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The Power of Cities: Mayors on the World Stage

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In the story of human history, the city quickly emerges as the main protagonist, leaving the countryside in a supporting role. As historian Samuel Kramer tells it in his widely read account, it was with the rise of the ancient city of Sumer that “history begins.” There, the development of an urban way of life accompanied by specialization and commercial activity added impetus to the development of many new technologies. The need for sophisticated record keeping, for example, went hand-in-hand with the revolutionary development of cuneiform script.

As the experience of Sumer showed 6,000 years ago, complex systems whether social structures, institutional mechanisms, or ways of exchanging goods and services evolved to support and manage the large and concentrated populations of cities. The very complexity of cities intrinsically makes them incubators of human creativity and natural champions of both connectivity and competitiveness. From the ancient nexus of city-states that made up Sumerian civilization and traded and fought with each other, to the great “world cities” of mercantilist Europe, to today’s network of “global cities” that jockey with each other for preeminence even as they exchange capital, human talent and new technology, cities have long made the world economy go ’round.

Yet, while cities generate 80 percent of global economic output, they are still lesser deities in the pantheon of world politics today. Nation-states, with their monopoly on the use of force, continue to dominate. There are a few exceptions in the world’s remaining sovereign city-states, including Singapore and the Principality of Monaco. Between the two, only Singapore has significant military capacity. Monaco has fewer than 300 military personnel. (Another city-state, Vatican City, lacks independent armed forces.) But historically, the greatest cities have conceded the provision of security to the territorially larger nation-state, even as national security has rested heavily on cities as strategically vital bases of economic and industrial activity.

In the context of the intensifying globalization now under way, however, the issues affecting human security have grown in both complexity and scope. Local problems can rapidly become global ones, while global challenges such as climate change, pandemics, international terrorism and economic crises are not only direct threats to local ways of life but may themselves emerge from within urban areas, places where more than half the world’s population now lives.

“Glocal” Challenges and Cities

The division of labor between cities and the nation-state in the international security arena is therefore becoming far less clear, or “glocalized,” to use the term popularized by sociologist Roland Robertson. Nation-states struggle to find the resources political, financial and technical to manage the myriad transnational threats from an increasingly unpredictable global environment.

In this context, nation-states have become more deliberate about using cities’ potential to serve as their agents in certain spheres of international activity. Cities may embrace, or even compete for, these roles as they may help promote their interests or serve the ambitions of their mayors. The Olympics offers one obvious example. Some national governments are eager for their major cities to win bids for the games to showcase national achievements and improve their international image. In 2008, China celebrated its renewed global influence, achieving what some in that country called “the dream of a century” with its spectacular success hosting the Beijing Olympic Games. In preparing for the Olympics, the Chinese government spared no expense. According to some estimates, costs topped $58 billion. China also used the Beijing games as a chance to send a message that it was not an environmentally irresponsible country intent on achieving rapid growth at all costs, but a nation striving for more balanced, “greener” development.

National governments may also routinely involve their cities directly in the foreign policy process. A report by the Netherlands Institute of International Relations (Clingendael) offers Amsterdam as an example, observing that national ministries regularly engage city leaders in discussions about national foreign policy goals. The city’s cabinet-appointed mayor often shares the international spotlight with the Dutch prime minister. In China, according to Benjamin Leffel, an authority on the role of cities in U.S.-China relations, the U.S.-China Initiative on City-Level Economic Cooperation has become a valued dimension of efforts through the bilateral Strategic & Economic Dialogue to diversify economic relations between the two countries.

Cities Taking Global Action

City governments may work with their national capitals on international issues. But
cities also have priorities linked to international and global issues that their national governments do not share. Because of this disconnect and because urban concerns that involve international or global issues may be more effectively addressed at the local level, cities are increasingly independent and proactive actors on the international stage. As New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg put it in a recent piece in The Atlantic, “We’re the level of government closest to the majority of the world’s people. While nations talk, but too often drag their heels, cities act.”

Taking action sometimes involves directly challenging national policy. In an overview of cities as international actors, international relations expert R. James Ferguson recalls that two decades ago, many American cities used their sister-city relationships with cities and towns in Nicaragua to protest U.S. policy toward that country including promoting economic investment and direct medical aid. Even before that, at a time of intensifying anti-nuclear protests in the United States and abroad, 1,000 American cities had become involved in an effort to break down Cold War barriers and initiate ties with their counterparts in the Soviet Union. In another example, New York City resisted pressure from the U.S. Department of State and barred the participation of a major Swiss bank in a bond offering amid allegations the bank had received shipments of gold from countries under Nazi occupation.

Today, as national governments focus on other policy objectives, cities have initiated their own efforts to deal with many of the nontraditional threats to which they feel their security is vulnerable. For instance, as major greenhouse gas emitters that also suffer the effects of these emissions, cities have proceeded with their own action agendas on carbon reductions and climate change amid uncertainty about global collective action. In 2007, London, New York City and Tokyo all introduced ambitious emissions reductions efforts. More than 1,000 mayors have agreed through the U.S. Conference of Mayors Climate Protection Agreement to seek to match or exceed Kyoto Protocol targets, even though this protocol was never ratified by the United States.

As cities seek to make progress in areas of greatest concern to their mayors and constituents, they have formed or strengthened networks that enable them to cooperate internationally often independently of their national governments. The best known of these is Sister Cities International, now in its sixth decade of operation. Sister Cities helps formalize partnerships between its 600 member cities around the world, with some larger cities pairing themselves with dozens of cities across all world regions. Sibling ties have been used by cities to achieve a range of goals. Some German mayors have seen “twinning” arrangements with Turkish cities as helpful in reducing local social tensions involving immigrants from Turkey. Montreal extended a helping hand to the people in its sister city, Port-au-Prince, after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, committing technical and financial assistance to reconstruction. The Sister Cities network also helps even relatively small cities pursue big dreams. For example, Coral Cables, Fla., has developed sister-city relationships to help fulfill its founding vision of itself as a “cultural and economic gateway to Latin America.”

Other international city networks include the U.S.-based International City/County Management Association and, headquartered in Barcelona, the World Association of Major Metropolises and United Cities and Local Governments, among other international and regional inter-city groupings. Certainly, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, which involves mayors from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to Austin, Texas, has contributed to cities’ success in making headway on carbon reductions. Auspices for urban cooperation are provided by the United Nations’ World Alliance of Cities Against Poverty and the World Health Organization’s Healthy Cities project.

Rock Star Mayors

Dynamic, can-do mayors are behind many of the international initiatives cities undertake and also represent them within international networks. New York City’s Bloomberg, dubbed the “mayor of mayors” by New York Magazine, has used his personal capital and media power to push a forward-looking agenda not only in New York but also around the world. Bloomberg has mentored mayors of other major world cities, such as London’s Boris Johnson, whose successful management of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in his city won him an enthusiastic public following. Other mayors with international profiles include Ron Huldai of Tel Aviv, who has sustained socially progressive policies in his city against criticism from some national officials, and Toru Hashimoto of Osaka, Japan, whose youth, flamboyance and bold ideas on issues from education to nuclear policy have made him a media star.

Being in the global spotlight can have mixed results for mayors. Algeria’s Mouhib Khatir, mayor of Zeralda, is known for his strong stance against corruption and for human rights, work that has strengthened his candidacy for “World Mayor,” an annual award made through the City Mayors Foundation. However, Khatir’s anti-corruption stance appears to have landed him in jail in 2011. Other mayors have used their city leadership roles as a stepping-stone toward national political influence. Former Chinese president Jiang Zemin won support for his eventual rise to the top of the Chinese political hierarchy during his time as mayor of Shanghai and later party chief. Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou served as mayor of Taipei. In France, Jacques Chirac and Nicolas S‡rkšzy both were city mayors (Paris and Neuilly-sur-Seine, respectively) before winning the country’s highest office. As sitting mayors, Bloomberg, Johnson and Hashimoto have all been tapped as potential national leaders.

Today’s mayors can boast more than the daily experience of directly managing social, economic and political challenges. For mayors of cities that sociologist Saskia Sassen describes as “command points” in the global economy, their time increasingly involves working with their international counterparts to address global challenges. In a sense, these mayors are global leaders as much as local leaders.

Cities and the New International Order

Urbanization is expected to continue at a rapid pace, with many new cities developing in the next decade alone. Predictions are that by 2030 as many as three out of five people in the world will be urban, and 18 cities will have more than 20 million inhabitants. As globalization intensifies, the capacity of national governments to adequately manage its impact will be further tested, likely making the role of cities even more important. With technology and global media enabling greater direct interaction and the diffusion of ideas to cities around the globe, cities and their leaders can be expected to exercise even more international influence.

So what does the rise of the city signify for the future international order? In her work on “global cities,” sociologist Sassen argues that these strategic centers of production, innovation and often highly mobile people will test the nation-state as an organizing source of cultural identity. At the same time, cities are places where the big patterns of globalization are expressed in concentrated form. As cities grapple with issues ranging from environmental problems to gaping inequalities, many will lack the capacity to meet these challenges, making cities “strategic terrain for a whole series of conflicts,” Sassen says. This carries implications for the role of the nation-state in delivering the kind of security cities will need to thrive a potential test of the political paradigm that structures the Westphalian system.

International relations expert Parag Khanna proffers a more optimistic vision in a contribution to Foreign Policy in its SeptemberÐOctober 2010 issue. Weaker states and a world in which cities play a greater leadership role may well be on the near horizon, but Khanna proposes that the international system that could accompany this scenario is not necessarily a more conflict-ridden one. Rather, inter-city rivalries could give rise to a “cycle of virtuous competition” amid greater global cooperation around world issues through strengthened international organizations and networks.


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