Chrystie Swiney is a human rights attorney, political scientist, and legal scholar, who currently serves as the Doctoral Fellow for the Global Cities Initiative at Georgetown University. She holds graduate degrees from Harvard Law, Oxford, and Georgetown, where she is currently completing her PhD in International Relations.
When Donald Trump announced in June 2017 that the United States was pulling out of the Paris Agreement—the pact between 195 nations (nearly all the world’s nations) to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions—the mayors of Paris, France, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, responded with an op-ed in the New York Times. In it, they announced that “an unprecedented alliance is emerging” among more than 7,400 cities worldwide to honor and uphold the goals of this agreement irrespective of their own country’s level of commitment. They vowed to do this not only for the citizens of their cities, but also for the citizens of “every other city in the world.”
Most people don’t think of cities when thinking about international relations or international law. After all, cities are local governments and their leaders are concerned with local, not global, issues and challenges. Right?
Wrong, or at best: incomplete. Cities are more involved in international policy-making, more savvy at navigating the international halls of power, more ambitious about voicing their opinions at the global level, and more influential in shaping global initiatives than perhaps at any time since Italy’s city-states dominated during the Renaissance.
In 2017, around the same time as city leaders vowed to honor the Paris Agreement, more than 150 city leaders from around the world assembled in Mechelen, Belgium. Their motive: The United Nations was in the process of drafting the Global Compact on Migration (GCM) and Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). Meeting in Belgium, the city leaders drew up the Mechelen Declaration, demanding a seat at the drafting table.
The two global compacts were adopted in Marrakesh in 2018, prompting 150 mayors and city leaders to sign a second declaration calling for the full and formal recognition of the role of local authorities in the implementation, follow-up, and review of both compacts. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees enthusiastically embraced the city leaders’ declaration in a speech highlighting the necessity of working with city leaders to solve the global refugee crisis.
It’s increasingly apparent that cities are no longer just places on the world atlas, or passive appendages of their state governments, but influential and independent actors in global politics.
Cities’ structural powerlessness in international relations
In a formal sense, cities remain structurally powerless—that is, without an official seat at the table or a platform in the current international political framework, which is built on the foundational idea that nation-states are the sole actors and policy-makers at the international level. This state-centric framework was constructed by and for states following the atrocities of World War II, when the winners of the war came together and, following a series of negotiations, created the United Nations (UN).
Nations, and only nations, are permitted to fill the key positions in the UN. While a small role is granted to non-governmental organizations, that can be consulted on matters pertaining to their expertise, this same privilege is not afforded to cities, which are not mentioned even once in the UN Charter.
Cities are also formally powerless under international law. With rare exception, international law treats nations as the makers, shapers, and subjects of its contents, and as the only entities with both legal rights and duties. International human rights law, which treats humans (rather than countries) as its subject, is one of the only exceptions, and even there, states are the primary vehicle through which such rights are expected to be realized and enforced.
In short, nation-states exclusively created and exclusively manage the core institutions comprising the existing international political and legal framework.
Cities’ rising power at the international level
Yet, despite the fact that cities were effectively written out of the existing political world order, cities are leapfrogging over their federal governments to participate independently at the international level.
National governments increasingly are seen as unresponsive at best, or dysfunctional at worst, in addressing some of the most dire threats and challenges facing humanity, of which the majority live in cities. Cities are stepping into the breach in ways that promise to reshape the international political order.
Cities are rising in influence and power on the global stage for three primary reasons. First, the world’s global cities are increasingly driving world affairs—politically, socially, culturally, and especially, economically. Cities are the world’s engines of productivity, innovation, talent, and economic output, producing nearly 80 percent of total global GDP. And an increasing number of global cities, such as London, Tokyo, and New York boast economies larger than some G-20 nations. The recent formation of the Urban 20 (U20), a diplomatic initiative of global cities intended to mirror the G20, is a powerful expression of the role and influence global cities are staking out in the new world order. When these cities talk, nations (and the international institutions that represent them) are starting to listen.
Second, cities are where our current and projected global challenges are most present. Whether it is climate change, the refugee crisis, rising global inequality, shortages in affordable housing, terrorism, or health pandemics, cities are where our most pressing global and national problems are occurring. Cities are the ones experiencing and tackling these problems, and cities are making the case that they should be key actors in shaping the solutions.
Third, cities are where the human population is converging. Well over half the world’s population, including the majority of migrants and refugees, currently live in cities, and this number is expected to reach nearly 70 percent by 2050, with most of that growth occurring in Asia and Africa. With numbers come power and thus it is no surprise that exploding urban population is making cities more central and relevant than ever.
These three realities are giving cities newfound influence in the historically state-only institutions of global governance and law. Cities are amplifying their voices and amping up their punch by banding together and forming into city networks, such as United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG), C40, and the Global Parliament of Mayors, and allying with powerful international and regional organizations, such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the European Union. Through these networks and alliances, cities are successfully lobbying for certain policies, agendas, and programs and, in some cases, effectively gaining seats at the international policy-making table.
For example, the UCLG, the largest of the city networks, with origins dating back to 1913, now holds ten of the 20 seats on the UN Advisory Committee of Local Authorities (UNACLA), an advisory body specifically established to strengthen the dialogue between the UN and local authorities from around the world in the implementation of the Habitat Agenda. And the Habitat Agenda, which is focused on improving all “human settlements,” formally incorporates a substantial role for cities in recognition of their centrality in accomplishing the agenda’s ambitious goals. Today, cities are able to participate in the UN and the international policy making process through UNACLA and the Habitat Agenda, among other vehicles, to directly participate in the shaping and implementation of global agendas.
The effect of all of this, and specifically of allowing cities to have a voice and platform in the international policy-making process, is that the importance and centrality of cities is starting to be incorporated into international instruments and agendas. Examples include: the UN Sustainable Development Goals (specifically, Goal 11), the Paris Climate Agreement, the Addis Ababa Action Agenda, the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, the UN Conference on the Environment and Development, the UN’s “New Urban Agenda,” and the UN’s Global Campaign on Urban Governance, among others.
Though efforts to formalize the role of cities in international law and within the U.N. Charter have largely failed to gain momentum (for example, the World Charter on Local Self Government, which would have made cities independent subjects of international law, has languished), the reality is that cities are asserting and inserting themselves in international politics regardless and not letting the increasingly archaic international political and legal frameworks stand in their way.
We live at both an exciting and confusing moment for cities with respect to their position within international politics. They remain formally powerless under existing international law, but their economic clout, centrality to all major crises, and attractiveness to the human population have given them a new level of visibility and assertiveness at the international level. Their newfound confidence is driving them to band together into large-scale coalitions, and to ally with influential international organizations, propelling cities onto the global stage and into the center of international policy making.
What is certain is that the opinions and perspectives of cities are no longer being ignored. What is less certain is whether and how the formal structures of global governance will adapt to reflect these changing realities.