Global affairs in an age of cities: Interview with Benjamin Barber

London Essays – Issue 1: Soft Power

Global affairs in an age of cities: Interview with Benjamin Barber

Ben Rogers: How well do you know London?

Benjamin Barber: London is the first great city outside the US that I came to know. I am afraid that this gives away something about my age but I lived in the city in 1958 when I was a student at the LSE, when the area around St Paul’s was still car parks. And I have been coming to London on a very regular basis for almost 60 years and have watched the development of what was of course an imperial capital into a great global capital – a centre of tourism, finance and what we might perhaps want to call soft power.

BR: Let’s talk about your book, If Mayors Ruled the World. You argue two things. Firstly, that cities are becoming more powerful and, secondly, that that is a good thing.

BB: Yes. Though I have lived in cities all my life, they have not been at the centre of my concern. I am a democratic theorist and like most political scientists, from Locke to the present, that means you focus on the nation state. Even in the international realm you are focusing on relations between nation states – hence international. But anybody who has had their eyes open in the last decade is aware that the nation state is in trouble. It’s distressed. It’s dysfunctional. We need only think about the US government closing its doors twice in the last two years. Well how can the government of the most powerful nation in the world close its doors for over a week? And did anyone even notice?

But increasingly I came to appreciate that even if we could overcome the ideological gridlock and party deadlock that characterises many governments, the nation state is not well positioned to tackle modern challenges. The nation state is a 400-year-old institution defined around territorial boundaries. But these boundaries are no longer useful in tackling the cross border, global problems we face.

To put it simply, we face a 21st-century world of interdependent challenges – global warming, global finance, global immigration, global terrorism – with 18th-century sovereign states that can’t deal with one another.

It was only with that revelation that I began to realise that we need another institution, where democracy still works and around which people still rally and where, most importantly, global cooperation at least opens the possibility of dealing with global problems. And that’s what led me to cities. Cities are now where more than half of the population lives around the world. They create most of the wealth and all the culture. And they generate most of the carbon emissions and are the most capable of tackling these. Trust in national government is plummeting around the world, but you find that 60 or 65 or 70% of people still say they trust their city leaders, and since trust is the primary currency of democracy, that’s terribly important. So in every way cities have become the primary venue of democracy, of power, of possibility.

BR: But cities for the most part don’t have armies, so how do they exercise power and influence in this new world?

BB: That’s right. Cities don’t compete in the same way as nations. When Germany gets bigger, Poland gets smaller. But when Berlin gets bigger, Warsaw does not get smaller. They can co-flourish, while nations tend to be stuck in ancient rivalries. Nations are always looking for enemies. Cities need each other. The very weakness that robs them of their capacity to make war on one another is in fact a great virtue when it comes to cooperation and the common solving of problems.

BR: So paradoxically, though cities are closer to their citizens they are better at international collaboration.

BB: That’s right. People say ‘Wait a moment, wasn’t the nation state invented in the 16th and 17th century because the scale of the city was too small, and now you want to go back to city based government?’. But I say cities are not only more trusted by citizens and better at running things, but because they co-operate they are better at solving global problems.

BR: So we have this fast-emerging world of cities – an emerging global urban order. Can we reflect on the place of cities like London and New York in this? What contribution do they make or might they make?

BB: Of course it’s true that these cities occupy a special place internationally – they are hugely influential by virtue of their history, wealth and creativity. And their leaders, in particular, potentially have great power. It is irrelevant whether their city government is powerful, as New York’s is, or relatively weak, as London’s is. These cities fight well above their weight. As a result they tend to attract big personalities – whether it is Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson in London, or Ed Koch or Michael Bloomberg in New York. Whether or not they have a great deal of political power, these figures have a great deal of international soft power.

BR: Are there cities that you have come across that have built up their influence – their soft power – in particularly interesting ways, or use it in interesting ways?

In city after city you will find there are leaders and citizens engaged in the city who make a gigantic difference to its reputation.

BB: Well often soft power is associated with a city leader. You can have a city that is not so large or economically powerful, which, nonetheless, plays a large role by virtue of its mayor. Olaf Sholz, Mayor of Hamburg – he actually governs province as well as city – has done extraordinary work on the environment – on windpower in particular. Ahmed Aboutaleb, Mayor of Rotterdam, was born in Morocco and is the Netherland’s first Muslim mayor. He is a great leader of Rotterdam and the city is now punching above its weight. Or the Mayor of Boston, Tom Menino. He was Mayor for 20 years. People used to say that half of Boston has met him personally, which could well be true. He put Boston on the map as a global city and a trading city. Boston in some ways has a reputation greater than Chicago or Los Angeles because Tom Menino was such an extraordinary Mayor and brought attention to its virtues.

As a result Boston may have a shot at the Olympics. In city after city you will find there are leaders and citizens engaged in the city who make a gigantic difference to its reputation. Porto Alegre, in Brazil, is a great example. Whether it is participatory budgeting, or its alternative Davos, its counter-global conferences, it is a small town with a huge profile and impact.

BR: Most cities’ promotional agencies seem to have quite a small set of tricks to which they resort. They look to big events to put a city on a map, or a new logo or slogan. But you are saying that there are more imaginative ways of growing a city’s soft power and influence.

BB: That’s right. Cities don’t get the Olympics because they have a clever slogan. It is the other way around. It is not the case that gimmicks and slogans make a city, but great cities can adopt the gimmicks and slogans to help them. They can use these things. Take Seoul, the capital of South Korea. Despite the fact that Seoul has been the centre of an economic miracle, it had not made a mark culturally, and had lots of troubles. Under Mayor Park Won-soon, who is now in his second term, Seoul has become a leading Asian city. For example Asia City Net, the Asian city network, which was in Yokohama in Japan a couple of years ago, moved to Seoul. That’s in part a tribute to the work of Park Won-soon.

BR: I suppose it’s an implication of what you are saying that national foreign offices should be seeing their cities as assets in a way that few do. Are you aware of any?

BB: There is one and that’s the Netherlands. The Dutch foreign office has relations not just with nations but with cities across Europe. Now the Netherlands is special, as it’s to a great extent a nation of cities and a lot of politicians move back and forth between national and city politics. But you are beginning to see national governments taking a more respectful approach to city governments.

In January this year, I was at the national meeting of US Conference of Mayors in Washington. Four members of President Obama’s Cabinet – all of whom had been mayors – were in attendance. In the 1970s US cities used to go to Washington cap in hand and plea for it to help them: ‘Can you solve our problems?’. Last year, when 15 new mayors, including the mayors of Los Angeles and Boston, went to Washington, it was at the invitation of President Obama. He was hoping he could learn from them because he was finding it so difficult to make national government work.

BR: Tell us a bit about the Parliament of Mayors.

BB: In the last chapter of my book, If Mayors Ruled the World, I felt I should say something practical. I pointed out that though cities work together, they don’t really have an institutional basis for meaningful cooperation at a global level. So I suggested the possibility of a global Parliament of Mayors. Rather to my astonishment and certainly to my great, great joy, mayors around the world have taken to that. The Mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, the Mayors of Barcelona, Rio, of Rome, of Athens, Warsaw, Helsinki, Zurich, Bogota, Mexico City, Cape Town, Dakar – they have said that this is a powerful idea. They know their cities are centres of significant governance and economic activity but there is nowhere they can really work together globally on common solutions. So in the two years since I published my book, the Parliament of Mayors has become an extraordinary reality.

On October 23rd and 24th, in London and then Bristol – which is the European Green Capital 2015 – we will hold the first two sittings, not of a conference, but of an actual global Parliament of Mayors, with at least 120 cities in attendance. And we will focus on a climate agenda. Cities will work together to develop a common manifesto and commitments – whether or not the United Nations climate change conference, which takes place two weeks later in Paris, takes action on the part of nation states.

The Nobel Laureates Climate Symposium and US Conference of Mayors are working with us, among many others. There will be a ‘mayor’s special’ on Great Western Rail running from London to Bristol on the Saturday morning, 24th October. It’s a very exciting prospect. We will have an opportunity not just to talk but to launch an experiment in urban global governance and try to solve the problems that nation states can’t solve.

BR: Well, I look forward to observing the Parliament in both London and Bristol. Very best of luck.