The new climate leaders?

Can global city mayors provide a strategic leadership for global governance? How is the internationalization of city leaders impacting the contemporary scenario of world politics and how can major cities influence international relations? Focusing on the politics of climate change, this project, developed by the Institute for Science, Innovation and Society (InSIS) in collaboration with the Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) at the University of Southern California and led by Michele Acuto, seeks to unpack and analyze the potential of mayors as new global leaders.

Theoretical background

While a growing body of literature is nowadays concerned with explaining the dynamic changes of the international order, almost no political theorization has taken into account the city as element of these revolutions. Yet, in a world where more than half of humanity lives in urban settlements, the role of cities in defining the parameters of everyday life is an undeniable influence which cannot be regarded as outside of the purview of international affairs. Besides, certain cities in particular, those popularly known as “global cities” have a pivotal role in articulating global, international and transnational processes through the situated urban practices we all partake in – a dimension hitherto overlooked by International Studies.

Relying on a research on the ‘urban links’ between these cities and wider spheres of governance, and on practical examples of this nexus as it unfolds in the global politics of sustainability of the Climate Leadership Group (or ‘C40’), this project seeks to redress this perceptual flaw. It will aim to illustrate how global cities interact with global governance, and how the catalytic role of their mayors and the networking capacity of these transnational networks they partake in are crucial in re-framing and re-scaling the world politics of our urban age.

Policy context

City leaders are increasingly preoccupied with acquiring space for transnational action and cooperation. Seeking to breach the ‘great divide’ that hides them from world politics, criticizing states and international organizations for their lack of effective action, and forging not only alliances but new constituencies of ‘urban’ citizens, mayors raise key questions for IR. Can we place cities within the ‘aggregate’ domain of post-international action when their leaders represent governmental authorities? How do they shape the interface between intergovernmental and civil society processes? How do they recast the boundaries of ‘citizenship’ and soverignty through new urban-based configurations? What kind of climate leadership do they promote? By discussing the initiatives of global city mayors and comparing cooperation structures and diplomatic styles, this project investigates what geopolitical room for maneuver city leaders have in climate politics, and highlight what contradictions this agency brings about.

Project organization and staff

The project is carried out jointly with the University of Southern California’s Center on Public Diplomacy (CPD) at the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism through a CDP Fellowship and research support from the Center’s postgraduate cohort.

Project coordinator: Dr Michele Acuto is Stephen Barter Fellow in the Oxford Programme for the Future of Cities and holds a CPD Fellowship in the Center on Public Diplomacy at the University of Southern California.

Research Assistant: Ms Jessica Castillo is a long-time municipal civil servant in the Los Angeles area and Master of Public Diplomacy candidate at the University of Southern California.

Research Assistant: Ms Emily Schatzle is is a first year student in the Master’s of Public Diplomacy program at the University of Southern California.


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Acuto, M. (2013) Global Cities, Governance and Diplomacy: The Urban Link. London: Routledge

Acuto, M. and Khanna, P. (2013) “Around the World, Mayors Take Charge” The Atlantic 26 April 2013.

Acuto, M. (2013) “The New Climate Leaders?” Review of International Studies 39 (First view), 1-23.

Acuto, M. (2013) “World Politics by Other Means?” the Hague Journal of Diplomacy 8 (3).

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Acuto, M. (2011) “Putting ANTs in the mille-feuille CITY 15 (4), 552-562.