President Dwight D. Eisenhower deemed people-to-people relations essential to securing a lasting peace in the aftermath of the extensive death and destruction wreaked by World War II. Believing the American people capable of imagining a future in which Germany and Japan could repent, reform, and embrace non-hegemonic positions within the international system, he established a group in early September, 1956 tasked with fostering mutual respect and understanding among the citizens of former wartime enemies. Sixty years later, that organization, Sister Cities International (SCI), remains devoted to cultivating ties between Americans and people of different cultures worldwide.
SCI now boasts a robust membership of roughly 570 US communities, which in turn enjoy over 2,300 partnerships in 150 countries around the globe. Congressmen Ron DeSantis (R-FL) and Joaquin Castro (D-TX) introduced legislation on June 9th to make July 15, 2016 the first annual “Sister Cities International Day,” and the SCI team is celebrating its 60th anniversary with an online campaign entitled “60 Days of Impact,” highlighting stories, photos, and videos from the SCI archives.
The winners of SCI’s 2016 “Innovation Awards” (among cities with populations greater than 500,000) in the categories of Arts & Culture, Economic Development, Humanitarian Assistance, and Youth & Education all enjoy sister-city relationships with Asian communities, distinguishing themselves through collaboration with their counterparts in India, China, Japan, and Pakistan.
Such community-led initiatives underpin the soft-power capacity of the United States and seek to maximize the potential of people-to-people interaction. The City of San Antonio International Relations Office (CSAIRO) of San Antonio, Texas took home the SCI prize for Arts & Culture after partnering with various local and international organizations to launch programs showcasing foreign cultures. These included “Hats Off, Chennai,” a “grassroots initiative” to recognize Chennai, India for persevering through catastrophic 2015 floods and to fundraise for recovery efforts; and the celebration of Diwali, a major traditional Indian festival.
Baltimore Sister Cities International (BSCI) of Baltimore, Maryland earned top honors in Economic Development for advancing business interests and bolstering educational exchange with Xiamen, China. Baltimore hosted a delegation from Xiamen in May 2016 to celebrate thirty years of sister-city ties. Xiamen Vice-Mayor Li Dongliang headed the delegation, extending invitations to the 20thChina International Fair for Investment & Trade (CIFIT)—to be held in Xiamen in September. The trip also yielded plans to launch a summer exchange program between Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Xiamen Information School.
SCI recognized the Houston-Karachi Sister City Association (HKSCA) of Houston, Texas with the Humanitarian Assistance Innovation Award for providing aid to Karachi, Pakistan after a summer 2015 heat wave descended on the city of over 22 million, exacerbating existing problems with clean-water access and taking more than 1500 lives. HKSCA financed the purchase and installation of a municipal water pump in the hopes of not only addressing immediate local needs, but also galvanizing activism concerning Karachi’s water-access shortfalls.
The award for Youth & Education went to Phoenix Sister Cities (PSC) of Phoenix, Arizona. PSC earned recognition for supporting numerous youth and ambassador programs, many of which aim to support convivial relations with people across Asia: Teach Abroad in Himeji, Japan (a college internship program); the Taipei Chinese Culture Summer Camp in Phoenix; and a youth-baseball exchange in Taipei, Taiwan.
Current SCI president and CEO Mary Kane sees great potential for continued growth in people-to-people interaction between communities in the United States and the Asia-Pacific. In 2015, when discussing the 35th anniversary of the first Sino-American sister city relationship—St. Louis, Missouri and Nanjing forged ties in early November 1979—she revealed that “much of the impetus behind [Sino-American] subnational engagement” emanates not from the United States, but from Chinese municipal and provincial officials who seek outside knowledge and experience to properly address new and evolving local challenges. Chinese President Xi Jinping, himself, took part in a sister-city delegation trip to Muscatine, Iowa in 1985, returning to share tea with his host family in 2012 while on a presidential visit to the US.
Linnea Logie is a Research Intern at the East-West Center in Washington and holds a bachelor’s degree in Political Science and History from the University of Connecticut.