Around the World, Mayors Take Charge

Leaders of major cities are increasingly taking on diplomatic and inter-state roles.
London Mayor Boris Johnson celebrates after shooting and scoring with his back to the basket, as Pops Mensah-Bonsu applauds in London April 8, 2013. (Andrew Winning/Reuters)

A pattern is emerging in national elections around the world: across regions and continents, mayors are increasingly becoming federal leaders and have also become leading voices in some of the most important global debates.

Increasingly, mayors are becoming heads of state. Former Seoul mayor Lee Myung-bank was previously mayor of Seoul, Istanbul mayor Recep Tayyip Erdogan is the current prime minister of Turkey, former Tehran mayor Mahmoud Ahmedinejad is now president of Iran, and former Tulle mayor Francois Holland is prime minister of France (less than a decade after the departure of Jacques Chirac, who had been mayor of Paris for close to two decades). In total, eight present heads of state are former mayors, a number set to grow in the coming years. In China, of the seven new standing committee members of the Politburo, six were provincial governors or party secretaries in two or more provinces.

Last year, Sao Paulo municipal governor Jose Serra narrowly lost becoming president of Brazil, but he is expected to challenge Lula's chosen successor Dilma Yousef in the next election. Looking ahead, Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri looks set to displace Christina Kirchner as Argentina's president in 2015, Mexico City mayor Marcelo Ebrard has well-recognized presidential aspirations, and Babatunde Fashola, mayor of Africa's largest city Lagos, is Nigeria's most popular political figure. Few doubt that London's mayor Boris Johnson could upset David Cameron in the near future to become Britain's prime minister, or that a potential Michael Bloomberg presidential bid in the U.S. should be taken very seriously.

Historically, heads of state have come from the ranks of cabinets and parliaments. Five of America's first eight presidents were cabinet members. Sixteen presidents have been senators, including of course Barack Obama. Tellingly, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, and James Buchanan all served as Secretary of State, for years an important -- or at least useful -- diplomatic credential for running a nation.

Mayors are stepping up to the top level of "high politics" both because of their tangible track records in governing large polities such as Sao Paolo and Paris, and also because of their growing audacity in building diplomatic bonds across cities. Many in this new elite of global mayors might lack the name recognition of Cold War-era figures like West Berlin's mayor Willy Brandt, who subsequently became German chancellor and architect of Ostpolitik. Yet, they are a shrewd mix of populist and technocrat, steering ever more populous and prosperous cities toward global stature through innovative diplomatic initiatives far beyond their city halls.

To manage this growing set of relationships more effectively, cities and mayors' offices are generating increasing capacity to conduct their own international missions - a phenomenon that could be called diplomacity, an expanding propensity of cities to develop the necessary mechanisms to autonomously navigate foreign relations on their own.

In New York, mayor Michael Bloomberg has established a "Mayor's Office for International Affairs" to centralize the city's management of relations with the United Nations, consular missions. He also uses it to manage international outreach, which now covers investment promotion, security exchanges, and initiatives such as the Climate Leadership Group (or C40), which he presently chairs, an organization that gathers 58 of the world's major metropolises.

C40 represents a newer and more dynamic kind of city network, but city-to-city cooperation has been a staple of the last few decades, as well. During the Cold War, inter-city diplomacy was largely symbolic, with activities such as Sister Cities International promoting development and crisis response connections, or the Mayors for Peace initiative calling for nuclear disarmament. Then, particularly since the United Nations' 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, mayors' role in the global arena has evolved into a new and important component of their portfolios. At Rio, the lead role was taken by Local Governments for Sustainability (ICLEI); today there are least ten such networks of cities charting transnational urban sustainability programs.

Presented by

Michele Acuto and Parag Khanna

Michele Acuto is a research fellow for the Oxford Program for the Future of Cities, a fellow at the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy, and author of the forthcoming book Building Global Cities. Parag Khanna is a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation and author of How to Run the World: Charting a Course to the Next Renaissance

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