As the world grapples with the consequences of an inwardly focused U.S. and UK, both of which rejected multilateralism in 2016 with the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump as the 45th U.S. President, the return to nationalism obscures another, more important fissure. The decoupling of national interests from the interests of de facto city-states will be one of the major contests of our time. These battle lines have been slowly etched over the last 67 years, during which time the world went from 2 megacities with populations of 10 million or more in 1950 (New York and Tokyo respectively), to more than 38 today. This city-state nation-state divide is only expected to grow as the pace of urbanization continues due to the inexorable movement of people in pursuit of their economic mobility, for which cities are often their last beacon of hope. According to the UN, by 2050 66% of the world’s population will be urban dwellers, which profoundly shifts the role of the modern city-state not only in city-level administrative matters, but increasingly in issues of sovereignty typically relegated to state houses.
Brexit underscores this tension, where there was a deep cleavage between the whims of the City of London, which was vigorously pro-EU and the rest of the UK, which called bluff on the value proposition of status quo. This, despite the reality that the post-EU plan is clearly an on the job learning exercise for Theresa May, the UK’s Prime Minister. This same dialectic is playing out in many European capitals, such as Brussels, the EU’s waning seat of power, Amsterdam, the capital of what is likely the next nail in the EU’s coffin, Paris and Berlin, where the tension to remain integrated or to return to nationalism are playing out in ballot measures and manifestations – interspersed with an alarming rise of mass-casualty events. Cities are the crucibles where these tensions are coming to a head, in no small measure because cities have always commanded the lion’s share of national economic output, value captured and the concentration of political power. Consequently, cities are the least likely to support dislocations of global trade and economic ties. Moreover, cities are the very definition of cosmopolitanism, plurality and progressive social tendencies. Status quo has favored cities in the post-war era and the world’s flirtation with the return of nationalism may very well be the last gasp of this political philosophy. Urbanization and population growth are two incredibly strong forces that will likely overcome nationalistic gravity to retrench.