.
Why would a practitioner of international relations care about an urban issue such as that of the globalization of metropolitan development? Why would the mayor of London or the strategic planning department of New York have any tangible impact on the daily workings of diplomats or the evolution world politics? Besides, other than in the pages of the occasional in-flight magazine or the scenery around the daily trip to the foreign office, cities in general are off the radar for most contemporary diplomats. However, global cities matter crucially — perhaps today more than ever — and certainly much more than most political practitioners would care to admit. Yet, this requires a little of unconventional geographical and political savvy.

 

If the popular imagination of "global city" tends to be associated to a tourist-ridden, skyscraper-lined, hyper mobile metropolis, the role that global cities embody is more than just that of national or regional gateways: they are metropolises connected to the widest possible tier of human interactions functioning not solely as articulator sites for planetary and regional networks, but also as a engines of those globalizing processes that are reconfiguring the geography of social relations. They are quite simply the strategic hinges of globalization.

To be certain, there is very little novelty in arguing for the existence of these cities: the scholarship on this phenomenon dates back almost a century, to the early-1900s work of Patrick Geddes, and has productively developed into a proper strand of research through the scholarship of diverse theorists such as Peter Hall, John Friedmann, Saskia Sassen, and Peter Taylor. Pinpointed on Urban Studies, the scholarship on the globalization of key contemporary metropolises has a vast and varied list of contributors coming from several disciplines, not solely within the social sciences. Monographs, edited volumes, graduate and undergraduate courses, planning programs, research groups, symposia, and the like are regularly dedicated to this issue. Moreover, even the public at large beyond the ivory towers has begun to develop complex takes on these cities. The University of Loughborough’s global cities project (GaWC) - for many years the only reference available to scholars seeking datasets on the world city phenomenon - has recently been trailed by publications from a plethora of private institutions. So for instance one could consult rankings such as the Mori Memorial Foundation’s Global Power City Index, Price Waterhouse Coopers “Cities of Opportunity” annual report, Knight Frank’s “Wealth Report” in collaboration with Citibank, or the MasterCard “Worldwide Centers of Commerce” list. This mounting complex of global city metrics has progressively introduced more extensive metropolitan factors defining a city’s centrality beyond the sole economic determinants of Sassen’s original formulation. Today a global city is perceived to be "global" not solely for its financial prominence, but also for its multicultural and environmental features and descriptions of what it means to be a central settlement of the 21st century vary substantially.

This of course does not mean that financial and economic functions are to be dismissed. On the contrary, in an era of profound globalization, business-related activities still hold supreme in the hierarchy of networks running through the globe, and thus in defining the core hinges of globalization. A roster of key global financial centers might indeed give us a good approximation of which cities occupy crucial positions in these time/space compression processes. Yet, as much as globalization is not solely economic, its engines will perform and control many more networks than those of global finance.

Geographically, global cities are at the heart of today's world affairs. This positioning, however, does not merely complicate the equation of the game of international politics: rather, global cities play a key role in changing some of its essential parameters thus redefining the socio-political system we live in. In this changing context, the importance of the key metropolises of the present world-system is also in their fundamental role as hinges of worldwide political reconfigurations. Global cities act as strategic loci of many sources of this disaggregation that include the rise of new technologies, organizational explosions, upheavals in mobility patterns, the weakening of state sovereignty and territoriality, the globalization of national economies, skill revolutions and the crisis of traditional authorities.

Representing perhaps the most fundamental force "glocalizing" world politics, global cities partake with a three-fold role in formulating a new geography of the present age and adding to the complexity of the global landscape of political, economic and cultural interactions. First, they are the articulators of those local processes that reconfigure time/space parameters of our everyday lives such as, for example, inter-city communication networks. Second, they are direct participants to the emergence of supra-national and global institutions, such as regional regimes and global financial markets, as they partake as collective actors in the broadening genus of "international" agents. Third, they are mediators that allow local entities to bypass traditional hierarchies of scale and "reach" the global, as in the case of transnational coalitions of activists concerned with specifically local struggles. This tripartite action is possible because global reconfiguration processes are not solely constituted and perpetrated at a global scale existing "above" states, but also (if not chiefly) at multiple local scales deep inside these Westphalian containers, where the subnational is also a key site for globalization.

Yet, precisely due to this crucial geographical positioning, it is imperative to take into account these metropolises as political actors. Global cities, as New York and London’s international pro-activeness can demonstrate, are today a growing presence in world politics. Thanks to an entrepreneurial management of globalization, these locales can move beyond the pecking order of the nation-state, jump scales and develop transnational spaces of engagement with other non-traditional international actors (corporations, NGOs, and the like) therefore acquiring a much broader significance than their local contexts. They are, to translate this conjecture in diplomatic terms, "soft power actors" without military capabilities, but with a plethora of other persuasive influences ranging from economic, to symbolic and networked forms of political power.

This means allowing for that actor to be a participant in the phenomena international scholars tackle on a daily basis, ranging from security and political economy to the environment and human rights. Hinges of the multi-faceted changes that globalization is bringing about, global cities have become essential agents in connecting micro (local one would say) political processes with macro (or global) trends and relations through their strategic planning capacity and transnational networking expertise. A role no shrew diplomat can ignore in our urbanized age.

The increasingly strategic influence that these cities have on the global system one would guess should be at the forefront of such system’s political theorists, just like it is a core concern of the majority of other social and technical sciences. Nonetheless, this would be a misleading assumption: when it comes to cities, academia and practice still remain undeniably blind. Ultimately, this catalytic presence, both in its geographical and political connotations, calls upon us to set loose from the methodological chains of state-centrism and the top-down tyranny of international relations and appreciate a widening of horizons where global cities are not just an interesting scenery for diplomats, but diplomatic partners with the highest proficiency in the challenges of globalization.

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

The Global City and the Diplomat: Why Metropolises Matter

December 28, 2011

Why would a practitioner of international relations care about an urban issue such as that of the globalization of metropolitan development? Why would the mayor of London or the strategic planning department of New York have any tangible impact on the daily workings of diplomats or the evolution world politics? Besides, other than in the pages of the occasional in-flight magazine or the scenery around the daily trip to the foreign office, cities in general are off the radar for most contemporary diplomats. However, global cities matter crucially — perhaps today more than ever — and certainly much more than most political practitioners would care to admit. Yet, this requires a little of unconventional geographical and political savvy.

 

If the popular imagination of "global city" tends to be associated to a tourist-ridden, skyscraper-lined, hyper mobile metropolis, the role that global cities embody is more than just that of national or regional gateways: they are metropolises connected to the widest possible tier of human interactions functioning not solely as articulator sites for planetary and regional networks, but also as a engines of those globalizing processes that are reconfiguring the geography of social relations. They are quite simply the strategic hinges of globalization.

To be certain, there is very little novelty in arguing for the existence of these cities: the scholarship on this phenomenon dates back almost a century, to the early-1900s work of Patrick Geddes, and has productively developed into a proper strand of research through the scholarship of diverse theorists such as Peter Hall, John Friedmann, Saskia Sassen, and Peter Taylor. Pinpointed on Urban Studies, the scholarship on the globalization of key contemporary metropolises has a vast and varied list of contributors coming from several disciplines, not solely within the social sciences. Monographs, edited volumes, graduate and undergraduate courses, planning programs, research groups, symposia, and the like are regularly dedicated to this issue. Moreover, even the public at large beyond the ivory towers has begun to develop complex takes on these cities. The University of Loughborough’s global cities project (GaWC) - for many years the only reference available to scholars seeking datasets on the world city phenomenon - has recently been trailed by publications from a plethora of private institutions. So for instance one could consult rankings such as the Mori Memorial Foundation’s Global Power City Index, Price Waterhouse Coopers “Cities of Opportunity” annual report, Knight Frank’s “Wealth Report” in collaboration with Citibank, or the MasterCard “Worldwide Centers of Commerce” list. This mounting complex of global city metrics has progressively introduced more extensive metropolitan factors defining a city’s centrality beyond the sole economic determinants of Sassen’s original formulation. Today a global city is perceived to be "global" not solely for its financial prominence, but also for its multicultural and environmental features and descriptions of what it means to be a central settlement of the 21st century vary substantially.

This of course does not mean that financial and economic functions are to be dismissed. On the contrary, in an era of profound globalization, business-related activities still hold supreme in the hierarchy of networks running through the globe, and thus in defining the core hinges of globalization. A roster of key global financial centers might indeed give us a good approximation of which cities occupy crucial positions in these time/space compression processes. Yet, as much as globalization is not solely economic, its engines will perform and control many more networks than those of global finance.

Geographically, global cities are at the heart of today's world affairs. This positioning, however, does not merely complicate the equation of the game of international politics: rather, global cities play a key role in changing some of its essential parameters thus redefining the socio-political system we live in. In this changing context, the importance of the key metropolises of the present world-system is also in their fundamental role as hinges of worldwide political reconfigurations. Global cities act as strategic loci of many sources of this disaggregation that include the rise of new technologies, organizational explosions, upheavals in mobility patterns, the weakening of state sovereignty and territoriality, the globalization of national economies, skill revolutions and the crisis of traditional authorities.

Representing perhaps the most fundamental force "glocalizing" world politics, global cities partake with a three-fold role in formulating a new geography of the present age and adding to the complexity of the global landscape of political, economic and cultural interactions. First, they are the articulators of those local processes that reconfigure time/space parameters of our everyday lives such as, for example, inter-city communication networks. Second, they are direct participants to the emergence of supra-national and global institutions, such as regional regimes and global financial markets, as they partake as collective actors in the broadening genus of "international" agents. Third, they are mediators that allow local entities to bypass traditional hierarchies of scale and "reach" the global, as in the case of transnational coalitions of activists concerned with specifically local struggles. This tripartite action is possible because global reconfiguration processes are not solely constituted and perpetrated at a global scale existing "above" states, but also (if not chiefly) at multiple local scales deep inside these Westphalian containers, where the subnational is also a key site for globalization.

Yet, precisely due to this crucial geographical positioning, it is imperative to take into account these metropolises as political actors. Global cities, as New York and London’s international pro-activeness can demonstrate, are today a growing presence in world politics. Thanks to an entrepreneurial management of globalization, these locales can move beyond the pecking order of the nation-state, jump scales and develop transnational spaces of engagement with other non-traditional international actors (corporations, NGOs, and the like) therefore acquiring a much broader significance than their local contexts. They are, to translate this conjecture in diplomatic terms, "soft power actors" without military capabilities, but with a plethora of other persuasive influences ranging from economic, to symbolic and networked forms of political power.

This means allowing for that actor to be a participant in the phenomena international scholars tackle on a daily basis, ranging from security and political economy to the environment and human rights. Hinges of the multi-faceted changes that globalization is bringing about, global cities have become essential agents in connecting micro (local one would say) political processes with macro (or global) trends and relations through their strategic planning capacity and transnational networking expertise. A role no shrew diplomat can ignore in our urbanized age.

The increasingly strategic influence that these cities have on the global system one would guess should be at the forefront of such system’s political theorists, just like it is a core concern of the majority of other social and technical sciences. Nonetheless, this would be a misleading assumption: when it comes to cities, academia and practice still remain undeniably blind. Ultimately, this catalytic presence, both in its geographical and political connotations, calls upon us to set loose from the methodological chains of state-centrism and the top-down tyranny of international relations and appreciate a widening of horizons where global cities are not just an interesting scenery for diplomats, but diplomatic partners with the highest proficiency in the challenges of globalization.

The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.