November 28, 2018 | By Simon Curtis

Global Cities in the International System: A New Era of Governance

Much of the discussion on the role and impact of global cities today focuses upon the contributions they can make to local, national, and global challenges in the here and now, under today’s legal structures, institutions, and norms. But we miss an essential aspect of their significance if we neglect to look at the longer-term structural trends in world politics that have produced such cities. By applying a historic lens to their emergence, we realize that cities in the future do not have to be limited by today’s parameters. Taking this long-term perspective should be a critical part of the strategic thinking of politicians both at City Hall and at the state level, as they devise unprecedented policies for cities that will shape the twenty-first century.

Global cities today are doing much to contribute to the governance of global challenges: as they step into governance gaps left by states when it comes to climate change or security, as they learn from each other via a growing array of transnational urban governance networks, as they interact with international organisations and the UN system, and as mayors mediate the multi-scalar linkages between the local and global levels with increasing skill and confidence.

We know that cities have greatly expanded in terms of size, scope, capabilities, and significance over the past few decades–to the extent that a key area for the politics of the twenty-first century will be how the relationship between states and the growing mega-cities will be negotiated.

But, in the frenzy of everyday city management, discussion of the larger political question of the transformative significance of the global city for the broader shape of the international system gets missed. As I have argued in my book, Global Cities and Global Order, it is only by looking back to the past that we can see the real significance of the rise of the global city. Just as in the past the relationship between the city and the state took different forms, so this historically distinctive new type of city–the global city, with its unprecedented globe-spanning capacities–offers the possibility of recalibrating the relationship between the city and the nation-state in the future.

Indeed, such a recalibration, it is increasingly clear, is essential if we are to have the type of political institutions that are fit to engage with planetary scale problems such as climate change, which the often hamstrung society of states is unable to deal with effectively.

When we speak of the international system it is commonplace to associate it with the system of territorial states alone. But some scholars have argued that this is to mistake a transient moment in the long history of international systems for a general condition–in effect mistaking a particular type of political system for a universal one in an uncritical and ahistorical fashion. And, of course, there have been many other types of political entity in the long sweep of history: empires, city-states, city leagues–and for much of history they have existed and interacted at the same time.

Indeed, the territorial state system that emerged in Europe in the seventeenth-century, and spread around the world via both imperialism and mimicry, has been a particularly unusual configuration for world politics to take. There is no particular reason to think that it will last forever, and every reason to be open to the possibility that other political entities will emerge to both challenge the state in the twentieth century, or, indeed, to work with it and augment it, in the pursuit of global governance.

The best candidate for such a transformation today is the global city. Cities have a far longer pedigree than states–think of the early city states of Mesopotamia, the city-states of Ancient Greece or the Italian Renaissance, the Northern European Hanseatic League of trading cities of the thirteenth to fifteenth centuries. Today’s global cities have developed a series of impressive capacities and capabilities over the past few decades, which make them the best candidates to form novel transnational political assemblages that can scale up to the level of global challenges–in effect, ushering in another transformation of the international system.

The global city is, however, unprecedented. It is not about returning to an older era. Rather, its emergence and unique composition demonstrates that the international system of the future is unlikely to look anything like those international systems of the past.

After decades of astonishing growth, global cities have a size and scale that means that what they do has a real impact on global governance outcomes. And the technological capacities of a digital communications network that runs through cities has meant that transnational city-to-city networks, such as the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Initiative or Metropolis, offer the possibility of a vast, globe-spanning political assemblage acting in concert.

Across multiple domains, including economic governance, political governance, technology and infrastructure, global cities have an impressive set of capacities and capabilities that can be harnessed to produce both better cities and a better international system. Examples of such capabilities include: the unique generative economic capability of urban agglomeration, the power that comes from being an economic gateway, the ability to lead and convene transnational networks, the ability to utilize big-data to generate smart and sustainable cities, and the possibility of automation of transportation.

Nation-states need quickly to realize the potential of global cities, and take steps to empower them to meet the global challenges of the twenty-first century. They should allow them more fiscal autonomy and give them a louder, more influential voice in the deliberations of international organizations. To do so can augment the power of the state to deal with global challenges, opening up new avenues of approach.

If states fail to appreciate this new reality, the big clash of the twenty-first century may be an unexpected one–that between the growing power and legitimacy of the city, and the fading capacities of the nation-state.

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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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