Cities and their mayors are increasingly put forward as The new forces in solving major global problems. While national governments seem to fail in addressing environmental issues, poverty reduction, food production and healthcare, cities appear capable to respond much faster, more efficient and -above all- more democratically. But not everyone agrees. OMA partner and AMO director Reinier de Graaf recently added an interesting angle to the debate by arguing why Mayors should not rule the world…
This weekend, the first planning session of the Global Parliament of Mayors took place in Amsterdam: a platform for mayors from across the world, triggered by Benjamin Barber’s book: If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities.
In this book the current political system and its leaders is dismissed as dysfunctional. Defined by borders and with an inevitable focus on national interests, they are not an effective vehicle to govern a world defined by interdependence. Mayors, presiding over cities with their more open, networked structure and cosmopolitan demographics, so the book argues, could do it better.
It is of no surprise that this book has been welcomed by the same political class as the one it praises: mayors. As was apparent during the first planning session of the GPM: a conference about mayors, for mayors, attended by mayors, moderated by mayors and hosted by a mayor, all triggered by a book about mayors.
I recognize many of the book’s observations. Many mayors are impressive figures and time appears to be on their side. Nation states (particularly the large ones) have an increasingly hard time and, in the context of a process of globalization, cities, and particularly small city-states, increasingly emerge victorious. Cities have first-hand experience with many of the things that occur in globalization’s wake, such as immigration and cultural and religious diversity, and are generally less dogmatic and more practical in dealing with them.
So far so good.
For me, the problem arises when it is suggested to project the success of cities as a blueprint for global governance. I would argue that the current generation of mayors, described in the book, is successful precisely because they do not rule the world. They are successful because they are allowed to focus on smaller, more immediate, more local responsibilities, which means that their efforts by definition generate quicker and more visible results. To remove that focus by attributing global responsibilities to them would (probably) quickly undo that success. Yes, mayors are popular, but how much longer would they continue to be popular, once they would take on responsibilities currently allocated to national leaders? In any case, it remains questionable if popularity automatically equals competence to govern. Kings and Queens are generally a lot more popular than national politicians, but few of us would want to return to a system in which they ruled.