June 7, 2018 | By Ivo H. Daalder

This Week's Reads - The Battle for Liberal Democracy Will Be Waged in Cities


“The era of liberal democracy is over,” or so declared Viktor Orban after securing a fourth term as Hungary’s prime minister. A spate of recent books and articles maintain that illiberalism and authoritarianism are ascendant. Yet all the hand-wringing about how democracies die and whether it can happen here is, at its core, a debate about how humans might organise and govern themselves.

Oddly, the debate has largely overlooked the single biggest shift in human organisation that is already taking place: urbanisation.

More than half of humanity now lives in cities, and two-thirds will do so by midcentury. Urban areas are already responsible for two-thirds of all energy use, three-quarters of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, and four-fifths of all economic output. These shares will only increase.

Never have cities mattered more. In fact, the battle between authoritarianism and liberal democracy will be waged in cities. While the stakes remain national, urban areas, where the majority of people live and work, have become the main arenas in which our governance will be decided.

The history of liberalism is, after all, the history of the city. Since at least the Dutch Golden Age cities have been the locus of liberalism and individualism. While the hinterlands have tended the flames of conservatism and tradition, urban centers have experimented with new political and economic freedoms and liberties. From globalisation to gay rights, most of the major transformations in our modern world began as urban novelties. And what worked in cities soon spread beyond them.

The appeal for authoritarian leaders is clear. Keeping cities under control quells opposition to both the local and national government. But the resulting stability is illusive. While most decisions are made by a very few at the very top, the rest stew in resentment or succumb to apathy, with all of the attendant damage to economic output, health, and civic cohesion. Nor are the core problems facing modern cities — security, climate change, pollution, sustainable growth, and the like — addressed in anything other than through piecemeal, stop-gap measures.An urbanising world, history suggests, ought then to be a liberalising world. But this history may now be ending. China, Russia, and their emulators are seeking to impose strict authoritarian constraints that pick and choose which urban and liberal features to allow, where and when. China has permitted a circumscribed economic liberalism, for instance, but has clamped down hard on political liberalism. Advances in surveillance technology, artificial intelligence and Big Data have made this strategy even more effective. Facial recognition software is even now being connected to China’s extensive CCTV network, yielding personalised social credit scores that track and limit individual movement.

That’s not how cities work best. Elsewhere around the world, and even occasionally in Russia and China in the face of opposition, urban centers have forged ahead in addressing the problems facing cities the way cities have long dealt with their problems, through unconstrained experimentation and the development of best practices. Now, cities should be placed at the centre of not just urban policy, but national policy.

To date, the US and other governments have seen urban policy to be irrelevant in nation-to-nation diplomacy. But the political moment demands otherwise. Over the next thirty years, billions of people will move to cities, driving development and the future of countries all over the globe - especially in Africa and South Asia. What happens there will drive the future, including the prospects for liberal democracy.

The US and others would do well to start prioritising urban policy as central to their foreign policies. Start by having the State Department and European Commission work to promote urban planners, “smart cities” technology, sustainable buildings and power generation, and advanced mobility and transportation platforms to the growing urban centers of the world. These are, after all, industries in which their companies lead and that other cities are eager to adopt.

More stakeholders making better decisions in urban areas across the world would let cities continue to be the incubators of prosperity and liberal values. And America stands to gain as much as any other nation.

This article was originally featured in the Financial Times.

Mid-Sized Powers Must Unite to Preserve the World Order

Gideon Rachman / The Financial Times

Collectively, the world’s middle powers, such as Germany, France, Japan, and Britain, have an opportunity to preserve the global rules-based order from which the US, China, and Russia are increasingly straying. Rachman argues that a middle-powers alliance could coordinate its positions and lobby its interests on trade, climate change, arms control, Middle East and Asian peace negotiations, and other big global issues. This combined effort could buffer the current international order until, “the US reverts to normal, or, more gloomily, the start of a process of building alternative structures to defend liberal values,” Rachman writes.

For Trump, the Challenges from China Multiply

Gerald F. Seib / The Wall Street Journal

The US is facing multiplying economic, security, and diplomatic challenges from China—a trend, Seib argues, that will continue and could even become the new normal. “American officials are bracing for a long-term pattern in which China will cooperate in areas where interests intersect, while testing the US in other areas,” Seib writes. He adds that, unlike the Soviet Union during the Cold War, China isn’t simply trying to gain an advantage over the US in the existing international game, but seeking to create a new game altogether. “That’s a recipe for long-term tension,” Seib concludes.

Germany Struggles to Fend Off Assaults from Trump

Guy Chazan / The Financial Times

Berlin is bewildered by President Trump’s belligerence­–from his rejection of the Iran nuclear accord to his probe into German car imports. Although Chancellor Angela Merkel has acknowledged the strategic challenge Trump poses, she has struggled to elaborate on her vision for Europe to “take its fate into its own hands,” Chazan writes. The rise of populist parties in other parts of Europe, such as Italy, have tempered the German response to Emmanuel Macron’s efforts to strengthen the EU vis-à-vis the US. In the end, Chazan writes, Germany might have few options other than continuing to appease Trump and in effect paying a higher price for its relationship with the US than it has in the past.

Can Turkey’s Economic Turmoil Derail Erdogan’s Reelection?

Yaroslav Trofimov / The Wall Street Journal

President Erdogan is facing a significant challenge to his 15-year reign in the upcoming Turkish elections, writes Trofimov: the US dollar. The Turkish lira hit a low of 4.92 to the dollar at the end of May, applying pressure to a regime that has championed economic prosperity at the expense of civil liberties. “Mr. Erdogan and his AKP party have portrayed the currency slide as the result of a foreign conspiracy against his plan for Turkey to become a global power and a leader of the Muslim world,” Trofimov writes. On June 24, Turkish voters will decide if they believe these claims to be true, or if the country’s economic downturn is enough to bring down Erdogan.

The New World Disorder: Is War Inevitable in the Asian Century?

James Crabtree / The Financial Times

Crabtree reviews a series of new books relating to the battle for global influence among China, the US, and India. Robert Kaplan’s The Return of Marco Polo’s World describes a new global order that’s oddly similar to 13th-century global order. Crabtree describes Kaplan’s vision, “The map will increasingly be defined by a new medievalism…the power of states will decline while loyalties to city, empire, and tribe will matter more.” Will Doig’s High Speed Empire focuses on how China’s “railway diplomacy” factors into President Xi’s plan to reclaim the country’s global centrality. Finally, Our Time Has Come by Alyssa Ayres, looks at India’s newfound assertiveness on the world stage. “A new world of geopolitical competition is being born, but one where even powerful states cannot entirely control events,” Crabtree concludes.

Middle East Power Struggle Plays Out on New Stage

Matina Stevis-Gridneff / The Wall Street Journal

Along the Horn of Africa and northward into the Red Sea, powerful Middle Eastern countries as well as the US, China, and Russia are scrambling to buy up ports and erect military installations in an increasingly volatile and strategic corner of the world. The nearby Suez Canal is the fastest and most heavily used shipping lane connecting Asia with Europe, handling roughly 10 percent of the world’s seaborne trade. According to Stevis-Gridneff, some sites on the northern coast of the Horn are also important because of their proximity to Yemen, “a stage for the rivalry between Iran and Saudi Arabia that is playing out across the Middle East.”

1 Big Thing: How the Robot Revolution Is Changing Our Lives


This special edition of Axios AM takes a deep dive into how the robot-fueled tech boom is already changing our lives. In addition to pieces on job disruption and driving automation, Axios delivers a set of examples of how cities are stepping up to challenges that national governments, including Washington, are lagging on—one of the central themes being explored at the Council’s Chicago Forum on Global Cities, which concludes tomorrow.

What Happens When a Journalist Comes Back from the Dead

Julia Ioffe / The New York Times

Until Russian journalist Arkady Babchenko revealed his death at the hands of Kremlin agents to be a stunt, it had been easy to dismiss Russian claims of “provokatsiya,” or provocation, when caught behaving badly, as “self-serving smoke and mirrors,” according to Ioffe. Now, ironically, the Kremlin-hating journalist has turned provokatsiya into a real weapon by staging a scenario in Kiev to make Moscow look bad. His actions will have repercussions far beyond journalism. “It will be much harder to accuse Russian officials of anything. They will flaunt Babchenko as an example,” writes Ioffe, quoting Tikhon Dzyadko, an independent Russian journalist.

Trump Veers to a Korea Plan That Echoes Failures of the Past

Mark Landler and David E. Sanger / The New York Times

Despite vowing not to repeat previous presidential errors on North Korea, President Trump appears to be moving in the direction of his predecessors in the lead up to his June summit with Kim Jong-un, Landler and Sanger write. While announcing that the meeting was back on, Trump opened the door to a prolonged freeze on existing nuclear capabilities—essentially the deal Bill Clinton embarked on with Kim Il-sung in 1994. Trump also suggested the summit might result in a peace agreement to formally end the Korean War, “a lofty idea that featured in a 2005 statement that inaugurated George W. Bush’s failed effort with Kim Jong-il.” Still, the meeting itself is historic, and Trump sees it as an “opportunity to use his dealmaker’s skills and personal connections to bridge gaps his predecessors could not close.”


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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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