Nations are no longer driving globalization—cities are — Quartz

Urbanization has already declared itself the mega-trend of the 21st century, with half the world’s population now living in cities for the first time in human history. While the implications for economic growth have been widely discussed, urbanization’s impact on diplomacy and sovereignty will be equally profound.

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Consider just two major issues on the global agenda: security and climate change. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York City and the November 2008 terror attack on Mumbai, both cities moved to strengthen their own security services and intelligence capabilities beyond what Washington and Delhi could provide and mandate. The Mideast’s iconic Dubai has long done the same beyond the shadow of federal Emirati capital Abu Dhabi.

Now look at climate change. Two decades of climate diplomacy have yielded little progress in devising a meaningful global framework to reduce carbon emissions. Instead, new regimes led by cities are emerging. Started by London mayor Ken Livingstone in 2006, the C40 initiative brings together over 60 cities and mayors to exchange best practices, transfer technologies, and promote public-private partnerships that reduce the urban carbon footprint. The standards set by C40 members in clean-energy buildings, waste management, and sustainable transport systems substantially exceed existing standards set by inter-governmental negotiation.

As cities continue to arrogate major diplomatic and economic functions, should we still be talking about international relations?

To appreciate the role of the city in 21st century, we must remember that cities are humanity’s first and most permanent fixed settlements, and arguably oldest diplomatic actors. Ancient Mesopotamian and Anatolian cities engaged in regular exchange of envoys to establish mutual recognition and merchants who conducted trade missions. Medieval and Renaissance diplomacy was similarly dominated by city-states, particularly in Italy and northern Europe with the Hanseatic League, whose intense diplomatic competition and interactions helped to undermine the Holy Roman Empire, while fueling the commercial revolution and voyages of exploration across the Atlantic and to Asia. Even after the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, widely marked as the transition to sovereign nation-states, diplomacy remained a heterogeneous affair all the way until the post-Napoleonic Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations in 1815. From a “city” viewpoint, nation-states have only been the (nearly) exclusive diplomatic actors for less than two centuries.

Globalization itself is as much an inter-city phenomenon as it is about lowering national borders. According to a McKinsey Global Institute study, almost the entire world economy is represented by approximately 400 cities. Airline connections around the world depend on the development of robust “hubs” such as Chicago, London, Zurich or Singapore, which in turn magnify the reach of globalization inward to smaller cities in their regions.

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