With Washington paralyzed by political dysfunction, is it time for mayors to take over?

“We’re the level of government closest to the majority of the world’s people. While nations talk, but too often drag their heels—cities act.”

That's a recent quote from New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Many would intuitively agree. Washington, D.C. is paralyzed by political dysfunction, and nation-states and international institutions are proving incapable of dealing with the huge economic, environmental, and security issues that beset the world today.

The renowned political scientist Benjamin Barber has a provocative and compelling take on all of this. It’s time to hand more authority and power over to elected leaders who actually get things done. We would all be a lot better off if, as he puts, it "mayors ruled the world."

The thesis is particularly compelling coming from Barber, who did not start his career as an urbanist but rather spent most of it as a leading student of democracy and international affairs. 

The author of numerous books including the international bestseller Jihad vs. McWorld, based on an article of the same name in The Atlantic, Barber is currently a Distinguished Senior Fellow at Dēmos and Walt Whitman Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Rutgers University. Prior to that he was the Gershon and Carol Kekst Professor of Civil Society and Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park School of Public Policy.

Barber took some time out of his hectic schedule to give us a sneak peek at his much anticipated new book, If Mayors Ruled the World -- to be published in 2013 by Yale University Press (which he's been fleshing out in recent talks).

How has your thinking evolved since Jihad vs. McWorld? In that book, you presciently identified the tension between the forces of economic globalization and of local politics. How did you go from tackling big questions of globalization to the role of cities and their leaders?

The question raised in Jihad vs. McWorld was whether there were inter-state and global institutions that could mediate the tensions between modernity and its aggressive materialism (McWorld) and the reactionary forces of "Jihad" that opposed it. It was increasingly apparent to me that traditional state-based organizations like the U.N. and the Bretton Woods institutions were paralyzed by sovereignty and distorted by private market relations and could not do much to further the interests of global democracy in the space between Jihad and McWorld.

As a result, I began to look at alternative building blocks for global governance -- at which point the city appeared as a natural candidate; and one, it turned out, that was already deeply engaged in networking and transnational cooperation. The city was the solution to the hard question of whether there was a global form of democracy.

Cities have become much more powerful economic actors in the world economy. Does the power mayors actually have match up with the economic resources they steward?

The problem here is that political sovereignty has passed to the economic sector, where global financial capital and multinational corporations exercise an undue influence on both domestic and international affairs. Cities share jurisdiction over the economic resources of the city -- where commercial, financial and information capital are concentrated -- but that jurisdiction is limited by the emerging sovereignty of economics over politics.

Where the city is able to exercise control of economic resources it must live with the superior jurisdiction of nation-states, who may interdict cities trying to collaborate across borders. A city boycotting goods made by child labor in a developing country may be held in violation of the WTO's fair trade rules (which bar certain kinds of boycotts); or a city trying to control guns may be ruled in violation of the right to bear arms, as happened recently when the Supreme Court invalidated the District of Columbia's gun control rules.

You have written eloquently about the ways in which the new creative class is concentrated in cities and represents a potent asset in confronting our challenges, and I think you have identified one of the most important economic resources over which mayors act as stewards, and which can be and are regularly deployed regardless of impediments of the market or the nation state.

You envision mayors leading the world through new, more decentralized and more democratic types of institutions that take the form of networks and partnerships. Tell us more about what such a network might look like, how it might work, the problems it might tackle and how it would work?

What I want to suggest is that these myriad global networks, and the inherent disposition of cities to cooperate, exemplify the deep capacity of cities to work together across borders, and justify my claim that a global "parliament of mayors" could achieve a good deal of concord voluntarily both on common policies and on common actions. This is what the networks are already doing, and what a formalization of the process could achieve. The key is a "soft" bottom-up approach to cooperation organized around "glocality" rather than a top-down "legal mandate" approach of the kind we associate with (and fear from) "world government."

You call for a new organization, a "parliament of cites" or an "Audiament of Mayors," that "deliberates and determines what needs to be done and what cities can actually do together voluntarily." And you note that: "A global league of cities is not the same things as a global a central government." Tell us more about how you see this taking shape, how cities would be represented, where it might be housed, and how it might work?

There are literally hundreds of networks already linked up in which a great deal of transnational cooperation already is taking place. When I speak of an "audiament" I mean to remind us that "parliaments" too often focus on talking at people, whereas democracy requires that we listen to one another and seek common ground. The key to the arts of democracy is how we listen to one another, not how we talk. For what we are seeking is common action that is voluntary, and this calls for mutual understanding -- that is, listening.

While the details of a parliament of mayors would be worked out at an inaugural convening of interested cities, I propose some guidelines that could be considered. That there be three parliaments/audiaments per annum, each in a different (voluntary) city, and each representing 300 cities chosen by lot from a list of all cities wishing to attend. This would allow up to 900 cities per annum to participate. Given that all common actions would be voluntary.

I also propose that a couple of global cities take the leadership in convening a planning meeting; my candidates are Singapore and New York.

Mayors tend to act and to see themselves – mainly in local terms. Most have little exposure to training in international affairs. And they don't have staffs with Ph.D.s in international relations or think tanks specializing in global management to fall back on. What can we do to help them more effectively take on these new global roles?

Cities share so many challenges, functions and purposes. Even in the 18th Century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau said "Paris and London seem to me to be the same city." The ability of mayors to collaborate comes then from the common problems they face, not from what we might call mayoral tourism.

At the same time, it is of course vital that mayors and their staffs understand not just what they share with other cities, but the challenges they face from a distinctive global environment that include pandemics, climate change, global financial markets, immigration and terrorism.

These are not typical urban issues, and do indeed require a certain vision and statesmanship from mayors to be properly addressed. And this does mean that global knowledge and expertise and staff persons able to take on such challenges will be necessary, and will need to be trained.

A parliament of mayors meeting regularly would presumably have a Secretariat, and I can imagine it having a research section, as well as a "visiting staffers" program.

Again, the key point in my argument is not simply that cities can and should govern globally, but that in many informal ways and in terms of "soft governance," they already are!

Top image: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg talks with China's Guangzhou City Mayor Chen Jianhua during a meeting at city hall in New York in April. (Reuters/Keith Bedford)

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