In The Media

A Governance Alternative to Faltering Nation-States

by Benjamin R. Barber (feat. Robert Muggah)

Dec 5, 2016

Let’s count down the list: There’s Brexit, of course; Brazil, Belgium, Spain, Venezuela, and the Philippines all look increasingly dysfunctional. Reactionary populism and xenophobia have risen to power in Hungary, Poland, and, astonishingly, the United States, with similar threats in France, and most recently, Italy after the defeat of Renzi. Strongmen such as Putin and Trump are deemed saviors of democracy or nationhood. The search for alternative democratic institutions capable of global leadership has never felt more critical.

Here’s the good news: On the weekend of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, the launch of an extraordinary new global governance project took place in The Hague. With 70 cities and two-dozen urban networks in attendance, Mayor Jozias van Aartsen of The Hague hosted a convening of the inaugural Global Parliament of Mayors. This was an event three years in the making, and it resulted in the formation of an entirely new governance body for, by, and of mayors, designed to give cities a powerful global voice as well as an innovative platform for common urban action.

Among the cities represented at the founding GPM were a small group whose mayors became the organization’s first Steering Committee, including Amman, Buenos Aires (Tres de Febrero), Mannheim, Palermo, Cape Town, Delhi (North), and Oklahoma City. The Mayor of The Hague chairs this Steering Committee and oversees the new Secretariat in that city. Since September, the committee has added several more leading cities including Bristol and Warsaw, and has appointed a “Consultative Committee” of experts, which I am chairing to help guide its work. In addition, several dozen urban networks and NGOs are actively participating. These included Eurocities, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, the OECD, the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, the International Republican Institute, the International Cities of Refuge Network, the European Forum for Urban Security, and the Council of Europe, among others.

The inaugural weekend agenda manifested what will be a critical function of the GPM: addressing policy issues national governments have been unable to deal with very effectively. The key substantive challenges the GPM took up in its first meeting were in domains where collective urban action can make a crucial difference.

The first was climate change and the urban role in combating it, especially in light of the important but insufficient outcome of COP 21 in Paris; with a climate change-skeptic in the White House and China calling for more not less coal mining, nation states are likely to find it even more difficult to succeed. This is in fact the focus of my new book, Cool Cities: The Urban Fix for Global Warming, which Yale University Press will publish next year.

The second issue was immigration and refugees, where nations such as Germany, France, Greece, and Italy have accepted large numbers but left it to cities to actually deal with them. Cities including New York and Hamburg have responded with novel ideas such “city visas” or “urban IDs,” strategies that allow immigrants to be integrated into urban life with efficiency and dignity. The election of Trump, with his anti-immigration nativist inclinations, appears poised to give cities a special responsibility, an argument I laid out in a recent article in The Nation.

A third focus of the inaugural meeting was more generic and reflexive, but of key importance: the challenges facing intercity and global urban governance, both as theory and practice. This governance debate led to the establishment of the GPM as a formal body, along with the adoption of a strategy for the development and expansion of membership. A plan to develop a remote or virtual platform for the GPM was also introduced, key to making the GPM viable without depending on expensive and time-consuming travel. The new GPM Secretariat will oversee the development of the platform, with advice and counsel from myself and Dr. Robert Muggah of the Igarapé Institute, John Means of McKinsey and Company, and Professor Sheila Foster, director of the Urban Consortium here at Fordham University.

In the Opening Plenary, Mayor van Aartsen addressed the challenges facing participating cities:

“Unlike in the 19th and 20th centuries, the international stage is no longer the preserve of nation states. In many cases, national governments are not even equipped to deal with certain matters. The time is start forging a close-knit, worldwide network of cities. They share knowledge and experience with one another, with national governments and international organizations like the United Nations. The challenges we face are immense... Only by working together can we tackle them and thus consciously combat the rising tide we see everywhere in Europe and elsewhere: the desire to shut people out and build walls, in the vain hope that this is the way to protect yourself.”

A “Global Mayors Call to Action” signed by all delegates at the end of the weekend echoed Mayor van Aartsen’s powerful words. Among its pledges, the “Call” promises that participating cities will act as a “global cities rights movement” and will commit “to work together… in partnerships among ourselves and with global organizations, national governments, the private sector, and civil society, to advance the UN, OECD, COP21 and other global agendas to enhance cooperation and capacity building programs, scale up climate change solutions, develop metrics and promote innovative finance mechanisms and investments and lower emissions projects across the world.” This visionary mission assumes that cities will take on some key features of sovereignty in guaranteeing the life, liberty, and sustainability of their citizens.

Ultimately, the GPM is a collaborative body aspiring to work closely with national governments and international bodies. However, the “Call” also commits to “manifest the ultimate right of urban majorities across the globe to take action together, across borders, in domains where the global agenda has been stalled or thwarted… it will serve a sustainable and just planet and all those who live in it.” In the changed world of Brexit and Trump, this focus on urban rights and city sovereignty offers a powerful riposte to national governments that opt to infringe on human rights and multiculturalism.

Manifesting its aspiration to real collaboration in practice, the GPM embraces a commitment to diversity, to residency-based rights of access, to mapping cities with common tools to produce comparable data, to support direct city-to-city connections, and to the “twinning” of cities.

From a governance perspective, these are dark times where the fate of democracy is uncertain. For this reason, I offer the rise of the GPM as not only a formidable institutional achievement, but a crucial line of defense in securing a cosmopolitan civilization. The GPM is no longer just a prospect or a promise: it is real, and up and running, promoting interdependence, cosmopolitanism and justice in the face of the victories of reactionary populism in the United States, Europe and elsewhere. Although the fate of nations remains uncertain, and their capacity to address global problems dubious, there is hope for both civic democracy and global action in the right and power of cities to act together across borders in our ever more interdependent world.

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