When Donald Trump announced in June 2017 that the United States was pulling out of the Paris Agreement—the pact between 195 nations (nearly all the world’s nations) to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions—the mayors of Paris, France, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, responded with an op-ed in The New York Times. In it, they announced that “an unprecedented alliance is emerging” among more than 7,400 cities worldwide to honor and uphold the goals of this agreement irrespective of their own country’s level of commitment. They vowed to do this not only for the citizens of their cities, but also for the citizens of “every other city in the world.”
Most people don’t think of cities when thinking about international relations or international law. After all, cities are local governments and their leaders are concerned with local, not global, issues and challenges. Right?
In 2017, around the same time as city leaders vowed to honor the Paris Agreement, more than 150 city leaders from around the world assembled in Mechelen, Belgium. Their motive: The United Nations was in the process of drafting the Global Compact on Migration (GCM) and Global Compact on Refugees (GCR). Meeting in Belgium, the city leaders drew up the Mechelen Declaration, demanding a seat at the drafting table.
The two global compacts were adopted in Marrakesh in 2018, prompting 150 mayors and city leaders to sign a second declaration calling for the full and formal recognition of the role of local authorities in the implementation, follow-up, and review of both compacts. The UN High Commissioner on Refugees enthusiastically embraced the city leaders’ declaration in a speech highlighting the necessity of working with city leaders to solve the global refugee crisis.
Cities’ structural powerlessness in international relations
In a formal sense, cities remain structurally powerless—that is, without an official seat at the table or a platform in the current international political framework, which is built on the foundational idea that nation-states are the sole actors and policy-makers at the international level. This state-centric framework was constructed by and for states following the atrocities of World War II, when the winners of the war came together and, following a series of negotiations, created the United Nations (UN).
Nations, and only nations, are permitted to fill the key positions in the UN. While a small role is granted to non-governmental organizations, that can be consulted on matters pertaining to their expertise, this same privilege is not afforded to cities, which are not mentioned even once in the UN Charter.