Are Cities Going Maverick? Can They Survive Beyond the Garb of a Nation State?

(Article review: The Urbanization of International Law and International Relations: The Urbanization of International Law and International Relations: The Rising Soft Power of Cities in Global Governance by ChrystieSwiney)

Authored by:

Samhitha Reddy (Research Intern)

For the purpose of this article I will be primarily looking at Chrystie Swiney’s article which was written in the year 2020; The Urbanization of International Law and International Relations: The Urbanization of International Law and International Relations: The Rising Soft Power of Cities in Global. The author of the article highlights that the global order is changing, where there is a multitude of actors like; MNC’s and NGO’s that are getting involved, than just nation-states. The author attempts to make a new entry into the system which are the cities. Cities today are the economic hubs and heart of all the nations. Cities help nations explore and transcend to scales a nation has never seen before. The author calls to attention the inability of national governments to advocate progressive policies in the international domain and how cities are trying to fill the void for the same. Since the emergence of cities, most of them have been denied an independent status and are considered a subordinate to the nation-states. Even with all the barriers that are laid to the functioning of a city without a state backing them, they are striving hard to overcome the same.

The article highlights 6 strategies that, cities have done to overcome these challenges. These include: (1) coalescing together to form large networks, which engage in city or “glocal” diplomacy (2) allying with well-connected and well-resourced international organizations (3) gaining inclusion in UN multilateral agendas (4) mirroring state-based coalitions and their high-profile events (5) harnessing the language of international law (especially international human rights and environmental law) to advance agendas at odds with their national counterparts and (6) adopting resolutions, declarations, and voluntarily self-policed commitments––what the author refers to as global law (Swiney, 2020).

The author also highlights that the traditional black letter law, which is the basic standards of law which are free of dispute, do not acknowledge the existence of cities. Cities lack a legal personality under international law. The author presents the arguments of Yishai Blank from the journal ‘Localism is the new global order’. Blank argues that cities have become the centre of the new global order, but the empirical evidence referred by him had weak ground. The author highlights, Gerald Frug and David Barron’s article which was submitted in the same year with equally bold claims. Thye have based their arguments on three broad categories, first, they looked at cities rise to prominence internationally, the second was how decision making of the cities was influenced by international intervention and the third was how there was an international intervention with the ways a city can use its land (Swiney, 2020). The author argues that given the growing literature on the influence of cities in today’s governance, it doesn’t change state supremacy yet, which is a core factor of black-letter international law.

If we start analysing the six strategies the author has presented starting with the first, forming networks and coalitions. The author looks at the primary way in which the cities gain independence is by a coalition called the ‘city networks’. The importance of the number of cities participating is highlighted, where numbers help cities highlight their concerns. The main ambition of these city networks is to allocate additional resources to international lobbying and diplomacy at a global level(Swiney, 2020). In a 2010 article, it was given that a city is formed with the juxtaposition of various networks, they highlight the importance of how local entities integration makes a large network among cities and concludes that places and networks are co-produced (Pflieger & Rozenblat, 2010). The paper also acknowledges that sometimes these networks also create hierarchies between cities and make it difficult for the system to function.

The second important method is by ‘allying themselves with International organisations. International organisations have always looked for cities in their development goals as cities and international organisations tend to merge their interests. So, we can see that they regularly partner among themselves, there is a reciprocal relationship between the two. Migration, health and global poverty are primarily linked to cities and international organisations tend to concentrate on these primary issues of mankind. International organisations and cities need each other to survive. This integration creates a power vacuum and a different hierarchy is made, which creates ‘paradiplomacy’(Swiney, 2020). Paradiplomacy is where cities create and foster a relationship with international organisations without the interference of national governments. In a blog post written by Harsh V. Pant and Falguni Tewari, they discuss how article 246 of the Indian constitution gives powers to state and how states use them in city diplomacy. They highlight that ‘city diplomacy’ has gained great utilization and integration, and acknowledge that city diplomacy has the probable capability to strengthen the federal structure(Pant & Tewari, 2017). In the article, they take the example of 4 Indian states namely, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Gujarat and notice the instances where all these states and incorporated themselves with international parties.

The third method the cities use is by ‘Gaining Recognition in Multilateral Agendas’. In the ‘New Urban Agenda’ put forward by the UN, it acknowledges that the cities would grow massively in the next thirty years and would become a relentless source of global development. The author recognizes various agendas put forward by international organisations which notice the importance of cities in the world. This convergence of various agendas is set to solve various problems across the globe. Currently, several formal institutions were formed in the UN to help cities take part in policymaking on a regular and prominent basis. Cities are the main actors in major global issues such as climate change and cities have had great success in convincing global policymakers of their significance. In a blog post by Chicago Council on Global Affairs, it highlights how cities have been the key players in all the SDG’s (Sustainable development goals) and the major burden to adapt these policies continues to remain on the cities (Acuto, 2016). one of increasing references to cities as actors: the sheer majority (85 per cent) of UN documents sections post-2000 reference cities as actors over 50 per cent of the time, with an upward trend. The article suggests that over 86 per cent of UN documents post 2000 refers to cities as actors more than 50 per cent of the time in an escalating shift (Kosovac, Acuto & Jones, 2020).

Another tactic used by cities is by Mirroring state-based coalitions, events and structures. Cities have started their own form of G20 which is now called the Urban 20 or U20 in 2017. A global conference on cities and migration was conducted in November 2017. Cities are establishing their own international affairs offices and engaging themselves in global diplomacy with national and regional authorities. A 2019 article also suggests that with rapid urbanization and manufacturing the future of harmony among states comes into questions, the world may move to a future where cities act as independent states and only have a central body for foreign and defence policies (Stucki & Tran (2019).

The next strategy used by the state is by Harnessing the Language of International Law. the author identifies two important ways in which the states do this; first, they try to create an independent international arena by quoting international Law and the second is by challenging the national governments by with the help of International Law. Human rights, environmental law and refugee law are among the top priorities of a city which they try to inculcate international law. They are codifying laws and incorporating the same in their municipal law. Municipal activism is another way in which cities from the first world countries are trying to gain influence. They do this in order to push on their own goals and wielding the language of international law is helping them catch the ear of the international law-making world. In an article of Diplomatic courier, criticizes cities that they fail to understand the law and there is a need to bridge the gap between both of them. The article calls to attention that the necessary as to why it happens is due to the pre consensus notion that international law is formed for nation-states and not for cities (Bruke-White, 2019).

The final strategy is by Adopting and Implementing “Global Law”. action and policy plans are one of the most influential ways that cities incorporate Global Law. Even though these statements are not law, they are upheld highly as a commitment taken by the city. City networks also make an attempt at creating global laws; the One Planet Charter is one of the examples of an initiative taken by C40 which is a Global Covenant of Mayors. The author then concludes with data that shows over 40 cities in the world will become megacities by 2030. And that new concepts frameworks are required to the emerging global problems. The author also seeks that there is a need for additional scholarship to enhance literature on the same.

The entire article highlights how cities have been becoming more independent in nature and discerning from the states, it also speaks of various organisations and pacts which help the same process prosper. It is true that the global order is slightly changing with the cities acing their act as a global player. But, most cities act in favour of national interest, and the central system of the country always puts focus on the activities of the city. With the states as a watchdog, it is not easy for any city to loosen their stature as a part of a nation. The author fails to acknowledge that this thesis is much more prominent in the developed first world countries than any developing and second world countries. Underdeveloped and developing countries rely on their cities for income generation, employment and as a representative of the state. If the cities started forming city-states, there will be too much pressure on every town and village of a country to grow out of it’s potential and become a city to be acknowledged.

Also, if a state loses the economic hub of the country, it is very likely that there would be an imbalance in the system. The village and cities work hand in hand and are part of a larger system which is likely to collapse without each other support. cities rely on towns and villages for agricultural produce and other forms of raw materials, and this won’t be possible to generate in a city which usually are concrete jungles, in the same manner, villages rely on cities for technology and customer base. No party is self-reliant and needs others for sustenance. Another point that has gone unnoticed is if cities try to become independent of nation-states there are high chances of wealth accumulation. It is already very evident that most of the world’s wealth is stuck in the cities and if there is an absence of a nation, then there will be no one to help those who need the wealth and maintain equality.

It is very true that the cities are trying to become independent actors disregarding their states, but the chances of a complete change in the global order where a city will supersede the state is very unlikely given the chaos it produces. The author provides great arguments for her case and gives enough empirical evidence to support the same, but doesn’t highlight the negative effects it could bring upon the world and the possibility of complete wiping of nation-states seems highly unlikely for a very long time.


acute, Michele. (2016, April 5). Retrieved from

Burke-White, W. (2019, November 22). Cities and International Lawyers Need to Start Talking to One Another. Retrieved from

Kosovac, A., Acuto, M., & Jones, T. L. (2020). Acknowledging Urbanization: A Survey of the Role of Cities in UN Frameworks. Global Policy, 11(3), 293–304. DOI: 10.1111/1758-5899.12783

pant, harsh v, & Tewari, F. (2017, January 12). Retrieved from

Pflieger, G., & Rozenblat, C. (2010). Introduction. Urban Networks and Network Theory: The City as the Connector of Multiple Networks. Urban Studies,47(13), 2723-2735. Retrieved June 14, 2020, from

Stucki, maxi, & Tran, tray. (2019, November 5). City-States – The Wave of the Future? Retrieved from

Swiney, C. (2020). The Urbanization of International Law and International Relations: The Rising Soft Power of Cities in Global Governance. Michigan Journal of International Law, (41.2), 227. DOI: 10.36642/mjil.41.2.urbanization

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