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The Power of The Nation State is Falling – and That’s a Good Thing

Two years after the COVID-19 pandemic rocked the global economy and reconstructed the nature of our communities and politics, a friend expressed his frustration to me, muttering, “I cannot wait to live in precedented times.” But globally, the democratic tenets of “precedented times”—including the rule of law and even the market economy—are facing strong opposition from authoritarian and nationalist movements. The pandemic has made glaringly obvious the impending truth: our national governments are too gridlocked and defunct to combat the complexities created by globalization. The nation-state as we know it is declining. I propose we let it die.

Most of the modern global political structure is composed of outdated institutions from the twentieth-century era of colonialism and the Cold War. These institutions have been unable to evolve into capable countervailing structures to combat today’s issues of deregulated finance, offshoring, and tech advances, much less vast humanitarian issues such as climate change and migration.

Each of these challenges is rooted in an interconnected nature, which prevents one nation, or one coalition of nations, from effectively positioning resources to mitigate the others. Globalization is the primary culprit for such interconnectivity, as economic and information management has surpassed the authority of national governments, which are left floundering in the rapidly-expanding sea of new actors. Fortunately, though, the solidification of twenty-first century challenges has likewise produced twenty-first century solutions, grounded in the interconnectivity and interdependency of the contemporary era. Where national governments have struggled to satisfy foreign commitments and complex interests, city-level governance has embraced cooperation and mutual dependence. Cities are the most networked of political associations: culture, commerce, and communication are constantly at work in the pragmatic and creative dimensions, a liminality on which urban centers thrive. By augmenting and diversifying the tightly-linked networks they have already begun to develop, cities have forged transnational ties and administered far-reaching policy where states cannot.

The late Benjamin Barber’s If Mayors Ruled the World explains that nation-states alone cannot democratize globalization (or globalize democracy) because human flourishing is dependent on sovereign states with competing interests. According to Barber, “The challenge of democracy in the modern world has been how to join participation, which is local, with power, which is central. The nation state … has become too large to allow meaningful participation even as it remains too small to address centralized global power.” Cities are the nation-states of the future: over half of our world population currently resides in urban areas, and that number is expected to reach 70% by 2050. That is not to say that sovereign states will disappear; rather, decentralization of authority and delegation of tasks to subnational governments has been observed in many countries in recent decades and will continue to empower local governments and increase their political and developmental capabilities. Meanwhile, nation states will maintain many of their historically salient duties such as national security, diplomacy, and economic regulation.

The question becomes to what extent the central government attempts to impede mayoral initiatives and interfere in a city’s development. But many subnational leaders have effectively engaged in paradiplomacy—involvement in international relations by subnational actors—even when a powerful central government seeks to dictate their outcomes. For example, many US mayors worked with the WHO and other international actors to formulate COVID-19 mitigation policies, despite the urging of then-president Donald Trump to lift restrictions. In Curitiba, Brazil, mayor Rafael Greca ignored president Bolsonaro’s condemnation of city isolation initiatives and stated Curitiba would continue to follow the recommendations of the WHO. But cities’ potential extends far beyond the public health sector.

On the macro level, networks such as the United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) are finding ways to localize the UN Sustainable Development Goals: the UCLG convenes mayors from across the globe to combine best local practices into action plans and run training programs on policy knowledge for its over 240,000 members. Cities have also created international membership hubs through certain market segmentation: the C40 network convenes mayors of 96 of the largest global cities to collaborate on approaches towards combatting climate change. Some cities have invested heavily in international engagement. As of 2018, Québec had 29 offices in foreign nations and has signed 759 international agreements or “ententes” with sovereign or federated states in almost 80 countries. “Sister city” relationships forged on the grounds of shared values, identity, history, language, or a desire to share the city’s culture with the world have multiplied. The 2007 sister-city agreement between Chicago and Busan, South Korea, has, like many agreements, created opportunities for trade and cultural exchange: Busan sponsors the Chicago Korean Cultural Center, which supports Korean-owned businesses in Chicago, and the cities worked together to decommission Busan’s oldest nuclear reactor. Most notably, cities are skilled at forging international ties when national conditions are against them. In 2006, the year before the Chicago-Busan agreement was signed, American approval of South Korea reached a record low, and trade and military disagreements had heightened tensions in US-Korea relations. But cities can evade national-level conflict and create their own international partnerships.

In such uncertain times, cities promise resiliency. Unhindered by national-level paralysis, cities delve into the creative and pragmatic, forging workable and flexible solutions on their own terms.