WPTPN: Global Cities in a Time of Populist Nationalism

7 December 2016, 1200 EST

This World Politics in a Time of Populist Nationalism (WPTPN) guest post is written by Fiona B. Adamson, an Associate Professor of International Relations at SOAS, University of London. 

In the aftermath of the UK Brexit vote, London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo issued a joint letter committing themselves to work more closely together and to deepen connections between cities in Europe and across the world, declaring that “the 21st century belongs to cities.” They are not the only ones who think so – sociologists, geographers, urban studies scholars and others have long focused on cities as important sites of power in the international system – sites that increasingly make up a networked global structure that exists side-by-side with the system of nation-states.

The tension between the globalized world of interconnected cities and the still territorially-defined system of nation-states is one of the factors that has come to the fore in both Brexit and the US election. Voting preferences in both cases mirrored the rural-urban geographic divide – with urban centers overwhelmingly voting “Remain” in the UK and for Clinton in the US. Indeed, both the “Leave” and Trump campaigns played on this distinction. The Brexit vote was as much about perceptions of London’s “elites” and “experts” as it was about fact-based arguments or the actual workings of the European Union. Trump’s “America First” and “Make America Great Again” version of nationalism was pitted against the “globalism” of metropolitan elites – who were deemed to represent neoliberalism, mainstream media and corporate power – but also pluralism and cultural diversity.

The rhetoric in both campaigns should not necessarily be surprising. Nation-states are being buffeted by the forces of globalization in ways that are also cutting across traditional left-right party politics. Politicians at the national level risk being unable to respond to the contradictory demands of differently positioned constituencies, and have incentives to resort to nationalist rhetoric to unite geographically diverse populations. Yet, many urban dwellers feel that they are citizens of the world, and not just the nation – and exclusionary forms of nationalism run counter to their lived realities, which are defined by multiple identities and concentric forms of citizenship – a notion perhaps best articulated by London Mayor Sadiq Khan who refers to himself as a Londoner, European, British, English, of Islamic faith, and of Pakistani heritage.

Trump’s reliance on crude forms of nationalism and his overt fear-mongering and courting of far right extremist groups have unleashed forces of aggression and bigotry that threaten diverse sectors of the American public, many of which are concentrated in America’s cities. But it is also in cities where much of the organized post-election resistance to Trump has been found. In the weeks since the US election, some of the more vocal critics of the US President-elect’s agenda have been urban publics, mayors and police departments. Protests against Trump in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and other major cities have drawn tens of thousands. Mayors and police chiefs of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and other “sanctuary cities” have reassured their citizens and vowed to protect undocumented migrants from Trump’s threats of deportation – possibly leading to future political stand-offs between local and federal authorities. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio went so far as to meet with Trump to make clear to him how dangerous many of his proposals were for New Yorkers. These actions mirror those taken by European mayors in response to right-wing populism, such as Sadiq Khan’s “London is Open” campaign or Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo’s attempt to bring the inner city and outer suburbs together in a “Grand Metropole Paris.”

Cities are often poised to gain from the same aspects of globalization that right-wing populists rail against. They benefit from the opportunities provided by the turn towards knowledge-based economies and are hubs in circuits of global finance. They are centers of media, culture and global civil society. They are magnets for migration and function as nodes in global diaspora networks. They are spaces of conviviality, diversity and tolerance –features that make them equally potential targets of terror attacks as well as the target of white nationalists, conservative evangelicals and other right-wing groups that thrive on fears of cultural pluralism.

These same forces of globalization give cities common interests and also provide them with the wherewithal to network with each other to address issues of common concern. In doing so, they can bypass national institutions, share best practices, and agree policies directly with their other urban counterparts. Cities have increasingly shown leadership in areas in which national institutions have suffered political paralysis. The C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group and the Mayor’s Climate Protection Initiative in the US, for example, emerged partly as a response to national reluctance to meet the reduction targets of the Kyoto protocol. On migration policy, cities have taken the lead by advocating for migrants and refugees and participating in global networks such as United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) or the Joint Migration and Development Initiative (JMDI). In the United States, the “sanctuary cities” movement has emerged as a response to broken and unrealistic migration policies at the federal level. In other countries, cities are pushing for more autonomy over migration issues – such as the demand for a special London visa. On security issues, cities regularly exchange information and facilitate police cooperation across borders, networking with each other via global initiatives such as The United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR) Making Cities Resilient Campaign and the Rockefeller Foundation’s 100 Resilient Cities Initiative. Similarly, groups such as the United Nations Human Settlements Program (UN-Habitat) and the Global Parliament of Mayors are facilitating new forms of city-led global governance.

These city-focused global arrangements point to alternative forms of power, politics and governance that exist alongside national governments and politics. However, they are rarely acknowledged or studied by International Relations (IR) scholars – who often remain constrained by a methodological nationalism that defines their field. Likewise, Americanists still generally look at cities through the lens of national politics – in the United States the subfield of urban politics rarely situates American cities in larger global networks. The political events of 2016, however, may suggest that the gap between the study of urban politics and the study of world politics needs to be bridged. New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are both American cities and global cities – and are embedded in broader trans-city relationships and policy networks that transcend any particular state. This gives them a particular power – both collectively, as cities working together to address global challenges, but also as spaces of political engagement that can counter forces of populism and authoritarianism that emanate from the national level. Whether it be Gezi Park in Istanbul, Tahrir Square in Cairo, Trafalgar Square in London or Union Square in New York – cities are places that lend themselves to collective acts of resistance and defiance.

Cities and global city-networks pose a challenge and an alternative to the politics of populist nationalism and creeping authoritarianism. As internally-diverse and globally-interconnected spaces they tend towards policies that promote openness, inclusiveness and pluralism. They are also leading the way in addressing many of the common challenges that the world faces – such as climate change, migration or terrorism. Connections between cities within the United States – but also across national boundaries – are likely to continue to grow and act as a constraint on right-wing populism. Moreover, networks of cities in many ways constitute an alternative structure in world politics – one that is embedded in and functions alongside — but also at times bypasses or resists — the power of state institutions. Sociologists and geographers have long appreciated the power of global cities – with the recent rise in populist nationalism it is time for IR scholars to recognize their power as well.

The Duck of Minerva’s WPTPN group is still seeking guest contributions. If you are interested in writing a post and have research expertise in international relations, international political economy, foreign policy, comparative politics, or cognate fields please see this post for more information.