Urbanisation is one of the most consequential and dynamic forces of the twenty-first century. More than half of humanity already lives in cities; city-dwellers will account for two-thirds of the world’s population by 2050. Urban centres already produce more than 70 per cent of global GDP, consume close to 70 per cent of the world’s energy, and produce more than two-thirds of its greenhouse gas emissions. As densely populated areas, cities have historically been the epicentres of outbreaks of infectious diseases. When the covid-19 crisis began to unfold last year, it was clear that cities would bear the brunt of the crisis.
Yet, despite their best efforts to bring the spread of the virus under control, cities soon had to face up to their limitations. In many places, cities’ administrations and institutional infrastructure have been vital to gathering important data on covid-19, devising and enforcing lockdown measures and mask-wearing mandates, and implementing testing regimes, as well as to assisting with the rollout of vaccination programmes. But they have had precious little say in national and global covid-19 policies. For better or worse, nation states remain the most prominent actors in addressing catastrophic events such as the pandemic. Like the 2008 financial crisis, the pandemic has once again brought about the resurgence of the oh-so-familiar nation state.
Yet it has also become abundantly clear that national governments alone are insufficient to tackle the crisis. As Yuval Noah Harari writes in the Financial Times, “humanity as a whole has so far failed to contain the pandemic, or to devise a global plan to defeat the virus … While there have been many instances of collaboration and generosity, no serious attempt was made to pool all the available resources, streamline global production and ensure equitable distribution of supplies.” Nation states showed that they were not best-placed to handle a global crisis exacerbated by unprecedented interconnectedness early on when they began fighting over masks and, later, indulged in vaccine protectionism. Bickering among national governments, over-politicisation, a lack of sufficient competences, and occasional bureaucratic inertia also seriously hampered the efforts of key international organisations, such as the World Health Organisation. Despite all the criticism of the EU’s vaccine strategy, it did prevent an even more chaotic free-for-all between member states. And, despite some moves by national governments and the supply crunch, millions of vaccines have been exported from the EU.
As Western countries endeavour to renew multilateralism to tackle global challenges, one should recognise the ever more important role of cities and their governments, which need the right tools to be part of the solution domestically and globally.
Climate action provides one example of how cities are already addressing global problems locally. While national leaders might be aware of the unsustainable nature of their countries’ current economic systems, they are often hesitant to act in a decisive manner, fearing the political backlash in the short term.
City leaders, in contrast, are under constant pressure from citizens to promote the sustainable development of their local environments. The long-term interests of climate sustainability align with city-dwellers demands for clean air and urban green spaces. It is precisely because densely populated cities are more vulnerable to the effects of climate change that they are better equipped to address them. Indeed, cities around the world are moving ahead on climate action, and are closely collaborating with each other in the process. When then-president Donald Trump announced the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris Agreement in 2017, many US cities and states stepped up by announcing that they would remain committed to the climate accord’s goals, and would implement ambitious decarbonisation plans. The majority of US cities have taken resolute actions since, such as transitioning to low-carbon solutions in public transport and housing.
This is not to say that nation states are obsolete. They are the cornerstone of the international system. Cities will not be able to match the state’s capacity for economic redistribution – or its full economic, diplomatic, and military arsenal – any time soon. Cities, as they are currently designed, do not have the constitutional authority to negotiate treaties or trade deals, and usually have only a limited role in healthcare and national security. Cities have very small budgets for international activities, and their leaderships are often criticised by the press and citizens for spending on any international outreach and related travel.
Yet national governments’ dominance of the response to covid-19 has negated cities’ comparative advantage in dealing with crises.
Cities and mayors are usually well connected to the fabric of their local communities and have higher approval ratings from voters than national politicians and institutions. In most cases, city leaders are less driven by broad national political ideologies – and are more focused on, and are very nimble in finding, pragmatic solutions to the issues at hand, such as covid-19. Throughout the pandemic, city-level collaboration has been exemplary and has grown. Cities all over the world have shared information and best practices widely and enthusiastically, often helping each other with protective equipment.
Cities should have a strong voice in the post-crisis discussion on the economic recovery – building back a better and more resilient infrastructure for the next pandemic. If cities are to enhance the effectiveness of societies’ crisis management capabilities on the international and national levels, they will need more support and autonomy to overcome the political, legal, and financial constraints on their actions. National governments should consult their municipal counterparts more closely and regularly, providing them with better information and greater competences and resources in efforts to protect citizens from crises such as the pandemic. Some states have begun to do so, working closely with cities and regions to design their pandemic protection and economic rescue and recovery plans, while others have chosen to disregard them or – as is the case in Hungary – actively undermined their capacity to act.
In recent decades, cities have become increasingly influential in global affairs. Even before the pandemic, cities across the world pooled resources and exchanged ideas and best practices. Direct city-to-city cooperation has become an integral part of cross- border diplomacy. The number of international city networks has quadrupled in the past 40 years. Cities are beginning to voice their priorities in multilateral affairs as well. The Urban 20 Mayors Summit first met in 2018 as a platform for cities to collectively inform negotiations between G20 countries. Members of the C40, a global network of megacities committed to addressing climate change, increasingly engage with the United Nations, as well as other international organisations.
Global challenges require global solutions and global decision-making platforms. In recent years, the international system has made considerable progress in engaging with NGOs and other transnational actors. But it needs to go further. While recognising the reality of the enduring powers of the nation state, the state-dominated Westphalian order should transition into a more fluid and flexible regime of global governance – one in which non-state actors such as NGOs and sub-national administrations play an even more influential role.
Designing a robust international mechanism for responding to pandemics, as well as other global challenges, is key. A modern multilateral system should go beyond the current ad hoc practices for engaging with cities, and should create permanent structures that allow them to interact with international actors such as multilateral organisations, international financial institutions, and other states. The European Committee of the Regions, composed of locally and regionally elected representatives from all EU member states, is a good example of such a structure (though it should have more sway than it currently does). The establishment of a similar body within the UN system and the recognition of cities as actors under international law would be a good start in this. Such a body should include not only capitals and metropolises but also smaller cities, represented through select mayors as well as national and regional city alliances.
Cities have the untapped potential to help address many of the biggest challenges we face.
Ultimately, neither multilateral organisations nor subnational governance can thrive without collaborating with and support from national leaders. They should recognise that municipal administrations complement rather than subtract from the power of national governments.
David Koranyi is the senior adviser on city diplomacy to the mayor of Budapest, and a member of the ECFR Council.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.