14 February 2013
Much of the rhetoric on foreign affairs and diplomacy that populated the lead-up to the re-election of President Obama, as per consuetude, focused on grand strategic plans, major international shifts and large-scale confrontations with enemies, elements, and unknowns. Indeed, this has been the general tone of the discussions around questions of democracy promotion and the transition challenges for closed regimes such as those in the Middle East. Alongside these, the traditional precepts of bottom-up revolutions and liberal internationalist means for public diplomacy with oppressed populations have continued to capture the attention of the U.S. policy establishment.
Little attention, on the other hand, seems to be offered to the role of those mundane realities and relations that constitute the daily socio-political texture of these closed contexts. Yet, the ‘everyday’ and the local do not only matter for foreign policy: rather, they are strategic gateways into the visceral structures that uphold these regimes and can prompt long-term revolutionary changes. Contemporary cities, in particular, can offer a unique vantage point capable of producing critical knowledge not only about the urbanized condition of humanity but also about major social, economic, and cultural revolutions in our society. The politics of governance and accountability in these closed regimes are not free from this pervasiveness.
Yet, why is this ‘urban’ dimension of international politics worth knowing now? The centrality of cities for all questions of world politics, not least those of democratization and social justice so familiar with present-day international relations, is almost self-evident if international scholars and analysts face the crude reality developing ‘on the ground’ just outside of their windows. The current rate of urbanization, which situates more than half of the world’s population in cities since 2008, is set to disproportionally displace at least two-thirds of humanity in urban areas by 2050–the largest migration of our history. If this was not already a momentous shift in the geography of 21st century politics, the worldwide circulation of people, goods, and ideas is also directly impacted by the strategic role of cities, and major metropolises in particular, as engines of everyday mobility and of social innovation. Global cities, in particular, stand as the hinges of our society, and as cores of all of these processes.
To put it simply, it would be practically impossible to think of the contemporary global landscape by disregarding key centres like Abu Dhabi, Teheran, or Doha altogether. Here the macro-trend of urbanization intersects the micro-revolutions of everyday urban life unfolding in key metropolises in closed regimes, and the meso-challenges of displacing centralized and authoritarian decision-making structures with more democratic processes. Cities, and city-making, become key contexts of governance not only for local and national actors, but also for a plethora of international forces from civil society, to business and other governments.
While ‘localized’ developments like the Dubai Metro or the redevelopment of the market area of Pushi in Shanghai might sound like trivial and anecdotal to diplomats, these processes of (re)urbanization present unique windows for redefining the governance of closed contexts like the United Arab Emirates and China. Indeed, the business sector has been on top of these windows for a long time. International design and architectural firms, as much as major property firms and infrastructural development corporations, have all had an extensive involvement in building these countries ‘from the ground up’. With building, many forget, comes negotiation, hybridization and, in the contemporary scenario, transnational networks of key strategic importance. Here, democratization could take another route from international diplomacy: strategic urban planning (SUP) as an avenue for para-diplomatic engagements and public diplomacy.
SUP’s catalytic nature is key in this cross-national linkage: strategic planning has a ‘connective’ role in that it seeks to link resources, actors (and ideas), and technologies to both manage and develop cities in a progressively globalized context. SUP provides a vantage point to scrutinize the encounter of local and global, state and civil society as well as, crucially, the national and the transnational. Moreover, as the vast inference of business and (in some rare case still) civil society, SUP is not necessarily a process in the hands of local governments only, as a plethora of other actors intersect with such networking dynamics to formulate strategic planning responses. The networking emphasis of SUP, however, does not deny the residual centrality of government (whether city or national) but rather allows for a multiplicity of actors to be taken into consideration. So, the linkages of planning and urban development between these cities and other global audiences partly bypass the strict avenues of these closed regimes.
Seen from an ‘urban’ angle, the task of building vibrant and tolerant democracies is one that should not just be limited to the top-down realms of international politics or the bottom-up logics of civil society advocacy. On the contrary, the realm of urban politics can present us with a view ‘from the middle’ where a vast amount of political mediation and strategic dependencies play out, and which is largely overlooked when it comes to discussing social justice and democratic prerogatives. Moreover, dynamics of accountability and mechanisms of political participation might at present be changing substantially as the circulation of people, ideas, and goods amongst metropolises questions the traditional Westphalian bases of 20th century politics—with cities standing at the forefront of these transformations.
Is it really possible to study the social justice dynamics of closed regimes like Saudi Arabia without taking into account that the population of its cities is increasingly cosmopolitan and the everyday connections with places such as Doha are piercing through the ‘encasements’ of contemporary nation-states? Can we conceive strategies for democratization and human rights advocacy in the United Arab Emirates by looking at national residents only, when these account for less than 10 percent of the population of their urban centres? Can we disregard the inference of non-governmental actors in the governance of these closed regimes when public-private partnerships are the bread and butter of contemporary urban planning? A savvy answer to these (and many other corollary) ‘transnational’ puzzles is, in the age of the city, soundly negative.
This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's January/February 2013 print edition.