Why Cities Still Need Nations (and Vice Versa)

Cities are fashionable these days, and for good reason. Global demographic shifts have been forcing a much broader awareness of urbanization’s tremendous scope and scale.

As a result, people are discovering or rediscovering the many virtues of city life, helping to spark awareness that when cities function well, they drive economic growth and technological innovation, foster culture and learning, nurture citizenship and participatory democracy, and help solve environmental problems. Recently, scholars have taken the urban case a step further, advancing the argument that because cities have virtues that the nation-state does not, cities might become primary actors within the global governance system. Benjamin Barber argues that cities induce pragmatism, citizenship, and common-sense governance, all in one fell swoop. Mayors want to cooperate with one another across national boundaries because they view transnational exchange as gains to be realized rather than conflict to be managed or avoided. It is an overstatement to claim that the nation-state is fading away as a fundamental global actor. Parag Khanna believes that the center of global politics is already shifting from nation-states to cities. Our age, he writes, “is not the first time cities, rather than nations, have been the pivotal foundations of world order.” Khanna argues that “inter-city relations” constitute the world’s most progressive form of diplomacy, in contrast to international relations.

I find a great deal of merit in these claims, but as a member of a Washington-based foreign and security policy think tank, I also believe that some precaution is justified. It is an overstatement to claim that the nation-state is fading away as a fundamental global actor (it isn’t, at least not soon). Nationalism is alive and well in the world and will not disappear overnight. It is also not true that national policies and governance structures either don’t matter (they do) or are always counterproductive (they are, but only some of the time).

When it comes to global governance and security, the interstate system provides core public goods that cities would have a hard time doing without. For one thing, interstate governance frees mayors from having to worry about insecurity. Mayors generally don’t have to fret about foreign invasion, pirates cutting off maritime trade routes, access to trans-boundary water resources, or how to organize the global commons. States, not cities, are responsible for trafficking in these things. Whether they do this job well or not is a secondary question. If the world consisted only of city-states, mayors would be forced to handle these problems, and there is no guarantee the outcome would be any better than what we have now. Historically, city-states participated in warfare and imperial adventurism long before the rise of the nation-state—during the Middle Ages and Early Modern period, the Venetian Republic carved out much of its empire through conquest, for example. And today, Singapore, the world’s only sizable city-state, has to plan for defense like any other country. Without a national cocoon, Singapore is fully exposed to the vagaries of the international system. It therefore has built “the best-equipped [military] in Southeast Asia,” complete with an advanced air force, navy, and army, and it has forged military alliances (tacit or otherwise) with other countries. East Asia’s recent diplomatic tensions are forcing Singapore to expand this arsenal as part of a regional naval buildup.

These reservations notwithstanding, all of us would benefit from a richer conversation about how cities are shaping the global governance system. Scholars such as Barber and Khanna are doing the world a great service by analyzing current trends and envisioning future possibilities. My work at the Atlantic Council includes making the case to foreign and security policymakers that cities deserve their full attention. The Council’s effort, dubbed “Urban World 2030” after the National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2030 report (published December 2012), is aimed squarely at the idea that cities will be critical to building a better and more resilient world. As the Global Trends report outlines, and as Barber and Khanna observe, sub-national actors are becoming increasingly important participants in world affairs.

A central question for national governments is whether they can recognize this phenomenon’s significance and take advantage of it. A basic first step is to acknowledge that cities are a country’s jewels and deserve to be treated as such. In this view, investing in cities—in their vitality, security, and sustainability—constitutes the work of nation-building. This insight applies to rich and poor countries alike (increasingly mainstream voices are calling for the American political establishment to adopt this view for the US itself). A second step is to encourage and facilitate transnational city-to-city learning and policy transfer. As Tim Campbell, author of Beyond Smart Cities, points out, the world’s most advanced cities are those that build transnational partnerships for this purpose. There is now a whole cottage industry dedicated to figuring out how cities learn. Despite the gains to be had from such exchanges, however, Campbell notes that cities don’t do this often enough. National governments can step into this breach by providing financial and institutional support to hasten these learning processes, which are among the most effective at transferring best practices from one society to another. National governments also might underwrite and facilitate global governance architectures that now lie outside interstate governance systems. As C40 Cities illustrates, cities are helping to build governance structures to address problems that nation-states cannot or will not solve by themselves.

A central question for national governments is whether they can recognize this phenomenon’s significance and take advantage of it. A final step—and the hardest—is for foreign and security policymakers to formally build an urban perspective into their own work. For Meeting of the Minds readers, adopting an urban perspective is about as straightforward as breathing, but historically, the world’s diplomatic corps largely has ignored cities. Should they choose to embrace an urban agenda, foreign policymakers have many levers to pull. Foreign ministries, for example, can reposition staffing, resources, and attention abroad to better reflect the demographic and economic weight of cities. Such a strategy complements traditional interstate diplomacy while also amounting to a form of international economic policy, one that the US Department of State, for instance, is beginning to formulate. National and intergovernmental aid agencies can do the same by focusing resources on where the world’s poor increasingly live, which is in the informal settlements of developing-world cities. While aid agencies have struggled to come to grips with the urbanization of poverty, they are building policies to align their missions and structures with the phenomenon. National security organizations too can recognize that the global security equation has shifted to cities and work closely with local leaders, NGOs, private firms, think tanks, and urban experts on understanding the sources of urban conflict and on ways to reduce outbreaks of such conflict. Navies and coast guards, which together possess enormous sea- and airlift capacity, can expect more disaster relief operations in the world’s swiftly-growing and low-lying coastal cities.

Most difficult of all will be finding ways to include cities and city associations in interstate governance systems. The UN is an obvious candidate. As an interstate body, the UN has few formal mechanisms for including non-state actors in decision making processes, a situation that leads to controversy whenever the UN hosts major conferences on sustainability and other topics. The UN has a city-focused agency, UN-Habitat, which does good work but on a shoestring budget. UN-Habitat’s existence is itself indicative of a way of thinking that treats urbanization as a niche topic rather than as a fundamental shift in the demography, hence politics, of humankind.

Treating urbanization in this fashion will exacerbate a troubling governance gap. As events around the world are showing, the local politics of bus fares or park planning can mushroom into massive, grassroots, and transnational opposition movements literally overnight. These movements reflect a genuine crisis of confidence in the ability of nation-states to govern their internal affairs—which are increasingly dominated by urban concerns—and external ones as well. To help address this gap, the world’s interstate systems would benefit from incorporating cities into formal advisory structures. With time, such systems might evolve to include decision-making components as well. While progress is slow, this situation can change, for the demographic, economic, political, and ecological trends of the twenty-first century are likely to dictate a shift in foreign policymakers’ perspectives.

Peter Engelke is a senior fellow with the Strategic Foresight Initiative. This piece first appeared on Meeting of the Minds.

Photo credit: Flickr user Kent Paraiso