- Global Cities as Actors: A Rejoinder to Calder and de Freytas
Even the lay reader, when confronted with figures and accounts of contemporary urbanization trends, is compelled to admit that the 21st century is the age of the city—an ‘urban age.’1 With the most conservative projections predicting that 75 percent of the world’s population will live in urban areas by 2050, it is undeniable that “the affairs of the city have to become the habits of international politics.”2 Yet, to date, it is possible to count international studies publications concerned with the city as a site of global influence on the fingers of a hand. Kent E. Calder and Mariko de Freytas justly argued against this neglect, in an article published in the Winter-Spring 2009 edition of this journal.3 In this piece, they sought to redress the overall hyperopia of international studies by describing “global political cities as actors in twenty-first century international affairs.”
Yet, while the two authors offer a much-needed political perspective on the role of cities, their essay is too timid in describing the political presence of the urban on the global landscape. Despite the promises of their title, which uses the term ‘actors’ to indicate the participation of global cities in international affairs, the article does little to theorize agency. On the contrary, Calder and de Freytas illustrate metropolises as milieu—or hubs—where political influence is gathered, but not exerted. In this rejoinder I argue that global cities are not solely places of, but also agents in global governance and world politics. If we are to understand that cities—and global cities in particular—are increasingly important in shaping international affairs, we need to move away from this passive stereotype of the urban as a mere milieu, and appreciate how it actively engages other political institutions.
Calder and de Freytas’s approach is intuitive: if Saskia Sassen described global cities in their economic essence as urbanities with a global significance, the same can apply for other social spheres such as the political.4 If Sassen’s metropolises are strategic sites where the command and control functions of producer services are concentrated, for Calder and de Freytas they are political-economic [End Page 175] centers of gravity of major importance in international politics. Developing on Sassen’s definition, the authors characterize the ‘global political city’ as “a metropolitan area that serves as a policy hub, major political diplomatic community, and strategic information complex of global import.”5 Examples of this are Brussels, Moscow, Beijing, and Washington, D.C. Calder and de Freytas are, in this case, a poignant case of the scholarly flexibility of the global city concept. As Sassen highlighted in the revised second edition of her landmark 1991 study, various globalizing processes are nested in these metropolises as strategic, but not necessarily all-encompassing, events. To this extent “one can actually study the global city function without having to study the whole city.”6 Hence, the authors can illustrate and map the globality of their cases in the political sphere—Washington, D.C. in primis—without necessarily enquiring into the political agency of such entities.
Indeed, the same logic could apply to several other ambits of social action. We could, for instance, devise a definition that characterizes global religious cities as metropolitan areas that serve as spiritual hubs, accommodate major spiritual-theological communities, and are sources of urban knowledge capital. In this classification, Rome and Jerusalem would be ranked in the highest tiers. However, the task here should not be one of categorizing urbanities, but rather to develop a conceptual architecture that—starting from Sassen’s intuition—allows for the inclusion of urban narratives in the theorization of world politics.
Political scientists involved in the study of the urban should seek to broaden rather than particularize the appreciation of global cities. What is interesting for international scholars is, not the form of the global city itself but its influence on the global political sphere. We should seek to appreciate the processes, rather than map a ranking of global cities across the globe, by showing the active, entrepreneurial participation of these entities in...