The seeming disarray of this particular moment in foreign affairs results not only from the potential unwinding of long-standing alliances and relationships, but also the intertwining of seemingly discrete geopolitical shifts and megatrends. Russia’s increased election interference is enabled by the spread of digital networks. The rise of a global middle class inhibits progress on climate change. And so too, now, does the return of heightened geopolitical rivalry between the United States and China threaten to complicate the rise of cities on the global stage.

Recognizing Global Competition

In a much-noted 2014 essay in Foreign Affairs, the international relations scholar Walter Russell Mead highlighted “the Return of Geopolitics.” A year later, in those same pages, UN Special Envoy for Climate Change and Cities and former mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the arrival of the “Metropolitan Generation.” While seemingly at odds with each other, with Mead’s piece foreseeing a future shaped by heightening tensions between states and Bloomberg’s identifying the power and importance of cities, both essays have worn well since publication.

Heightened geopolitical tensions have demonstrated that the state is here to stay and friction between states is not in recess. Meanwhile, urban areas continue to grow, both in terms of population and land cover, and cities have become increasingly active voices on the world stage. These parallel tracks threaten to converge, however, with increasing tension in the U.S.-China bilateral relationship.

For decades, U.S. policy sought to integrate China into the existing world order. Diplomats and policymakers encouraged a peaceful rise of China as a regional player and, eventually, a global power within the constraints provided by international organizations and long-standing alliances. “The U.S. has supported China’s global integration,” wrote Joshua Meltzler and Neena Shenal in a February, 2019, Brookings Institute report, “with the expectation that as China benefited from the international economic system, including WTO membership, it would become a responsible stakeholder—where China would work with the United States.” This approach led to a strengthening of the economic relationship, and also of links between educational institutions and subnational governments, both state and municipal.

But despite significant cooperation on issues like climate change, the limits of this approach were becoming apparent during the Obama Administration. Bill Burns, the former U.S. deputy secretary of state, recently observed that by Obama’s second term, “China’s ambition to recover its accustomed primacy in Asia had already upended many of our comfortable post-Cold War assumptions about how integration into a U.S.-led order would tame, or at least channel, Chinese aspiration.” This growing realization among policymakers was codified in the Trump Administration’s National Security Strategy, released at the end of 2017. Economic, political and military competition, including with Russia and China, the report observed, will “require the United States to rethink the policies of the past two decades—policies based on the assumption that engagement with rivals and their inclusion in international institutions and global commerce would turn them into benign actors and trustworthy partners. For the most part, this premise turned out to be false.”

With simmering tensions simmering over territorial disputes in around maritime borders and the South China Sea, and fueled by a new trade wars, the relationship’s dynamic moved quickly from one of integration and cooperation to outright to one of competition. By summer 2019, a new Cold War seemed to be afoot, supposedly leaving little untouched. “The United States and China are contesting every domain, from semiconductors to submarines and from blockbuster films to lunar exploration,” led a May 2019 cover story for the usually level-headed Economist.

Among the domains for which the shift in U.S.-China relations is going to be tricky are U.S. cities and the city networks to which they belong. A protracted trade war undoubtedly has implications for the economies of many American cities, whether they are structured around information and communications technology, manufacturing, or ports and shipping. On a trip to China in 2018, Los Angeles mayor acknowledged as much, observing in the face of heightening trade disputes, “We have closely integrated economies, closely integrated cultures and closely integrated geography …  We hope to be the leading Chinese city in America for investment, tourism and students. We already are in terms of make-up of the population.”

The decisions American mayors are forced to take among the deepening of tensions will in fact reach beyond their obvious economic interests. Over the last decade, mayors have established themselves as policy advocates-cum-diplomats. They petition international organizations, attend United Nations summits, and organize in support of and around international agreements. Mayor Garcetti, for instance, has elevated Los Angeles as a global leader in the collective efforts of cities to confront global challenges, including around both climate change and cyber issues. And Los Angeles has become a leading voice in international networks and platforms such as C40 Climate Cities and the Urban 20.

Notably, these platforms, and many others, include both American and Chinese cities. C40 Climate Cities, for instance, includes more than twenty American and Chinese cities in one way or another, as does the global network Local Governments for Sustainability. And understandably so. Any transnational effort focused on climate change and the reduction of carbon emissions in particular would seek impact in the United States and China. The pivotal roles of the United States and China in meeting global challenges also means, however, a more treacherous diplomatic terrain for cooperating cities amid a chillier bilateral relationship.

The decisions American mayors are forced to take among the deepening of tensions will in fact reach beyond their obvious economic interests. Over the last decade, mayors have established themselves as policy advocates-cum-diplomats.

The decisions American mayors are forced to take among the deepening of tensions will in fact reach beyond their obvious economic interests. Over the last decade, mayors have established themselves as policy advocates-cum-diplomats.

Remembering Global Cooperation

The Cold War comparison, deployed so quickly these days, may well have its limits, but for mayors and city networks facing an increasingly tense international environment, Cold War history may also provide useful guidance. International urban-focused efforts did suffer for in the twentieth century for geopolitical competition and ideological divides. The Congrès internationaux d'architecture moderne (CIAM), led by among others Le Corbusier, Josep Lluís Sert, and Richard Neutra, was perhaps the most influential international urban planning effort of the mid-twentieth century, but by the mid-1930s was banned in both Germany and the Soviet Union.

But while CIAM may well have suffered for ideological divides - both before and after the war - international nongovernmental organizations in fact increased during the first years of the Cold War, with the number of such organizations increasing from 477 in 1940 to nearly 800 in 1950. From 1945 to 1950, a significant number of these organizations focused on development and the environment, policy arenas familiar to city networks today. “Despite the unmistakable signs of geopolitical tensions, individuals and organizations from the United States and the Soviet Union, as well as from other countries, were continuing to meet,” wrote the Harvard historian Akria Iriye, who outlined the history of such cooperative efforts in Global Community, “They shared information and exchanged ideas, thereby confirming the persistence of transnational endeavors in the immediate postwar years.” Of note is not simply the existence of such endeavours, but their policy focus. While a large number of the notable cooperative efforts focused on education and reconstruction in the wake of World War II, others, particularly those among the scientific community, focused on global threats. The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, for example, founded in 1957, included scientists and experts from both sides from both sides of the Cold War divide focused on the elimination of nuclear weapons. Today, the most pressing of those goals is climate change, and just because the relations across the Pacific are getting chillier, does not mean the oceans are not warming.

To be sure, examples of ongoing transnational cooperation come with a serious historical warning label. That the global community persisted amid the Cold War does not mean, Iriye points out, “that great power rivalries and tensions did not intrude on the activities of international organizations.” Nations expelled relief organizations for fear of influence campaigns. Intelligence agencies sought influence within IOs or, at times, funded the establishment of new ones. Such efforts are all the more tempting today as the amplification power of networks provides the opportunity for both shared progress and great power influence. In other words, cooperation on global goals might be more important than ever, but practitioners of city diplomacy will have to so with a heightened awareness for international and national politics.

Mayors and city diplomats are fond of quoting global figures around advancing urbanization, but are shy as it comes to heightened tensions between states or superpowers. But they can’t be avoided entirely. China, Bill Burns observed, is a power “whose moment had come.” To the degree that the chilling of U.S. – China relations influences cooperation on issues such as trade and climate change, the effects will be felt in cities in both countries and beyond. And while rivalry, even bellicosity, need not mean the end of networked cooperation, it likely requires that the players understand that the terms of the great game have changed.

Ian Klaus
Ian Klaus is Senior Fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was previously Senior Adviser for Global Cities at the U.S. Department of State.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.