February 28, 2017 | By Simon Curtis

Global Cities at the End of Globalism: Can They Survive?

Global cities are products of a liberal world order. This order is currently under threat from the rise of populist nationalism, the specter of protectionism, and the growing strength of authoritarian states. These are threats to the very possibility of a “global” city. But cities have the confidence and the resources to defend the values that shaped their existence. With courage, leadership, and a commitment to openness, the future of globalism rests with global cities.  

The inauguration of President Donald Trump has ignited debates about the possible collapse of the liberal world order that has characterized much of the post-World War II era and spanned the globe since the fall of the Soviet Union. Many of the values and policy directions espoused by Trump during the election campaign, if implemented, would signal a dramatic departure from the open, multi-lateral, rule-based order that has been at the heart of US foreign policy for seven decades. The emphasis on hard borders, economic protectionism, nationalism, and “America First” zero-sum competition would, if put into practice, undermine the liberal world order and challenge globalization. And the challenge to liberal values in the very state that has underpinned contemporary world order comes at a time when globalization is being challenged from multiple directions: Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, the rise of far right movements across the European continent, and the increasing confidence of illiberal powers such as Russia, China, Turkey and Iran.

Many believe we may be looking at the end of globalism.

This matters enormously for global cities, precisely because they evolved within the liberal world order. This particular form of city has a short history. Although there have been many cities throughout the long sweep of history that have had an open orientation to the world – as nodes in world trading networks, for example – a “global city”  designates the specific forms of urbanization that have arisen from globalization. In this sense, contemporary global cities are a product of the restructuring of the world economy in the 1970s. Under US leadership, this restructuring opened up the global market, which was shaped by the set of values that came to be known as the “Washington Consensus”: a commitment to open markets, trade liberalization, privatization, and deregulation. This allowed certain cities to become supercharged, to expand in size and density, and to accumulate wealth as a result of the intrinsic economic advantages of urban agglomeration. Global cities became critical hubs in globe-spanning networks, concentrating the economic decision-making power of corporate actors, sucking in people and resources. The economies of some global cities are larger than most nation states. As a result, such cities have acquired a cosmopolitan outlook and an orientation to openness, which sets them apart culturally from the populations of the nation-states in which they are situated.

It was a particular, historical configuration of the international system that made the emergence of global cities possible: the world order underpinned by the hegemonic power of a “liberal leviathan.” On the one hand, US power provided the international public goods, security, and stability that created an environment in which the city was able to emerge from 400 years of domination by the territorial state and to build increasingly deep transnational networks. On the other hand, US power helped to expand and shape the global market and kick-start the current round of globalization from which cities have drawn their wealth and power.

The reversal or collapse of this world order would entail significant consequences for global cities. They potentially face the loss of the international environment that generated and sustained them for four decades.

We do not yet know how US foreign policy will change under the Trump administration. But we do know that narrow nationalism and closed borders are anathema to global cities. Fault-lines are now emerging between the nation-state and the global city that may augur the shape of things to come. Such tensions have, perhaps, been inevitable since global cities were empowered and enlarged by the process of globalization. Although it will require courageous city leadership to retain a commitment to openness, it may now be that the future of globalism rests with the city rather than the state. Global cities increasingly have the confidence and resources to offer an alternative path.

In past months we have seen this growing tension between cities and states play out in a number of ways. The difference in outlook and interests between urban and rural populations was clearly visible in voter patterns in both the US presidential election, in which urban centers favored Clinton, and in the British referendum over EU membership, in which urban areas voted overwhelmingly to remain. The spoils of globalization have been unevenly distributed, and this has created a clear rift in the national polity between wealthy and dynamic global cities and their less successful hinterlands.

We can also see political tensions playing out between the state and the city in the executive order to strip US sanctuary cities of federal funding, the resistance put up by those cities and the power that they have demonstrated to resist. Indeed, openness to migration and cultural diversity has long been a hallmark of urban life, and global cities are also nodes in global diaspora networks. Mayors in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago know that putting up walls will damage the fabric of their cities.

In the realm of global governance, cities increasingly offer a parallel system to states, continuing to deepen transnational networks that often bypass central government. Over the past few decades cities have been developing a parallel track in the governance of transnational challenges that sits alongside traditional state based diplomacy: city-to-city networks routinely participate in and shape global governance, and cities are an increasingly important part of the UN system.

Somewhat paradoxically, the illiberal moment may directly bolster the influence of global cities by accelerating a shift in the balance of power from national to urban politics that has been visible for some time. But, just as the global city is a new urban form, so too do we see a new form of urban politics emerging, one that operates simultaneously at multiple scales, from the local to the global. What we may be seeing is not the end of globalism but the transformation of globalism into new forms, with the global city at the heart of this transition. States will remain the most powerful actors in many areas. But cities need to remain open to the world and will need to fight for the right to do so, as London Mayor Sadiq Khan’s “London is Open”  stance in the wake of Brexit appreciates.

City leaders will need to defend the open and cosmopolitan nature of their cities until either the winds of illiberalism have blown over, or the batten of global order passes from the state to the city. In either scenario, if city leaders are explicit and intentional about fighting for the openness that makes prosperity in their city possible, the global city will survive. 

This blog is based off of Simon's most recent book, Global Cities and Global Order, which was published by Oxford University Press in January 2017 and examines the importance of global cities in the transformation of world order.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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