A rise in power for 21st-century city

April 09, 2000|By Neal Peirce

WHAT'S TO BE the political role of cities in the 21st century? Will they, chiefly, be cauldrons of unrest and protest? Or can they be agents of new and inventive people-to-people accords?

So far, protests and unrest are getting the headlines. Example: Demonstrators against global capitalism plan to descend on Washington April 16-17. The police are understandably fearful of a repeat of the violence that convulsed Seattle during the World Trade Organization meetings four months ago.

Protest is a constitutional right, and where better than Washington? Still, it's hard to see how the issues that this group pushes -- from living wages to protecting rain forests -- will be served by blocking officials access to meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund.

We have another high-tension city: Miami. There, officials took the extraordinary position they'd not be responsible for civil unrest that could result from the custody fight over Elian Gonzalez.

But take heart. There is an alternative to the urban conflict model. It was espoused by mayors of 33 of the world's largest metropolises -- Beijing to Buenos Aires, Seoul to Johannesburg -- at a first-ever Mayors of the World Summit in Paris last month.

The mayors focused on issues that matter to people: urban quality of life, pollution, ethnically divided communities, security.

A chief participant was Dimitris Arvamopoulos, mayor of Athens, the seedbed of modern democracy. A few days after the Paris sessions, Mr. Arvamopoulos lectured at the Woodrow Wilson Center and appeared at several events in Washington.

Watch, said Mr. Arvamopoulos, as cities in a post-Cold War, digital age reflect "new global reality" by talking directly with each other, past nation-states and their entrenched bureaucracies, seeking shared solutions to very real and shared problems: unemployment, crime, drugs, illegal migration and degradation of the environment.

Cities, Mr. Arvamopoulos suggests, can even become "vehicles of hope, peace and democracy" where national governments are stalled. He recalls that when an earthquake struck Istanbul last August, Athenians viewing the devastation on television were deeply moved and motivated "to help and assist those who suffer," notwithstanding deep and historic antagonism between Turkey and Greece.

Mr. Arvamopoulos traveled to Istanbul with a rescue team. And when, a month later, an earthquake hit Greece, Mayor Ali Mufit Gurtuna of Istanbul paid a reciprocal visit, bringing his city's support to Athens.

The "state machinery" of Greece and Turkey "remained mistrustful, at least at the beginning," says Mr. Arvamopoulos. But Athens and Istanbul had broken the ice.

Their collaboration, he suggests, led directly to Greece dropping its objection to Turkish membership in the European Union.

A parallel effort is the Standing Conference of Mayors of Capitals of Southeast Europe, formed in 1995. One outcome, says Mr. Arvamopoulos: The mayors of Belgrade and Sarajevo, even against national government instructions, were willing to come to Athens to sign a protocol of cooperation. And they did it at the very moment that "the crisis in Bosnia-Herzegovina was raging, and blood was gushing in the streets of Sarajevo."

A former diplomat, Mr. Arvamopoulos says cities and towns must move to direct ties because their citizens suffer first and foremost from the smaller but intense regional conflicts that are erupting in the post-Cold War era -- "bombings, reprisals, ethnic cleansing, arrests, shortage of food and water, lack of medical assistance."

He argues that diplomacy should be based on citizens, not states, because "it's citizens who are the victims of our tragedies."

On a parallel track, Robert Kaplan of the New America Foundation argues that globalization is failing to serve "a growing, industrialized subproletariat," the have-nots of the great cities in such Third World nations as India, China, Brazil and Pakistan. Many, he notes in a

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cf01 article, "resent the national governments who cannot provide them with basic necessities" yet use foreign policy -- India's and Pakistan's atom bomb projects for example -- "as a totem of state legitimacy."

The common threads running through these tales of early 21st-century cities are distrust with establishments -- corporate, military or national. But not just distrust -- also a yearning for more direct, local democracy, and openness to pragmatic solutions.

Even Miami can be read that way: If

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cf01 Cuba's Communist government and embargo-dictating Washington could get out of the way, the mayors of Miami and Havana might inaugurate exciting collaborations. The barriers to accords, clearly, are ethnic, racial, religious, ideological, all deeply rooted in history. And both nation-states and multinational corporations seem to fear cities making foreign policy.

What Mayor Arvamopoulos and other 21st-century visionaries believe is that as nation-states weaken, city-to-city, people-to-people dialogue can be a powerful tool to new and inventive accords. It's not a fully proven proposition. But as a century-starter, it's extraordinarily promising.

Neal Peirce is a syndicated columnist. His e-mail address is npeirce@citistates.com.

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