The role of cities cannot be overestimated in the 21st century, often called the metropolitan century (Kelly et. al. 2017), especially since the global picture is changing towards more diversity and more individually tailored solutions.

It is said that cities are much agiler and act more pragmatically than states. Thus, they may play a key role in the complex international relations of today and tomorrow and serve as significant nodes in the global order.

Just as any other actor in the world economy, cities both collaborate and compete. They cooperate in the fields of anti-terrorism, public services, migration, cybersecurity, cultural diversity, environment protection, public transport and infrastructure. They compete over talents, capital, the location of key institutions, corporations, events, as well as investments and tourism.

Contemporary cities do not narrow down their international activities to the closest neighbourhood and do not respect geographical boundaries in fulfilling their tasks and pursuing their policies. Following the revolution in the global economy, technology and communications, national borders and geography matter so little that almost every city, if only its leaders and citizens wish so, can go global.


In this blog posts series, I aim at presenting a comprehensive analysis of the emergence of global cities as actors in contemporary international political, economic, societal and cultural relations. In doing so, I follow and expand Richard C. Longworth’s of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs categorisation. Economy and size of global cities have been tackled in Part I. Knowledge, talents and connectivity were presented in Part II. Part III discussed tourism, cultural offerings and migration.

Here, let’s have a look at the most controversial and interesting section – the one devoted to politics:

Cities are often more popular than countries and have a better international image and branding. As some say, “one can hate French imperialism and love Paris” (McClory 2017). At the same time, even global cities cannot fully separate from the national reputation and the way the state/federal government manages general public policies. Global cities may be more agile and pragmatic than states, but they remain dependent on these states anyway: on laws and regulations on visas, trade, currency and others. Cooperation and mutual understanding between the two seem more than necessary and therefore local leaders become gradually more engaged in national and international politics.

Hence, the leaders of global cities do not only “think globally and act locally”, but they think about the interests of their local community and act globally to serve their people. Usually, this means global economic endeavours. But more and more often this means political actions and activism, too.


Local leaders sometimes get elected with a uniquely high percentage of votes, higher than in state elections. For example, Los Angeles’s Mayor Eric Garcetti was reelected with over 80% of votes in 2017 and New York’s Mayor Bill de Blasio was elected with 72% in 2013 and reelected with 66.5% in 2017. Also, many political leaders (presidents, prime ministers, ministers) serve their cities before advancing to the state level. Mauricio Macri served as the mayor of Buenos Aires before winning elections for the president of Argentina. Recep Tayyip Erdoğan served as the mayor of Istanbul before becoming the prime minister and now the president of Turkey. Joko Widodo used to be the mayor of Surakarta and the governor of Jakarta before becoming the president of Indonesia.

It may mean that local leaders are trusted by the citizens much more than state-level ones and are much more popular. And also – that voters expect that the leaders of their cities will fulfil what they are tasked with, that they will understand “their cities’ place in the world. […] Such leadership is sometimes political, sometimes commercial. In the most vital cities, it’s both” (Longworth 2015).


Cities can be both constructive partners and competitors to nation-states when regional and global challenges are concerned. For example, shortly after the Brexit referendum, Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, launched the campaign “London Is Open”, aiming at retaining the global reputation of his city, underlining its creativity, dynamism and entrepreneurial spirit, as a counterweight to the “closing trend” across the UK. Sadiq Khan is also known for his firm position on the invitation for President Donald Trump to visit London that was presented by Prime Minister Theresa May. The Mayor was encouraging President Trump in social media for months to cancel his travel plans. The visit was scheduled for February 2018 but was cancelled in January (now the visit is scheduled for July 2018).

Furthermore, when President Donald Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris climate change agreement, hundreds of mayors across the US stated that they will fulfil the obligations stemming from the agreement regardless of the White House’s decision. Michael R. Bloomberg, president of the board of the C40 offered to give $15 million to the UN, compensating for the US share of the UN climate budget (Pinault, Cavicchioli 2017).

C40 – the network of over 80 world cities with more than 600 million inhabitants, representing over 25% of the global economy – was very active in the field of this global agreement also long before President Trump decided to withdraw from it. In fact, the network was engaged in lobbying for the agreement and also organised the World Mayors Summit on the margins of the United Nations for Climate Change Conference in Paris in November 2015 (and were organising similar, but smaller-scale conferences on the margins of other climate conferences), when all the global decisions were taken. Over 7000 world cities made their commitments through the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, established in 2016 (CDP 2016).

Cities cover just 2% of earth’s surface but consume 78% of global energy (Longworth 2015). Even though municipal emissions are low (usually count for less than 10% of the whole city emissions), local authorities, at least for the sake of inhabitants, need to feel obliged to introduce smart solutions countering negative effects of climate change and global warming. If these solutions are to be effective, they need to be financed, designed and implemented in collaboration with investors and businesses, including transnational corporations with headquarters or offices located in global cities. The engagement of civil society, meaning NGOs and educational or cultural private institutions is crucial. For example, in 2007 “17 of New York City’s leading universities, 11 global companies, its 11 largest hospital organizations, and 18 residential management firms have accepted the NYC Carbon Challenge, pledging to voluntarily reduce their building-based emissions by 30% or more within 10 years” (CDP 2016). The programme was so successful that Mayor de Blasio decided to expand and prolong it in 2017.

Chinese global cities, often covered by thick smog, developed their own programmes. For example, authorities of Shenzhen introduced the first Chinese carbon trading scheme in 2010 and established rules and pricing mechanisms for emissions together with 636 companies. This pilot programme was so successful that six other cities followed suit. The national emissions trading scheme was launched soon (CDP 2016). Such programmes have contributed to the development of the Chinese clean technologies phenomenon and global leadership in this sector.

Clearly, these local and city decisions were driven first and foremost by economic factors. If climate change proceeds with no countermeasures, many cities will fall under the water and/or their inhabitants will suffocate because of smog. If global business leaves London, the economic leverage of the city will disappear and, according to consultancy EY, 10000 jobs may disappear already on day one of Brexit (Treanor 2017).

The value layer should not be underestimated though. Local communities more and more encourage (or convince, or press) their representatives to speak up about ideas and values and go well beyond their traditional fields of municipal work. For instance, the concept of “sanctuary cities” in the US has been known for some decades: they counterbalance federal strict immigration policies by providing shelter to refugees from Central America (30 years ago) or Syria (today) and challenge in courts the White House’s decision on the travel ban from several Muslim countries.

As it is underlined by John Aitken, the former CEO of Brisbane marketing, “new world cities” should demonstrate leadership in areas of global importance (Essex 2017). Or, as Benjamin Barber once wrote, “[t]he nation-state is failing us on a global scale. It is utterly unsuited to interdependence. The city, always the human habitat of first resort, has in today’s globalizing world once again become democracy’s best hope” (Longworth 2015).

Summary of the series

Global cities emerged as a result of the globalisation of the economy. Now they foster the development of further economic trends. But they are also more than that. Global cities are becoming key actors also in global politics, as well as in technological, societal and cultural processes that take place both globally and regionally. And often they surpass states in their significance in various fields.

It is well observed that cities are more pragmatic and policy-oriented than nation-states. Or, as Richard C. Longworth writes, “there’s a large gap between what cities need and what national governments provide” (Longworth 2015). They are economically vibrant and innovative. Their success is based on financial, human, intellectual capital and technological flows. They are active in the fields of image building and recognition.

Therefore, while analysing the phenomenon of contemporary cities, it is worth reaching beyond their economic, technological and smart characteristics. It is worth expanding the concept, tackling the international and diplomatic activities of cities, and analysing their impact on citizens and states.

International activities of nation states and international organisations need to take into account the role of cities if they are to be realised successfully. They need to include cities that are important in their regions, but even more, they need to embrace global cities. Kofi Annan famously said that the contemporary world does not face state-sized problems, but rather “problems without passports” (McClory 2017). This is why, as written by Bret Schafer of the University of Southern California coordination on many issues is just as likely to occur between Los Angeles and Shanghai as it is between Washington and Beijing (Schafer 2017). It is a question of today and tomorrow whether the world will witness more synergy or more rivalry among all of the stakeholders. The relations among and between nation-states and cities will to a large extent shape the future of global affairs.


This series includes also following articles:

What makes a global city? Prelude

What makes a global city? Part I

What makes a global city? Part II

What makes a global city? Part III



CDP (2016), “It takes a city. The case for collaborative climate action”, CDP – Driving Sustainable Economies.

Essex Matthew L. (2017), “Positioning Brisbane as a New World City: an Interview with John Aitken”, Public Diplomacy Magazine, Issue 18 Summer/Fall 2017.

Kelly J. et. al. , „City Momentum Index 2017 Edition”, JLL 2017.

Longworth R. C. (2015), “On Global Cities”, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

McClory J. (2017), “The Soft Power 30. A Global Ranking of Soft Power 2017”, Portland Communications and USC Center on Public Diplomacy.

Pinault E., Cavicchioli A., “Trump’s Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement Shines Light on City Climate Leadership”, Public Diplomacy Magazine, Issue 18 Summer/Fall 2017.

Schafer B. (2017), “Letter from the Editor”, Public Diplomacy Magazine, Issue 18 Summer/Fall 2017.

Treanor J. (2017), “Brexit: City of London will lose 10,500 jobs on day one, says EY”,


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