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Are Mayors the New Diplomats?

May 31, 2012 Written by  Michele Acuto, Contributing Editor

BloombergConfronted with the shortcomings of international political processes many scholars and diplomats have frequently turned to the non-governmental sphere in search of more practical action on global challenges. It is not uncommon to find today calls for global civil society engagement, public-private partnerships, and citizen diplomacy in almost all contexts of international relations. Yet this search for agency in the NGO sector might be missing some very crucial participants in world politics. What if much of the catalytic influence needed by crosscutting problems such as climate change or social polarization is instead to be found deep into those states that academics and practitioners have sometimes too rapidly dismissed?

In search of evidence we might, for instance, turn to individuals like New York mayor Michael Bloomberg who have in the past few years publicly criticized international process for producing “too much hot air” in opposition to the real everyday action of city leaders. The former Mayor of Toronto David Miller articulated this message at the UNFCCC Copenhagen summit in December 2009: “While climate change demands global action, we have shown that we are not waiting for others to act.” As Miller’s successor to the helm of the Climate Leadership Group, which gathers some of the most prominent cities worldwide in an attempt to offer urban solutions to global warming, Bloomberg recently reiterated this at an interview for BBC. Commenting on how at the “national, international, and state levels” there is “an awful lot of hot air” on climate change, he declared that “it is up to mayors” to solve environmental problems.

This self-appointment to the centre stage of global climate politics (if not world politics more in general) is effectively building on a momentum for ‘urban solutions’ steadily developed in the past decades. Since at least the mid-1970s the United Nations have also sought to tackle urban issues steadily arising not solely in the environmental agenda, but also in terms of poverty, development and security, by setting up a dedicated agency, United Nation’s Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat), which has grown in size and breadth of activities ever since. For example, in 2000, UN-Habitat established a UN Advisory Committee of Local Authorities to provide a direct channel between the UN and the representatives of city governments worldwide, and has been charged by the UN General Assembly with the task of implementing the Millennium Development Goals agenda (and in particular target 11 on slum dwellers) in urban areas. Quite similarly, the World Bank has also promoted a centralization of cities in international politics: beginning with the 1991 Municipal Development Program, the Bank has been enlarging its urban development desk substantially after issuing a strategy document titled “Cities in Transition” in 2000, recently replaced by an updated and extended new policy alignment in 2009, which now underpins the organization’s growing regard for the paradigmatic shift brought about by the present urbanization trends.

Yet, mayors have not just been appointed to the role of policy implementers: in the past two decades city leaders have also joined in partnership with several other international actors. An example of this growing urban participation to the implementation of the broader climate agenda is the European Sustainable Cities and Towns Campaign, launched in 1994 by a joint initiative of the European Commission, the City of Aalborg and ICLEI, with an initial commitment of 80 municipalities to initiate Local Agenda 21 processes in their authorities and bring forward the process at the urban level. Similarly, the European Commission has more and more explicitly targeted the ‘urban’ as a realms of implementation of regional targets and common goals, as demonstrated by the recent issuing of a guide to the “Urban Dimension in EU Policies” that, firstly produced in 2007, has now been revised to a substantial set of city-targeted programs and initiatives.

However, mayors are also networking, not just being networked, in global governance. This is perhaps best represented by the World Association of Major Metropolises (or Metropolis), which was created in 1985 and is formed by 129 active members from across the world coordinated by a Barcelona-based secretariat and operating as an international forum for exploring issues and concerns common to major cities and metropolitan regions. As such, mayors have often demonstrated a solid handling of the current diplomatic agenda and of the intricate policymaking pathways of world politics.

Nonetheless, city leaders are also very often well-attuned not solely to the dominant dynamics of international relations, but also to some of the emerging themes that promise to lead the world political debate in the decades ahead. This is for instance evident in the Istanbul Water Consensus -- an initiative by Istanbul’s Mayor Kadir Topbaş and ICLEI that now gathers more than one thousand cities across more than 56 countries. Building on the previous Local Government Declaration on Water of 21 March 2006 (promoted by Mexico City), which expressed an awareness by local leaders concerning water and sanitation and called on national governments for a more effective sustainability partnerships, the Consensus is a declaration aimed not only at advocating urban solutions with central governments but also at undertaking a comprehensive assessment and inventory of water policies in view of potential policy exchange. As cases such as the Water Consensus or the Mexico City Pact point out, there is today a plethora of mayor-sponsored regimes that are not solely of a regulatory nature but are also, if not chiefly, aimed at pooling resources and policymaking capacity.

These ‘city diplomacy’ processes have thus been pushing for the emergence of an urban international agenda led by mayors of major metropolises such as New York, Seoul, or Sao Paulo, and rapidly influential across all diplomatic spheres. This is of course not just limited to climate change or sustainability. Other cases of this proactivity can also be found in international political realms other than environmental policymaking. City leaders have in fact undertaken several security and peacebuilding efforts. For example, in 2004 Sister Cities International has, with the help of funding from the U.S. Department of State, promoted an “International Partners for Peace” initiative to strengthen relationships between five U.S. and Iraqi communities. Through public-private partnerships, the project is aims at fostering cooperation on humanitarian aid programs and knowledge exchanges, trainings, and reciprocal learning, and involving major American metropolises such as Dallas, Tucson or Philadelphia.

City leaders have in this sense developed a policy reach that is nowadays active at all levels of global governance, from the most localized spheres of metropolitan and domestic affairs to globalized issues such as climate change or water security. This means that these leaders now catalyze and influence policy both domestically and internationally. For example, the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM) has since 2005 been campaigning through its Standing Committee on Increasing Women's Participation in Municipal Government for greater gender equality in the public sector. Promoting initiatives like the recent “Getting to 30% Project” that aims at increasing the number of women in municipal government by roughly 100 every year for the next 15 years, FCM has undertaken a number of initiatives to encourage women who are considering running for municipal office and to promote greater sensibility for gender issues in politics.

Can we then compare the impact of mayors such as Bloomberg to that of state diplomats? The issue is certainly still open to debate. First, there is the problem of representation. In some cases city leaders are elected by constituencies that group more than national citizens, representing urban residents more in general, but is farm from the norm: often times it is at best questionable whether many of the mayors widely-proactive in international affairs are legitimately representative of their metropolises. Second, there is the limitations of west-centricity in city diplomacy. Many of the key municipal networks shaping global governance today, like Metropolis or the Climate Leadership Group, are dominated by European and American global cities, but the trend is changing. Asian and Latin American metropolises, as well as some Middle-Eastern and Africa cities in a minority of cases, are rapidly stepping up to central political positions in these networks. Lastly, and perhaps more fundamentally, there are the limits of funding. Many of the city networks and mayoral initiatives noted above tend to rely quite heavily on implementation partners and donors such as the EU, the World Bank or the OECD, thus raising more than a few concerns as to their independence and individual capacity -- a challenge that, at the end of the day, is nothing but a well-established truism of the NGO world. Yet, at present, mayors remain particularly proactive catalysts that are unlikely to lose policymaking clout in an increasingly urbanized world. So, if on the question of city leadership in international affairs the jury is still out, facts from across almost all of the spectrum of global governance seem to indicate some growing diplomatic clout.

U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Teddy Wade/ Released

This article was originally published in the Diplomatic Courier's May/June edition.

Tagged under city    diplomacy    urban    climate change    environmental    slums    Millennium Development Goals    United Nations    poverty    mayor    Bloomberg   

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