Junior Ambassadors Program 2019 - Bart de Grood

City leaders, let your voices be heard!

By Bart de Grood

Photo: United Nations Photo Library, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In recent years, a concerning development can be observed as we study international politics: the weakening of the multilateral system. Across different continents, from the Americas to Europe, we see a rise of nationalist, anti-globalist politicians rally around the idea of national sovereignty to justify the slow but steady withdrawal from international organisations and treaties. Brexit, the newly-elected Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, the United States pulling out of the Paris Agreement, and nuclear-armed states consistently failing to implement Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty.

These are just a few recent examples of cases in which national leaders attempt to undermine the multilateral system.It is important to note that these rather cynical developments – i.e. the international impact of populist agendas – take place on the national level of the countries involved. Much brighter, optimistic developments evolve on the local level. Take the issue of non-proliferation for example. In the last couple of years, governments of nuclear weapon states have spent billions of dollars to modernize their nuclear arsenals. In response, several American, Australian, and Canadian cities recently signed a declaration to encourage their national leaders to sign the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons of the United Nations.

A similar development can be seen with regard to the Paris Agreement, from which the United States withdrew shortly after President Trump took office. Leaders of more than 90 cities around the world, representing more than 650 million people, now gather on an annual basis to discuss concrete, city-level solutions for climate change. Apparently, local leaders around the world are taking responsibility to uphold an international order based on cooperation.

Now, how can we move from these seemingly encouraging developments to a concrete policy proposal that could potentially revive multilateralism? Robert Keohane once defined multilateralism as "the practice of coordinating national policies in groups of three or more states, through ad hoc arrangements or by means of institutions." It suggests that a potential revival of multilateralism has to be sought in international institutions itself.

In light of this definition and recent developments among cities as previously described, I would propose that city leaders take a more prominent role in the international sphere. In concrete terms, this would mean that within the institutional framework of the United Nations, an advisory body of mayors – from cities of each continent – has to be created that moves beyond merely addressing social and economic issues, as is already done in the annual World Urban Forum. Within this body, mayors should be able to propose resolutions about all issues that matter to cities around the world; ranging from the transition to sustainable economies to nuclear arms reduction to carbon emissions.

Whether these resolutions will be adopted in the end is up to the only sovereign entities in the international order: states. Nevertheless, it is worth giving cities a greater say in the most significant intergovernmental body of the international arena. After all, the majority of the world population now lives in cities and it seems that municipal decision-makers currently favour the notion of multilateralism more than some of their counterparts on the national level.


Bart de Grood is a graduate student of Political Science at the Leiden University and Vice Chair of The West Wing Think Tank.