Cities and states are becoming increasingly powerful actors on the world stage

“And together we shall rule the world!” Anne Hidalgo and Sadiq Khan, mayors of Paris and London respectively, meet last spring. Image: Getty.

“No matter how far away, no matter how small in size, no matter how few competences, and indeed, no matter how poor, every single region has at least one unique jewel it can share with the others.” – Vaira Vike-Freiberga, former president of Latvia.

“Sub-national presence on the international scene has become a fact of life in an interdependent world.” – Ivo Duchacek, who created the ‘paradiplomacy’ concept  in 1984.

“Global cities are increasingly driving world affairs– economically, politically, socially and culturally. They are no longer just places to live in. They have emerged as leading actors on the global stage.” – Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs in 2015.

Almost everything in nature is self-organised, and a substantial part of what human beings do is organising their behaviour. Over the last centuries, we have organised the world so that sovereign states serve as the main compass. When asked what are the largest world economies, we think about countries. Who are the most powerful? A handful of sovereign states come to mind.

I propose a different way of reshuffling the cards. Instead of looking at foreign affairs in a state-centric way, one should also contemplate other actors such as cities and states (or cantons, counties, departments, districts, krays, länder, oblasts, okrugs, prefectures, provinces, regions, republics, territories, or zones).

Picking a different unit of analysis diversifies our understanding of the world, adding realism and density to our everyday life and choices. Any future institutional framework for foreign affairs should be deeply rooted in the principles of multi-level and multi-stakeholder governance in order to allow for interaction, synergy, and complementarity between all levels of governments –and to encourage ownership of the challenges and the opportunities of foreign affairs.

History countersigns this view. When we look back at the last 400 years, we notice that new actors emerge on the world stage in a cyclical way. Sovereign states, as we know them today, are a fairly recent political construction, dating back to the 17th century. Yet, they alone no longer monopolise the status quo of the international system, even if they still certainly play a vital role.

International organisations rose as a full global actor in the late 19th century. They were followed by multinational companies in the mid-20th century, international non-governmental organisations (iNGOs) in the 1980s, and by terror groups, religious communities, a transnational civil society, or by celebrities in more recent times. All have authority and capacity to mold world dynamics and shape rules while they dispute space and resources among themselves to enlarge and protect their constituencies.

Cities and states are the brand new international actors. If the international community has always been aware of the economic sway of some states (such as California or Texas), or of regions using foreign policy to leverage their internal autonomy (such as Quebecor Catalonia), today the phenomenon is much more widespread.

The international tentacles of “mega cities” or “global cities” have also been grasped in the past, but the list of cities that are no longer nested in a national urban system only but participate directly in global governance is much wider. Virtually no state or major city in the United States, Canada, Germany, Brazil, China, Japan, Mexico, France, and several other countries in Asia, Latin America, Europe, or North America has shied away from harnessing the opportunities opened up by an international presence. North Rhine-Westphalia, Guangdong, São Paulo (state), and Île- de-France are richer than most countries in the world and have established well-staffed and dynamic structures to defend their interests abroad.

Sub-national entities can thus be regarded less as a territory but as a space where global flows– capital, information, people, goods, services– crisscross and solidify. The startling reality is that among the thirty largest economies in the world ranked by gross domestic product (GDP), twelve are sub-national (regional or municipal). A 2001 study by the McKinsey Global Institute shows that six hundred urban centres generate about 60 percent of global GDP.

An alternative view of the world's largest economies. New York metro is bigger than New York state because it includes chunks of Connecticut and New Jersey. 

This trend goes hand in hand with the global urbanisation of the planet. Concentrated into just 2 percent of the world’s surface, urban areas now hold over half of the world’s population. And UN Habitat estimates that, by 2050, over 75 percent of the world’s population will live in cities.

According to the UN agency: “The 100 years from1950 to 2050 will be remembered for the greatest social, cultural, economic and environmental transformation in history – the urbanisation of humanity. With half of us now occupying urban space, the future of the human species is tied to the city.”

Currently, over 80 percent of global economic output is already generated by cities. This phenomenon only bears comparison to that great growth of cities that accompanied the industrial revolution in the 19th century. As Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser has said: “Cities are our species’ greatest invention.”

Aware of their economic potential and strains and faced with gridlock in the national capitals, mayors and governors have gone a long way toward filling the vacuum of effective decision-making and effective action by exercising political and economic power at their level. It is the states and cities that are the engines of growth at the ground level, where the transition from policy to practice becomes most visible.


In countries around the world, sub-national governments have now to meet the needs of their constituencies and face constant scrutiny. Processes of decentralisation of government – the downward transfer of resources, responsibilities, or authority from national to sub-national governments– is a powerful global tendency. As pointed out by Michael Storper: “City- regions are the principal scale at which people experience lived reality. The geographical churn, turbulence, and unevenness of development, combined with the sheer scale of urbanisation, will make city- region development more important than ever– to economics, politics, our global mood, and our welfare”. With the exception of the classical strongholds of sovereign countries – the military, border security, monetary policy, and justice – decentralisation is touching all segments of power.

This offers some challenges to the practice of foreign affairs. If the international portfolio of national states is still dominated by issues of war and peace, trade matters, and monetary stability, there is a tendency and pressure for foreign ministries to diversify their agendas and to include human- scale themes – such as environmental and social issues, cultural exchanges, infrastructure, education, or healthcare and epidemics.

This enlargement of the field of foreign policy into non-military and non- diplomatic issue areas is gradually becoming a characteristic feature of global interdependence. Yet, these are fields that usually fall under the legal competence of sub-national governments. And local authorities wish not to relinquish their rights and duties. If national foreign policy is outward looking to the external environment, then sub-national foreign policy looks more inward to the domestic base.

A balance is possible to strike if we view the international activities of sub-national governments as one element in an increasingly complex multilayered diplomatic environment wherein policy-makers seek to negotiate simultaneously with domestic as well as foreign interests. Chinese provinces, Brazilian states, or German länder smoothly carry out hundreds of international cooperation programmes on issues that directly relate to the welfare of their citizens.

International protocol and norms represent another barometer of the new weight that sub-national actors carry in the global arena. Emblematically, when the governor of California visited China in2013 and Mexico in 2014, he was received with pomp by Premier Li Keqiang and by President Enrique Peña Nieto respectively. Or when Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff led a mission to the United States in 2012, she held meetings not only with President Barack Obama but also with then Governor Deval Patrick of Massachusetts. Led by economic imperatives and by constitutional rights, sub-national governments have landed on the moon of foreign affairs, signalling a fundamental challenge to some of the core logics of the modern international system.

As witnessed before in ancient history, once again local spaces – cities and states – are the cradles of change, the place where new lifestyles form and new ways of organising work, economy, and politics are being born. But how has this situation come about? Doesn’t orthodox International Relations theory claim that foreign affairs are under the exclusive purview of central governments? Why is this type of sub-national activity becoming more prevalent and growing at a rate that far exceeds the growth of international activity by the traditional representatives of sovereign states? How could foreign policy be used as an instrument to deliver domestic services, such as healthcare, infrastructure, or better education?

The international activism of sub-national governments is rapidly growing across the world, discreetly transforming diplomatic practices and foreign policy instruments. But the full import of this development and its potentially far- reaching consequences is as yet not well grasped.

Rodrigo Tavares is founder and CEO of Granito & Partners. This is an extract from his book “Paradiplomacy: Cities and States as Global Players”, published by Oxford University Press Inc. It is © 2016 Oxford University Press.

 
 
 
 

On Walter Benjamin, and the “Arcades Project”

Passage Verdue, Paris. Image: LPLT/Wikimedia Commons.

In 1940 a small group of refugees were turned away at the French-Spanish border. Having fled the Nazi invasion of France, they hoped to find safety in Spain. One of their number, a German-Jewish philosopher and writer, intended to have travelled onwards to America, where he would certainly be safe. So distraught was he by the refusal he met at the border that he took his own life.

The writer in question was Walter Benjamin, the prominent critical theorist who has contributed so much to our understanding of urban society, and he died with a manuscript close at hand. When asked previously if the briefcase of notes was really necessary to a man fleeing for his life he had replied, “I cannot risk losing it. It must be saved. It is more important than I am.”

The work that Benjamin died protecting was the Arcades Project. It was to be his magnus opus, intended by the author to illuminate the contradictions of modern city life. But it was never finished.

To Benjamin, the subject of the work, the arcades of Paris, were relics of a past social order, where consumerism ruled. The arcades were a precursor to the modern mall, lined with all sorts of shops, cafes and other establishments where visitors could buy into the good life. The area between these two lines of businesses was covered with glass and metal roofs, much like a conservatory: it gave visitors the high street feel in an intimate, sheltered and well-lit setting. You can still find examples of such places in modern London in the Burlington and Piccadilly arcades, both off Piccadilly.

Such arcades proved hugely popular, spreading across Europe’s capitals as the 19th century progressed. By Benjamin’s time, though, his type of shopping area was losing custom to the fancy department stores, and in Paris many of them had been obliterated in Haussmann’s city reforms of the 1850s and ‘60s. Whereas Parisians could once visit 300 arcades, now only 30 remain.

Through his research Benjamin started to see the arcades as representative of a pivotal moment in social history: the point when society became focused on consumption over production. Buying the latest fad product was just an opium, he thought, dulling senses to the true nature of the world. By bringing light to this, he hoped to wake people up from the consumerism of the 19th Century and bring forth some kind of socialist utopia.


He also warned that this shiny veneer of progress was hiding the true state of things. Instead, he revered crusty old cities like contemporary Marseilles and Moscow, where social life was more honest. In this way, Benjamin contributed to the intellectual movement focused on stripping away the excess of revivalism, standing alongside architects such as Le Corbusier. 

Through his newspaper essays throughout the first half of the 20th Century, Benjamin also became one of the first thinkers to focus on urban isolation. His suggestion that we can be most alone when among such a dense mass of other people is something many in modern cities would sympathise with. His work wasn’t all doom and gloom, however, as he saw cities as our salvation, too: laboratories from where society’s problems can be worked out.

It was 2000 before an English translation of the unfinished the Arcades Project was published, but by then the work had already had a significant impact. Just as he stood on the shoulders of giants such as Baudelaire and the Surrealists, modern thinkers have drawn on his work. Benjamin's concerns about common architectural forms can be seen to inspire modern architects such as Laurie Hawkinson, Steven Holl, Tod Williams and Billie Tsien.

The city of Paris itself was as much a part of the Arcade Project’s inspiration for Benjamin as was his intellectual predecessors. In his letters he repeats that it felt “more like home” than Berlin, and his days were spent marvelling at how the old and the modern exist together on the Parisian streets.

How groundbreaking the Arcades Project really was is hard to say. The fact it wasn’t finished certainly scuppered Benjamin’s plans to wake society up from its consumerist slumber, but that doesn’t make the work inconsequential. His fairytale of steel and glass is as much about the relationship between its author and Paris as it is a theoretical work. By putting the city as the main subject in human’s social history he laid the groundwork for future generations of thinkers.

Benjamin was lost to the tragic tide of the 20th century history, and his death marked the end of the project which could have changed the way we think of the urban landscape. Even if you shy away from the grandiose or don’t buy into his promises of socialist utopia, reading the work can still offer some eclectic factoids about 19th century France. At any rate, it must be acknowledged that the man gave his life to the betterment of society and the cities in which we live.