Could Mayors Rule the World?

Author: Rosemary Feenan

A new book by Benjamin Barber claims that Mayors could and should rule the world. Rosemary Feenan explores the arguments put forward.

Benjamin Barber may be the Cassandra of global politics. His best known book to date, Jihad vs McWorld, published in 1995, was a prescient exploration of the modern conflict between fundamentalism and globalism. In his latest book If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities (Yale University Press, 2013), Barber has turned his attention to cities, which he argues are the most appropriate building block for modern global governance – far better suited to the task than our current nation-state-based system.

If Mayors Ruled the World reasons that in today’s interconnected world the scale of global problems – whether climate change, terrorism, drugs, immigration, disease or inequality – has outgrown nation states, which by their very nature are unsuited to dealing with cross-border issues. States, he argues, are prone to rivalry and mutual exclusion. They are averse to cooperation and incapable of establishing common global goals that cede sovereignty and therefore threaten their very defining essence. As a result, states (and supranational organizations such as the UN) have made little progress in solving society’s biggest challenges.

Cities, on the other hand, are characterised by collaboration and pragmatism. They are typically open, creative, cosmopolitan, secular, networked, and tolerant – traits which help shape the city’s potential for global outreach. Furthermore, cities are led by mayors, who are uniquely practical and pragmatic leaders, close to local people and their problems. The book is punctuated by profiles of 12 mayors from around the world who illustrate the strengths of city leaders, from Antanas Mockus of Bogota to Sheila Dikshit of Delhi and Boris Johnson of London. Most importantly, cities are interdependent – they are already accustomed to collaborating across borders. Indeed, Barber argues that cities are already taking responsibility for global governance through city networks like ICLEI, UCLG and C40 Cities.

Barber’s ‘grand plan’ for solving global challenges, his mechanism for global governance, is a Global Parliament of Mayors. The specifics are set out in detail: the parliament would meet three times a year with a maximum of 300 city representatives at each sitting. Parliament members would be chosen by lot from cities who had volunteered to be members of a global cities association. Members would be taken from three categories based on size, to ensure cities of different sizes are represented. The parliament would be governed by principles of ‘persuasion’ and ‘leading by example’ and compliance with its decisions would be voluntary and (largely) opt-in.

But what about people who don’t live in cities? How are they represented in this global parliament? No problem, says Barber – parliament members would be trustees of the global interest – elected by citizens but making their decisions based on their responsibility for the planetary good. This might seem utopian, and a mayor’s parliament a world away from current international politics. But Barber denies that his scheme is radical or grandiose, emphasising that his idea asks “only that we recognize a world already in the making… coming into being without systematic planning…that we take advantage of the unique urban potential for cooperation and egalitarianism unhindered by those obdurate forces of sovereignty and nationality.”

Could he be right? Are we headed to a future where Mayors rule the world?

About the Author

Born and bred in Liverpool, Rosemary understood at an early age that cities have very distinct characters. As a town planner and market strategist her personal interest in what makes cities work, grew into a career and a passion. She is now an International Director and Head of JLL’s Cities Research Programme which she set up 12 years ago. Cities are constantly evolving, she says, models and urban personalities change, technology is always pushing forward and the choice of cities in which to invest, develop, shop and live continues to extend. Analysing, tracking and interpreting and anticipating the nature of the New World of Cities is as important as it is fascinating. Rosemary is a Trustee of the Urban Land Institute and serves on the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on the Future of Cities.

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