from The Internationalist and International Institutions and Global Governance Program

Start Spreading the News: Can Cities Govern the World?

October 17, 2013

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Benjamin Barber doesn’t just love cities. He’s convinced they hold the secret to effective, democratic global governance. As nation-states and international institutions flail in addressing transnational issues, today’s dynamic urban centers are poised to fill the breach. Such is the message of Barber’s lively and provocative new book, If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. He overstates his case, but his arguments are original and thought-provoking.

As Barber sees it, nation-states will never rise to the cross-border challenges posed by interdependence. They’re too consumed with sovereign prerogatives, too preoccupied with national interests, to make the necessary compromises to mitigate climate change, arrest nuclear proliferation, or redress appalling global inequalities. Nor should we put much stock in international organizations, like the United Nations and the World Bank, that Barber regards as fatally outdated, functionally sclerotic, and fundamentally undemocratic.

Fortunately, there’s another political entity that he says can fill this leadership vacuum—the vibrant city. Urbanity now defines humanity. In 2009, for the first time in history, more than half of Earth’s inhabitants lived in cities. By 2050, that figure will surge to 75 percent, given massive rural-to-urban migration in the developing world.

Cities, Barber reminds us, are so much more than chaotic agglomerations of bodies and buildings. They are the pulsing heart of innovation, the motor of economic growth, the epicenter of arts and culture, and the laboratory for practical, participatory governance. It’s no accident that mayors, alone among public officials, enjoy consistently high approval ratings. They’re too busy focusing on delivering daily services like trash collection and safe streets, on solving problems like traffic congestion and poor school performance, to waste their constituents’ time with partisan posturing and destructive demagoguery.

Mayors are a diverse lot—as Barber shows in eleven short, but colorful profiles of prominent civic leaders like Michael Bloomberg of New York, Boris Johnson of London, Antanas Mockus of Bogotá, and Sheila Dikshit of Delhi. But they share something in common: a pragmatic streak coupled with reformist zeal. Simply put, they get things done. And because they live among their constituents, they are far more responsive to voters’ needs than politicians in capitals.

This combination of civic idealism and practical problem-solving are the missing ingredients for inclusive and effective global governance. But the problem is how to leverage the blessings of urbanism? The solution, Barber argues, is to create a transnational network of cities. This isn’t as far-fetched as it sounds. During the middle ages, he reminds, cities often made common cause, banding together in associations like the Hanseatic or Lombard Leagues. And they are doing the same thing today, under the radar screen, by joining networks like the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) or the organization Metropolis­­—“a global hive of intercity associations,” based in Barcelona. Such networks allow cities to share best practices on common challenges, whether reducing gun violence, improving early education, or instituting bike-share programs.

Most intriguingly, cities are turning their attention to issues that are both local and global. The premier example of such “glocality” may be the C-40 Cities Climate Leadership Group. Established in 2005 and now boasting fifty-eight “global cities”, this coalition seeks “meaningful and sustainable climate-related actions locally that will help address climate change globally.” Indeed, concrete commitments by the G40 coalition were among the few tangible results of the disappointing2012 “Rio plus 20” UN Conference on Sustainable Development. The gathering showed what can happen when mayors leapfrog the dysfunctional state system that has dominated world politics for too long.

Barber’s vision is to expand, elevate, and formalize these existing patterns of inter-urban cooperation, with the ultimate goal of creating “a global parliament of mayors—call it a World Assembly of Cities.” This would be a loosely confederal arrangement, in which cities would cooperate on an entirely voluntary basis, without coercive authority or binding legal obligations. To ensure balanced global representation, such an assembly could reserve seats in three tranches apportioned on the basis of urban size (megacities above 10 million, cities from 500,000 to 10 million, and smaller cities between 50,000 and 500,000). Initially, the assembly would meet three times a year, and membership would rotate, to accommodate all the world’s many cities, with composition chosen by lot. Most importantly, any commitments made within this parliament would be consensual. Cities would be at liberty to “opt into” or “opt out of” specific initiatives.

Barber reckons that placing global governance in the hands of cities would not only make it more effective, but also more democratic—for cities are, in his view, the natural incubators of democracy. Such an evolution in global political organization would bring the story of democracy full circle. Just as democratic governance began in the ancient Athenian polis, it will find its global expression today in a global network of metropolises—urban nodes linked together by synapses both formal and informal.

There is an whiff of urban boosterism in all of this, though Barber seeks to preempt a number of obvious critiques. Yes, he allows, many cities are crippled by corruption at the highest levels. Yes, cities are often rife with inequality: there will be more than two billion slum dwellers worldwide by 2030. But Barber insists fervently that cities are capable of rooting out venality, of addressing injustice, of broadening economic opportunity, and empowering the politically marginalized, including by expanding participatory governance and using smart applications of information technology.

There are bigger obstacles to Barber’s audacious vision, however. The biggest is state sovereignty. Nation-states may well be dysfunctional, but they jealously guard their prerogatives, and they have ample jurisdictional and fiscal means to constrain ambitious mayors seeking to conduct, as it were, their own foreign policies. No doubt, cities will play an expanding role in “multi-level” frameworks of global governance. But national governments will control the terms of that role.

Another hole in Barber’s argument is the explicit assumption that mayors, in playing their assigned roles, will come to regard themselves not as “mere delegates of the special interests of particular cities,” but instead “embrace their potential as our global conscience” and their “obligation to serve a greater good.” It’s an enticing vision. But it places a lot of faith in a collection of local pols well aware of Tip O’Neill’s maxim that all politics is local. If state leaders have been unable to transcend national interests, can we really expect mayors to transcend the often narrow concerns of their constituents?