The Global Economy, City Diplomacy, and the Role of International Law

Published 5 July 2018
By Janne Nijman

Contribution by Janne Nijman to the Meredian 180 Forum on ‘City Diplomacy’ hosted by Fleur Johns, Karen Knop and Annelise Riles

International relations were urban before they were statal, really. For example, the cities of the Ancient Silk Road in Asia or of the early-modern Hanze League were the hubs of trade and diplomatic exchange that constituted these global networks, but were in turn constituted by these networks. Together these networked Hanze cities adopted rules on trade and navigation. Sometimes sets of rules migrated from one city (Lübeck) to the next. Trade and diplomacy were intimately connected through these city-networks in both Asia and Europe. Hendrik Spruyt has argued how ultimately the state was more effective than the city in protecting early-modern economic life and interests when the economy transformed from a local into an international one. The rise of the modern state (and therewith the principles of territoriality, sovereignty, and the strict separation between national and international law) led to the invisibility of cities in ‘the eyes of international law’ to use Montevideo language.

At present, globalisation, urbanisation, and decentralisation are three global trends that (together) challenge our statal world by re-awakening the city as global actor. In a recent paper, The Renaissance of the City as Global Actor, I have examined the role of foreign policy and international law practices in the construction of cities as global actors. Inter-city relations seem to have accelerated, multilateral and bilateral meetings surged. In my view, global urbanisation is reshaping our global society into an urban society: a state’s national interest will actually be soon defined by its urban interests. City diplomacy is here to stay. The question is: what face will it have now that, like c. 500-600 years ago, our economy is transforming rapidly, this time from an international to a global economy (in spite of current political resistance).

For me then a question is raised: how does international law play a role in city diplomacy? Is international law merely supporting the neoliberal global economy and providing city governments with economic policy tools such as international trade missions to attract investment by companies located in the cities they visit? We are reminded of Saskia Sassen’s work and her conception of ‘the global city’ as a city from which the neoliberal global economy is commanded and controlled.

Or, could international law play a different role in bilateral and multilateral city diplomacy? We see cities organising and mobilising themselves transnationally around the creation and implementation of international legal norms on climate change or human rights, claiming autonomy from the state by establishing relations with international organisations. And so, a crucial question for me now is– realistic or not - could international law be mobilised by cities and city governments to resist the harsh impact on human life currently exercised by neoliberal global capitalism?