole time I’ve been deputy mayor, we were really clear about that, that we want to have those international collaborations. We want foreign companies to come and set up here in Los Angeles and create jobs for Angelenos and take advantage of the incredible creative and innovative ecosystem that we have here.

To that point, the Biden administration has spoken a lot about ensuring foreign policy addresses the needs of the middle class back home. And there’s been a lot of discussion around how we need to strengthen our domestic position to be seen as a leader globally. But the reverse of that—where it’s what comes from the foreign policy that really tangibly affects the middle class back home—it sounds like that’s an example of that. Can you talk a bit more about the role of city leadership in bringing that connection home?

Both directions are really important. I could not agree more that we need to shore up the foundations of our strength. And that includes both the hard infrastructure—the roads, bridges, the airports, etcetera—but also the people who need quality, early childhood education, which pays enormous dividends, need decent health care, need some kind of comfortable retirement, need free college, in my opinion, which is something we’ve done in California, at least for two years. That’s the way we will be able to compete on the global stage. But we really have to get that work done. It’s so exciting to me that this is the first administration that’s really thought of that in foreign policy terms, in addition to domestic terms, and I think that’s totally right.

And on the other side, I also really welcome the idea that diplomats should be thinking about how their work is affecting folks back home. FDI, Foreign Direct Investment, is the clearest example of that, but there are others. There’s looking for opportunities for student exchanges, for example, bringing foreign cultural tours to the United States. A fair amount of what diplomats do is take care of Americans when they’re abroad, and they work to create stability in their regions. You don’t often hear about what diplomats do, because they’ve prevented a crisis. And that work is incredibly important for the United States, because, otherwise, we’d have to deal with it afterwards.

But it’s just as important to think about exactly how this is affecting individuals back in the US. And I’m glad to see that kind of mindset begin to take hold and take shape.

We need to shore up the foundations of our strength. And that includes both the hard infrastructure … but also … quality, early childhood education … decent health care … some kind of comfortable retirement … That’s the way we will be able to compete on the global stage.

Do you think there’s a role for global cities to play in preserving democratic values, do they present tangible alternatives to these autocratic-leaning shifts that we’re seeing? If so, to do that, what sort of promises or values do they have to deliver to the citizens to be able to not only play that role, but maintain it? And how do they need to collaborate internationally to support and strengthen democratic values?

I definitely felt during the Trump administration, at times, like we were the kind of guardians of progressive values and what I always thought of as traditional American values of welcoming immigrants and racial equality and  valuing diversity and assuming that women were as capable as men—just kind of standard things that I always thought of as human rights and civil rights that that were American. So, when you look around the world, I think there is a possibility for residents to identify with a city’s values, even if they don’t like the direction that their national government is leaning in.

It comes up a lot in climate, and it comes up in LGBTQ rights and women’s rights. And immigration is another place where it comes up in the US. Those are some of the places where the clash is obvious. Cities that find themselves in these situations can learn from each other. Cities network a lot. We have climate networks. We started in LA a gender equity network. And there are networks for sustainable development goals. And there are all kinds of different global and local networks of cities, because we like to share what we’ve done. We’ve got one still going on COVID, which was active again just today: another city asking about mandating vaccines for employees.

One thing that happens a lot at the city level is that kind of best-practice sharing. It’s a proposition I’m going to try to test, which is whether cities who find themselves in those situations where the national government is trending away from liberal democracy can work for each other. I think it’s probably the case that they can.

LA is really the gateway, both culturally and demographically and from a business perspective, to Latin America and the Asia Pacific, which are both priority regions for the Biden Administration. So, how do you see the administration’s focus affecting LA’s position and relations with those regions? With regards to China—if we’re shifting from an era of collaboration to competition, to paraphrase Kurt Campbell—what does that mean for the businesses and the key industries within LA, for city constituents specifically?

One thing is just the encouragement of ties. We coordinate with the Biden Administration, but they’re generally very encouraging about us having good relations with cities, and/or countries in both those regions. With China, as with everything when it comes to China, it’s complex. It’s a complex picture. And I feel like our approach and the federal approach are really well aligned in having areas of potential cooperation and collaboration, and particularly on climate change, because China is the largest emitter, and we’re not going to solve this problem unless China is on board and doing its share. And then also having places where we vehemently disagree with human rights, especially in Xinjiang, and suppression of Hong Kong and destruction of the coral reefs in the South China Sea, and the dangerous militarization of those artificial features. Federal authorities have publicly warned about inroads that China may want to make into local politics and government. And you can see that this actually happened, to some degree, in Australia. And there were accusations of influencing political decisions. That’s something that we need to be careful about, while at the same time we are cooperating with them and trying to encourage them to do more on reducing their carbon emissions. And also learning from some of what they have done, like Shenzhen,  I think has an all-electric transportation system.

We have a huge and wonderful Chinese American diasporic community here. Like any Americans, they probably have mixed and complex views about China. In terms of industry, on the one hand, it is a big market. On the other hand, the compromises that companies have to make in order to get to that market can be troublesome. There’s the issue of stealing of commercial secrets that businesses have to guard against. And they’re a source of lots of imports, obviously, of things that Americans want to buy. And that means business for our ports.

But at the same time, it’s fair to be concerned about components that get to any of our critical technologies for which we shouldn’t be reliant on China. And also, we do this at the city level, and it happens at federal level too, and at the state level, to some degree also, encouraging our businesses to export because trade needs to go in both directions.

It’s a proposition I’m going to try to test, which is whether cities who find themselves in those situations where the national government is trending away from liberal democracy can work for each other. I think it’s probably the case that they can.

Switching topics to sports: With LA hosting the 2028 Olympics, as well as possibly hosting some of the joint World Cup 2026 matches, there’s been in the past a lot of skepticism around the impact of these mega-events on host cities and their citizens. So, how is LA approaching these events, both from your perspective of the international, outward-bound position, but also inward in terms of sustainable urban and economic development, and how they fit within bigger City Hall ambitions and commitments, like the UN Sustainable Development Goals?

A couple of things. We expect there to be a huge positive economic benefit to the city as a whole from the Games. We don’t have to build any venues; we have them all. That’s a huge cost for most cities that we don’t have to bear. And some cities have been very successful in creating economic activity through the games. London did a great job bringing investment ahead of the 2012 Games, and we hope to do the same. Local communities should enjoy the benefits of the Games, not just the inconvenience or any negative impacts from events being hosted near them, and that’s something that we’re focused on.

Professional teams are some of the most recognizable brands in the world, as are the athletes who represent teams and cities. I mean, everybody knows the Lakers. So, in a way, they’re some of our best diplomats. And we have relationships with other host cities that extend to collaboration beyond hosting, to include arts and culture, sustainability, innovation and inclusion. And, of course, these events will showcase our city. And that’s a huge opportunity that we have.

We don’t have a Ministry of Sport in the United States, but the State Department does have a Sports Diplomacy division. We see an opportunity to collaborate directly with cities as partners in programs around exchanges and technical assistance as well.

You’ve worked throughout your career on lots of initiatives around gender equity and youth opportunity. From LCWINS to CHANGE and the Mayor’s Youth Ambassadors Program. Those two groups, the youth and women, have been really hard hit by the pandemic, with record numbers of women leaving the workforce and children, especially those from low-income families, experiencing significant setbacks in their education. How have the past 18 months changed your approach to some of these efforts? Or what types of initiatives or principles have you found to be most impactful and effective?

Yeah, it’s a big question. I mean, as a city, we’ve doubled down on a lot of our efforts. We are going to do the biggest Guaranteed Basic Income pilot in the country starting soon. We’re going to do some experiments, a pilot program in participatory budgeting as well. My team, we worked with every institute of higher learning in Los Angeles, from the community colleges, to state colleges, to private colleges to introduce, especially focused on Black and Brown students, different kinds of international careers that are out there. We’ve had to pivot it a bit to doing these things online, which is a shame,  but we absolutely plan to take the Mayor’s Young Ambassadors overseas again as soon as we can.

We did some early work around a racial equity index, because we have all this data from the Sustainable Development Goals. And once we disaggregated it by race, it showed some really obviously big gaps in a bunch of different areas. And so, we collaborate with our colleagues in taking that project forward.

And in terms of women, in that network CHANGE, as you mentioned, which is with Tokyo, London, Mexico City, Freetown and Barcelona, we’re talking and thinking about these issues a lot. And making sure everyone knows that women have borne the brunt of COVID. But then thinking about and sharing with each other ideas about how to remedy, or how to at least ameliorate that to some degree. We have a big initiative in LA too called Earn, Learn, Play, which was focused this past summer on getting young people back into school, and paying older siblings to tutor their younger siblings, for example, which has been a really successful program. We have lots of pipelines for jobs as well, for young people in the city, and we need that more than ever.

Nina Hachigian is a former US ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Twitter: @NinaHachigian