When Willie Brown, mayor of San Francisco, landed in Paris last week, he was received almost like a head of state. A delegation from Paris City Hall welcomed him at the airport. He was placed at one of the finest hotels, had dinner with several high-ranking politicians, and attended a reception in his honor.
For many, it's a greeting that befits the rising stature of American mayors, leaders of modern-day city-states that have gained influence on the international stage during the past decade. But to the degree these cities are striking out with their own policies - sometimes even developing foreign policies that don't jibe with US positions - they are fueling a new debate about just how independent-minded American municipalities should be.
"Cities have now a certain type of foreign policy, mainly economic and cultural," says Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago. "They are engaging in areas that were dealt with before only by national states."
Along with Mayor Anthony Williams of Washington, Mr. Brown attended the first Mayors of the World Summit here last week - the largest worldwide conference ever organized by cities. Over two days, they met with their counterparts from 33 of the biggest cities, from Beijing to Mexico, from Johannesburg to Madrid. They discussed issues common to megalopolises: security, local governance, city planning, and urban quality of life.
The event foreshadows a new, global level of intercity cooperation - one that moves beyond the bilateral "sister city" relationships that have marked municipalities' dealings up to now. Many cities are engaged in a network of multilateral cooperation.
"Sister cities are now outdated," Mayor Williams said after the summit. "We are in a global economy. We have to have relations with everyone."
Indeed, America's biggest cities - with their concentration of financial and communications services - have become major players in the international marketplace. The 10 largest cities account for 28 percent of assets of the world's top 50 insurers, says Ms. Sassen. New York City alone accounts for 9 percent of the assets of the world's 50 largest commercial banks. Many have revised their tax and spending policies to attract investment from abroad. Some cities now deal directly with foreign governments or firms.
As a result of cities' and states' new roles, many are taking stands on international matters.
In 1996, Massachusetts passed a law to boycott companies trading with the rogue government of Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, contradicting Congress's policy toward this regime. In 1998, New York City's comptroller hindered diplomatic relations between the US and Switzerland, by threatening to sanction major Swiss banks in an effort to spur restitution of Holocaust-era assets to Jews. Miami has developed its own foreign policy toward Cuba.
San Francisco's Brown sees no reason cities should be hesitant about defining their own international policies. San Francisco, he notes, refuses to implement an array of federal rules he considers contrary to the city's spirit. For example, it discourages raids by the Immigration and Naturalization Service against illegal immigrants. It has also imposed sanctions on certain companies because they trade with foreign countries that San Francisco says violate human rights (such as South Africa in the '80s and Myanmar today).
"It is the right of the cities to decide independently from any institution whether or not to do business with certain countries,"
An increasing number of city governments have recently enacted boycott laws targeting countries for human rights abuses. Four states and 33 cities have imposed sanctions on foreign nations, according to the National Foreign Trade Council, an association of companies that oppose the Massachusetts law.
"Some American cities have such an influence that their action on the international scene can create problems to the foreign policy of their own state," says Ariel Colonomos, a fellow at the French National Center of Scientific Research.
In the US, the dispute will be taken up this week by the Supreme Court. The Clinton administration, urging that the Massachusetts law be rejected, is expected to argue that foreign relations are a prerogative of the federal government, not of states and cities. The United States should speak in "a single, national voice" in the global economy, the administration argues.
Whatever the outcome in that case, some experts say globalization will lead to more clashes of this kind.
"It is the beginning of a new phase of combat between the national and local government," says Sassen.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society