Tuesday, August 24, 2010


Long ago I had the idea that the world was really still composed of city-states, with artificial boundaries or greater or lesser importance around them. It was a fancy – I never followed through on that. In the last year the idea resurfaced, most likely because I began corresponding with an old college friend who works in Shanghai. Certainly, the cities and their economic needs dominate the changes in China, however much the government wants to keep the provinces on board. In what I thought at the time was an unrelated context, I discussed the American cities which spill out and straddle state boundaries: NYC, certainly; Washington DC, Philadelphia, and Boston in the east; Several cities on the Mississippi; Chicago.

In the last month, I have seen the idea in several forms: Kaplan’s description of the power realities of the Near East, especially the Caucasus; a much-circulated Foreign Policy article by Parag Khanna, and the related book, Global City; a migration map showing which world cities are attracting immigrants.

The FP article claims that one has to go back a thousand years to find the model, but I would put it much closer. Even in 1500, the powerful port cities of Europe were connected more with each other than with many places in the interior. Nation-states were declared, especially in westernmost Europe, but international cities dominated. And beyond Europe, this was even more true.

It is the nation-state that is anomalous, a recent invention. Perhaps it is not as fully stable as we imagine. Perhaps soft boundaries are a better way to go. If California opened its border, but the Los Angeles area drastically reduced benefits in order to survive economically, would that solve California’s immigration problems or worsen them?

For conservatives, a disempowered UN would hold attractions. Trading cities would likely arrive at enforceable peace agreements – peaceable for their own needs anyway, regardless of what happened in less-dense areas – far more quickly and efficiently than a system which allows Denmark and Guyana equal votes in matters requiring any sense.

Once you break out of the sanctity of nations idea, the gravitational pull of cities across boundaries shows up everywhere you look. It is reminiscent of Joel Garreau's books Nine Nations of North America and Edge City. Perhaps he should be the one looking into this for us.

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