Around the World, Mayors Take Charge

The Atlantic |

By Michele Acuto and Parag Khanna

A pattern is emerging in national elections around the world: across regions and continents, mayors are increasingly becoming federal leaders and have also become leading voices in some of the most important global debates.

Increasingly, mayors are becoming heads of state. Former Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bank was previously mayor of Seoul, Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the current prime minister of Turkey, former Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is now president of Iran, and former Tulle mayor Francois Holland is prime minister of France (less than a decade after the departure of Jacques Chirac, who had been mayor of Paris for close to two decades). In total, eight present heads of state are former mayors, a number set to grow in the coming years. In China, of the seven new standing committee members of the Politburo, six were provincial governors or party secretaries in two or more provinces.

Last year, Sao Paulo municipal governor Jose Serra narrowly lost becoming president of Brazil, but he is expected to challenge Lula's chosen successor Dilma Yousef in the next election. Looking ahead, Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri looks set to displace Christina Kirchner as Argentina's president in 2015, Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard has well-recognized presidential aspirations, and Babatunde Fashola, mayor of Africa's largest city Lagos, is Nigeria's most popular political figure. Few doubt that London's mayor Boris Johnson could upset David Cameron in the near future to become Britain's prime minister, or that a potential Michael Bloomberg presidential bid in the U.S. should be taken very seriously.

Historically, heads of state have come from the ranks of cabinets and parliaments. Five of America's first eight presidents were cabinet members. Sixteen presidents have been senators, including of course Barack Obama. Tellingly, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Buchanan all served as Secretary of State, for years an important -- or at least useful -- diplomatic credential for running a nation.

Mayors are stepping up to the top level of "high politics" both because of their tangible track records in governing large polities such as Sao Paolo and Paris, and also because of their growing audacity in building diplomatic bonds across cities. Many in this new elite of global mayors might lack the name recognition of Cold War-era figures like West Berlin's mayor Willy Brandt, who subsequently became German chancellor and architect of Ostpolitik. Yet, they are a shrewd mix of populist and technocrat, steering ever more populous and prosperous cities toward global stature through innovative diplomatic initiatives far beyond their city halls.

To manage this growing set of relationships more effectively, cities and mayors' offices are generating increasing capacity to conduct their own international missions - a phenomenon that could be called diplomacity, an expanding propensity of cities to develop the necessary mechanisms to autonomously navigate foreign relations on their own.

In New York, mayor Michael Bloomberg has established a "Mayor's Office for International Affairs" to centralize the city's management of relations with the United Nations, consular missions. He also uses it to manage international outreach, which now covers investment promotion, security exchanges, and initiatives such as the Climate Leadership Group (or C40), which he presently chairs, an organization that gathers 58 of the world's major metropolises.

C40 represents a newer and more dynamic kind of city network, but city-to-city cooperation has been a staple of the last few decades, as well. During the Cold War, inter-city diplomacy was largely symbolic, with activities such as Sister Cities International promoting development and crisis response connections, or the Mayors for Peace initiative calling for nuclear disarmament. Then, particularly since the United Nations' 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, mayors' role in the global arena has evolved into a new and important component of their portfolios. At Rio, the lead role was taken by Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI); today there are least ten such networks of cities charting transnational urban sustainability programs.

The leading example is the Eurocities network founded in 1986 by major European centers like Barcelona and Milan. What began as an informal association of 10 European cities to promote the city agenda within EU institutions has grown into a club of 135 cities in 34 nations that lobbies for urban policy proposals with numerous European Union bodies and the Commission, which targets the urban level for policy implementation. It has also become a tool of the EU's external strategy. The 7th China-EU Summit has seen the first test run of an EU-China Mayors' Forum dedicated to a newly-inaugurated "EU-China Urbanization Partnership" that devotes funds to promoting inter-city technical and management exchanges among European and Chinese municipal authorities and civil society.

The EU treats cities and mayors as the bridge between the international and the everyday. As mayors around the world have repeatedly signaled in recent years, they are the leaders with their ears closest to the ground and are ultimately responsible for the trash being collected, urban land being allocated, or municipal transport being redesigned.

Mayors are increasingly vocal towards federal governments as well. The U.S. Conference of Mayors, which has 1294 members, issued a harsh rebuke to the U.S. government in 2011, calling for less spending on roads and infrastructure in Iraq and Afghanistan and to "bring investment back home." It has been a major advocate of the proposed Infrastructure Bank that would create a publicly backed pool of capital for upgrading municipal infrastructure nationwide.

Born out of necessity to maintain local law and order, it is in cities then that one can witness the most pragmatic approaches to service delivery, such as public-private partnerships or innovative financing schemes. This is, for instance, the case of Chicago's new mayor Rahm Emanuel, who stepped down as White House Chief of Staff to become mayor of the Windy City. He is now overseeing the largest urban infrastructure bank of any American city, aimed at co-financing $7 billion in private funds for revamping public systems.

From climate change to economic growth to counter-terrorism, cities and city leaders are demonstrating their growing assertiveness as autonomous diplomatic units. The more that international borders to migration diminish, the more the identity of a city - and identification with the city - will come to matter vis-à-vis national identity and citizenship. In his Extraordinary Cities, leading geographer Peter Taylor of Loughborough University showed how urban constituencies transact far more with local than national authorities, and how a state-centric social science has in the last two centuries largely constrained recognition of the powers of cities in forging contemporary political conditions. In their new book The Spirit of Cities, Daniel Bell and Avner de-Shalit argue for a post-national ideology of civicism whereby one's loyalty to the city surpasses that to the nation. Today mayors like Bloomberg are referred to as "CEOs" of cities; tomorrow we may think of them as quasi-presidents of cities.

As cities assert their experiences and leadership on the world stage, new mechanisms and fora could emerge. Innovative networks are already in place: inter-city task forces, city-to-city development coordination, climate action and disaster relief, multi-city education, and IT hubs. Many of these experiments in diplomacity result in direct benefits to participating cities in investment, technology, talent, and reputation.

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