5 new books on global affairs every urbanist should read


Even before the “Brexit” referendum and U. S. presidential elections, academics and foreign-policy practitioners were expressing concern about global dynamics. “Today’s global security environment,” Gen. Martin Dempsey, then the chairman of the U. S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, told Congress in 2015, “is the most unpredictable I have seen in 40 years of service.”

And despite the recent election in France, this sense of uncertainty is only increasing. “We are living in times of global uncertainty,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel observed last week at a news conference with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, “and see our responsibility to expand our partnership in all the different areas and to push for a world order based on law.”

The underlying trends behind this disorder impact cities as much as they do nations. The failure of the international community in Syria can be seen in the form of refugees in cities such as Istanbul and Amman, while shifts in the nature of conflict are evidenced on the streets of Istanbul, Paris, Manchester and elsewhere.

[See: How U. S. foreign policy came to embrace urban issues — and may change under Trump]

Each of these five new books offers a different perspective on the trends in power, politics and ideology that are behind the decade-long uptick in geopolitical and economic volatility that is felt daily in urban spaces around the globe.

“A World In Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order”

Richard Haass (Penguin Press)

For anyone who has been focused on urban issues, this is a good primer on the international order, its key events over the past 30 years, and the political issues that are threatening to undermine it. Haass, the president of the highly influential Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, outlines the decline of global governance institutions in the face of new challenges, including terrorism, climate change and cyber issues. Nothing is local anymore, Haass notes: “A cardinal reality associated with globalization is that little stays local in terms of its consequences. The world is not to be confused with Las Vegas: what happens somewhere rarely remains there.”

Some traditional rules of diplomacy and foreign policy still apply. Politics among major powers — such as between the United States and Russia today — still matter immensely. But many challenges require a broader set of actors. “City mayors and governors of states or principalities deserve a seat at many tables,” Haass writes. In many multilateral settings — formal or informal — the focus should be on including those that can get things done.

[See: Can mayors actually rule the world?]

“The Chessboard and the Web: Strategies of Connection in a Networked World”

Anne-Marie Slaughter (Yale University Press)

If the nation-state and sovereignty still sit at the centre of Haass’s analysis, networks and connectivity are at the core of this collection of essays. Slaughter, president at the New America Foundation, a Washington think tank, has produced several notable works on the distribution of power in the 21st century, including with regard to networks and cities. Slaughter labels the aforementioned major-power politics “the chessboard”, but like Hass, she notes that even those powers cannot ignore new connections and new sources of power.

Perhaps more than any of the other authors, Slaughter explicitly addresses the role of cities. “One of the most exciting features of the web world is that the group of people making a real impact in discovering, formulating, and implementing solutions to global problems has expanded dramatically,” she notes, “and many city officials are essentially practicing urban foreign policy, working with their counterparts in other cities across borders.”

“Once Within Borders: Territories of Power, Wealth and Belonging Since 1500”

Charles S. Maier (Harvard University Press)

City-states once and future? Maier, a professor of international history at Harvard, offers the longest temporal perspective and the most units of analysis: city-states, nomadic societies, empires and nation-states. Territory, Maier notes, is both a “decision space” — a geography for government and politics — and an “identity space”, a terrain around which we organize loyalties and a sense of our self. For most of the 20th century, those two spaces overlapped. But globalization, Maier argues, undermines decision space while increasing identity space. City-states, he notes, once provided one of the noteworthy historical alternatives to empires and nation states. “Today,” he writes, “size is less important: intensity of commitment is critical.”

[See: The New Urban Agenda needs to recognize a future of city-to-city networks and trade]

“Easternization: Asia’s Rise and America’s Decline From Obama to Trump and Beyond”

Gideon Rachman (Other Press)

The re-emergence of China as a global power is the most impactful geopolitical development of the early 21st century. Over the coming century, writes Rachman, a columnist for the Financial Times, “rivalries among the nations of the Asia-Pacific region will shape global politics, just as the struggles between European nations shaped world affairs for over five hundred years from 1500 onward.” President Xi Jinping’s recent conference around the infrastructure- and trade-focused “One Belt, One Road” initiative attracted dozens of global leaders and significant media attention.

The rise of new global powers, if not empires, has long influenced the development of cities, from Rome’s influence on York to Britain’s on New Delhi.  Meanwhile, the U. S.-led period of globalization over the past three decades has done much to shape the development of the so-called “global cities”. China’s urban experiments have received widespread attention, but the dynamics articulated by Rachman will no doubt influence urban developments outside China’s borders, as well.

“The Rise and Fall of Nations: Forces of Change in the Post-Crisis World”

Ruchir Sharma (W. W. Norton & Company)

But no one said “Easternization” would be smooth — or even guaranteed. Sharma is the head of emerging markets and global strategy at Morgan Stanley Investment Management. In his telling, the geopolitical and economic repercussions of the 2008 financial crisis continue to play out today. The integration of the global economy of the early 2000s — and with it, the rise of emerging markets such as Brazil and South Africa — is in retreat, and may well remain so.

[See: What diplomats can learn from urbanists — and vice versa]

Whereas many urbanists focus on the problem of rapidly expanding cities in the developing world, Sharma offers a different perspective, noting the threat that slowed global population growth poses to economic growth. Population pressures also are linked to internal political pressures. In a chapter entitled “The geographic sweet spot”, he explores the risks of focusing on a capital city to the detriment of rural communities and secondary cities in countries such as Thailand, Colombia, Poland and Turkey.

Sharma’s is in no way a book about urbanization or the network of global cities essential to globalization. But the fate — rise or fall — of the nations upon which he focuses will do much to determine the direction of urban growth over the next 30 years.

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Ian Klaus is a visiting fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House and a non-resident fellow at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. He was previously senior adviser for global cities at the U. S. Department of State and deputy U. S. negotiator for Habitat III. Full bio

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