A World Of City States?

For some years now, social scientists and some economic historians have spoken about how cities are displacing nation-states as the most important actors on the world stage.

According to the city-state theorists, cities are where all the important economic action is, in terms of business, finance, industry, ideas generation, and innovation. As a result, cities, particularly in developing countries, are becoming ever more connected to the globalised world, leaving much of their host nations behind. Moving between town and countryside is thus becoming more like an international journey.

The bottom line is that many cities are more economically important than many countries. Thus, some political analysts, including Robert D Kaplan (who wrote a New York Times opinion piece on this very topic at the end of 1999), believe that the world will during the course of the 21st century move back hundreds of years to a time when city-states were the norm.

Closely related to the city-state theory is the Mega-Region theory proposed by Richard Florida in his book Who’s Your City? Florida identifies many mega-regions around the world that are driving the global economy. Among these are Torbuffchester (Toronto-Buffalo-Rochester), Boswash (Boston-New York-Washington), Lon-Leed-Chester (London-Leeds-Manchester), Am-Brus-Twerp (Amsterdam-Brussels-Antwerp), Delhi-Lahore, and Greater Tokyo.

While we do not dispute these arguments about the importance of cities and mega-regions as drivers of global economic growth, we have several doubts about the city displacing the nation-state as the principal international actor.

Cities lack military power: First of all, cities cannot completely displace sovereign states as powerful geopolitical actors, because they lack military power. The recent geopolitical crises in Ukraine and Iraq demonstrate the lasting importance of military power. In a world of city-states, cities would be vulnerable to external attack. Yet how would they respond? After New York was attacked on 9/11, it was not the NYPD that invaded Afghanistan, it was the US military. Similarly, let us suppose that a foreign power attempted to seize Brazil’s offshore Tupi oil fields. The putative mega-region of Sao-Rio (Sao Paulo-Rio de Janeiro) would have to rely on the Brazilian military to defend them. At the present time, we do not know of a single city anywhere that has significant military projection powers. Indeed, it is difficult enough for nation states to project power. Even if a city – let us say Sao Paulo – sought to develop its own armed forces, it would surely face opposition from the national capital. This may change in time, but probably not for many decades yet.

Nationalism is still a powerful force: While many cities all over the world have their own distinct cultural identities (whether manifested in an accent, cuisine, niche industry, monument, sports team, TV drama, etc.), and while many global cities have more in common with each other than their hinterlands, we suspect that if push came to shove, national identity will trump any identification between fellow global city-states. If anything, the world seems to be experiencing more nationalism than internationalism on a grass-roots basis.

Mega-regions don’t quite exist: Richard Florida identifies many mega-regions in his book, but in truth, we find the concept somewhat exaggerated. For example, Lon-Leeds-Chester does not really exist. This blogger went on a day trip from London to Leeds several years ago and felt no inclination of being in a mega-region. There were tens of kilometres of undiluted countryside for significant segments of the train journey. There may well be a region corresponding to Florida’s Lon-Leeds-Chester mega-region, but we tend to call it ‘England’. Similarly, a Canadian friend of this writer from Toronto who is well acquainted with Rochester in upstate New York tells us that ‘Torbuffchester’ is an exaggerated concept.

Rural regions still matter a great deal: While cities are undoubtedly drivers of global growth, the countryside can hardly be considered economically marginal. In many emerging markets, the rural regions offer greater opportunities for long-term growth, precisely because they are underdeveloped, although in some cases this will be because new cities are built there or because existing cities absorb their rural hinterlands. In addition, the rural regions have the bulk of agricultural production, and any city-state, no matter how sophisticated, will need at least some basic agricultural hinterland for food security. A city-state entirely dependent on imported food and energy would be vulnerable to a siege.

A world of city-states would not necessarily be safer: Let us suppose that most countries in the world voluntarily dissolved into city-states. This would not necessarily portend peace. In fact, city-states could end up going to war over rural hinterlands previously considered to be the national countryside. Without a national capital as an arbiter, it is unclear how these disputes would be resolved. There would also be a risk that in the absence of a central authority the rural areas between city-states would be left un-administered, essentially turning them into lawless ‘Mad Max’-style regions.