Protesters at the G20 conference in Germany on Saturday. As global institutions are strained, cities will have to choose their next steps very carefully. Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

In an era of geopolitical turbulence, urban leaders will have to demand representation at international institutions—or take more radical action.

This post is part of a CityLab series on power—the political kind, the stuff inside batteries and gas tanks, and the transformative might of mass movements.

Since the end of World War II, world order has been defined by the sovereign nation state, international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Bank, and treaty organizations like NATO. Increasingly, liberal economic exchange and democratic governance infused these institutions. The order they created has done much to define the shape of cities around the world. It has provided the technocratic expertise necessary to support the economic exchange at the heart of the “global city” and has facilitated the development and sharing of technologies that have altered how we look at cities from above.

That order is under now under intense strain. The UN struggles to adequately address transnational challenges such as climate change and migration, while a populist surge in Britain, the United States, and France is imperiling such postwar pillars as the EU and NATO. But even before the recent elections, new technologies, emergent superpowers, cyber threats, and a range of other issues were already stressing the resilience of the world order.   

How will cities navigate this geopolitical tumult? Sure, they are growing—nearly 70 per cent of the world will be urban by 2050. And they are impactful—the 6oo largest urban economies in the world will produce 65 per cent of global economic growth by 2025. But such aggregate figures do little to tell us how cities will manage their interests in a period of intense unrest. Consider three paths they take: For short, we can call them reform, oppose, and hedge.

The Reformers: Demanding a seat at the global governance table

Right now there’s a huge gap between the collective economies, populations and reputations of cities and their actual global influence. The reformers are trying to carve out a voice for local actors in the key international institutions of the post-World War II order.

In October at Habitat 3 in Quito, mayors and leaders from over 500 cities, organized by United Cities and local governments, collectively called for a seat at the “Global Table.” For those seeking such reform, the absence of local voices in these institutions undermines the legitimacy of the current order and limits the ability to implement global accords such as Agenda 2030 and the New Urban Agenda.

Some seats, like a vote for local governments in the United Nations, are going to be very hard to come by. Nonetheless, city organizations and advocates such as UCLG and Local Governments for Sustainability are not wrong to focus on a few of these institutions. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and a number of other organizations have shown themselves willing to consider and embrace the municipal perspective. The G20, hosted this year by Germany, is perhaps the most representative body of world power at the national level. And as Michael Cohen of the New School has pointed out, it has yet to fully consider the nexus of the global economy and urbanization. But Germany is often at the forefront of global urban diplomacy; for those seeking to integrate urban issues into existing multilateral settings, this G20 is an ideal setting.

The Resisters: Upending the table  

Another approach seeks more fundamental change. The arguments of the opposition range from the well-trodden to the insightful. Some stoop to anti-Americanism and rote attacks on “neo-liberalism,” while others, such as the People’s Social Resistance Forum to Habitat 3, have made cases that the United Nations has veered too far from a focus on human rights and that the global system of international exchange proceeds undemocratically above the influence of local and national politics. Despite the different viewpoints, one attribute is common: They herald new forms and practices of politics that stretch well beyond traditional political sites.

While the playbook for how U.S. cities will resist or adapt to developments in Washington D.C. is still being written, the practical approaches for how cities or citizens can oppose the creaking world order has been developing for some time, from the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, to the 2003 global protests again the Iraq War and the Occupy movement. Leading academics with interdisciplinary approaches are helping outline these opposition tactics. In Vertical, Stephen Graham of Newcastle University spells out “vertical appropriation” techniques—such as occurred in the Torre de David in Caracas, an unfinished bank tower that now houses more than 300 low-income families—that can be used to resist or reimagine the geographies of power that stretch from the GPS satellites of space to the water wells and subway lines beneath city streets. In Extrastatecraft, Keller Easterling has collected approaches to language, rumor, hoax, and protest that be used as forms of politics.

These are not the diplomatic norms of U.N. chambers adapted to new voices, but rather streets (or alleys), buildings, and even comedic language turned into sites of political engagement or opposition.    

The Independents: Building their own table

The current world order may be under strain, but a simple lesson from American diplomacy in the 20th century remains: Reliable partners and platforms for collective action can help amplify influence. But how to organize such collective action in the 21st century without a preponderance of power?  The answer offered by those who are trying to stand independent of the world order is the same: Build your own networks.

Recognizing the challenge of the existing institutions, key philanthropies and leaders have constructed new platforms—the Rockefeller 100 Resilient Cities, the C40 Cities, the Urban Sustainability Directors Network, and boutique bilateral relationships such as that between Chicago and Mexico City. These networks do not oppose long-standing multilateral institutions; at turns they have sought to support them, in fact. Nonetheless, they recognize that they cannot naively depend on global and national governance to address problems that directly affect their cities. They’ll have to take action on their own.   

In such networks, collective progress comes from access to resources and knowledge rather than from status or the leadership of a single city or country. In contrast to the legacy institutions, power in these emerging networks is dispersed and practical, rather than hierarchical; it is measured by the ability to actually implement policy in some of the world’s most important cities.

Which of these three approaches will prove to be the most effective? In an era of unrest and extremes, of new methods for organization and new conceptions of identity that favor networks over hierarchies, it’s hard to bet on the old over the new. But it’s clear that the world order that emerges from this period of uncertainty will, as before, do much to determine the nature of cities. How much of a voice urban residents have in that order will be determined by the legitimacy and efficacy of the three approaches on offer.

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