By Nicholas J. Cull
Of the recent writing on the city as an emerging diplomatic actor, perhaps the most exciting was the 2013 work by political theorist Benjamin Barber, provocatively titled If Mayors Ruled the World: Dysfunctional Nations, Rising Cities. The book concluded by proposing that, given the inability of national leaders to respond to the challenges of an era in which, as Kofi Annan memorably noted, we face “problems without passports,” a Global Parliament of Mayors be established to pool experience of cities around the world and strengthen the practice of the one level of government which seemed to be capable of moving forward. Barber turned this proposal into a reality, chairing the first meeting of the Global Parliament of Mayors in London in September 2016. This important work and the follow-up book published this spring, Cool Cities: Urban Sovereignty and the Fix for Global Warming, made Ben Barber an obvious choice to be included in any discussion of city diplomacy.
As an early supporter of the USC Center on Public Diplomacy and guest professor in the Master’s Program in Public Diplomacy at USC, Ben enthusiastically agreed to deliver a keynote at the City Diplomacy Conference in March 2017 and to be interviewed for inclusion here. Sadly, this was not to be. As the conference drew close, Ben apologetically sent word of personal health difficulties. This turned out to be an aggressive cancer of the pancreas, which claimed his life just a couple of months later. In the absence of the planned interview with Ben, this appreciation is offered as both a tribute and a response to his final book.
Benjamin Barber was born in New York in 1939. His parents were both political and creative; his father was a leader in the Federal Theatre Project—one of the people behind Orson Welles’ famous Voodoo-themed production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth in Harlem in 1936—while his mother wrote radio dramas. Barber inherited a flair for language, for dramatic delivery and an attention to social justice, which took him first to a political science bachelor’s degree at Grinnell College, Iowa, and on to masters and PhD degrees in the same discipline at Harvard. He also studied in Switzerland and at the London School of Economics along the way. His specialization was in political theory, with an emphasis on democracy and, having secured a job teaching at Rutgers, he became a tireless advocate for and citizen of that field, launching and then editing the journal Political Theory. His early publications included a study of democratic practices in Switzerland. It was characteristic of Barber to cast his net wide in search of inspiring models of political practice.
Barber’s breakout academic work was Strong Democracy: Participatory Politics for a New Age. Published in 1984, the book provided a vision of what democracy could be if citizens were truly built into its fabric. It inspired a generation of thinkers and many practitioners also, and turned Ben into a bona fide public intellectual. Barber regularly advised progressive politicians in the United States and further afield, including President Bill Clinton and presidential candidate Howard Dean. His eventual account of his experiences advising Clinton, The Truth of Power: Intellectual Affairs in the Clinton White House, is not wholly flattering to that administration. As the 1990s unfolded, Barber became alarmed by the emerging split between the world of consumer capitalism, riding high in the post-Cold War boom, and those who defined themselves in opposition to it. His book on the subject, Jihad vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World, became a best seller when first published in 1996 and was widely read in the aftermath of 9/11.
The terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the backlash against civil liberties which followed prompted Barber to write Fear’s Empire: War, Terrorism, and Democracy in an Age of Interdependence, but his first reaction was not solely to write but also to organize. He saw the antidote to both the politics of jihad and to the corrosive western love-affair with the unrestrained free market as being an acknowledgement of the way in which all people in the 21st century were profoundly interconnected. To mark and to celebrate this world of interconnection, in 2002, he launched an annual conference around the observance of “Interdependence Day,” scheduled to fall around the same time as the September 11 anniversary. The annual celebration included a ceremonial signing of a declaration of interdependence and recognition of prominent advocates of global social justice. The series of conferences was especially strong in the field of cultural interdependence, bringing together figures from theatre and dance as well as the liberal arts. Mentorship of emerging scholars and advocates was a major element of the proceedings. Host cities included Amsterdam, Dublin, London, Mexico City, and Los Angeles. The series eventually lapsed as Barber’s attention switched to the Global Parliament of Mayors, but the network of transnational thought and practice lives on.
Ben Barber’s role at the USC Center on Public Diplomacy began around the time of the launch of the master’s program in 2005. His vision of global interdependence was in step with that of the founding director, Josh Fouts, who took part in some of the early interdependence gatherings. USC Annenberg was a partner in the interdependence day meeting in LA in September 2012. The students welcomed Professor Barber’s regular guest lectures when he came to town to visit his LA-based son and his family. He was especially ready to guide student research work. It was a pleasure to host him after the working day was done. I have a happy memory of his spring 2007 visit, dazzling students with a discourse on the perils of consumer society during the day, then jumping straight in the car for dinner at my home in the evening, and finishing the day by reading a Thomas the Tank Engine story to my then-four year old—and doing it all with irrepressible enthusiasm. For me his articulation of interdependence and his choice to seek to express that through culture and the performing arts was a vital contribution, which, when applied to public diplomacy, provided a greater goal over a single nation’s interest. Public diplomacy has to be more than simply advancing the narrow ends of whichever international actor happens to be picking up the bill for the work.
Ben Barber’s final book, Cool Cities, returned to the great issues of his career: democracy, citizen-engagement, and solutions to the most profound challenges facing our future. While the book is thematically linked to If Mayors Ruled the World, its tone had shifted. In this book, he characterizes the nation state not simply as dysfunctional and unproductive but as being the problem. This is a book for the era of the Trump administration, the Brexit vote, and multiple other national level follies, which Barber enumerates as he goes. More than this, Barber does not simply present local democracy as a good idea, he articulates a rights-based theory of sovereignty by which, because of the failure of the nation state to protect its citizens (in this case from the dangers of climate change), the social contract has been violated. In this circumstance, sovereignty reverts to the cities, which, he notes, comprise humanity’s original polity. He argues that citizens have a right and a duty to take control of their destiny. Barber supplements his appeal to rights with an appeal to simple justice. He notes that some rights of self-determination must come from the fact that 80 percent or more of global GDP originates in cities.
Having made his case for the sovereignty of the city, Barber writes with an infectious enthusiasm about ways in which some of the great cities of the world are embracing the role of political actor. Since the publication of If Mayors Ruled the World, he has acquired some terrific new examples of city action, like the tenure of Sadiq Kahn in London or Anne Hidalgo in Paris, to flesh out his argument. He enumerates the many networks that already link progressive cities committed to addressing environmental issues, including the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group, the Climate Alliance, and the European Union’s Covenant of Mayors. There is much here to inspire, even if the technical mechanisms which Barber proposes to actually reduce carbon emissions are for the most part familiar.
Barber is clear on where things have gone wrong: the role of money in politics. In the United States, he blames the double whammy of Supreme Court decisions extending the protection of free speech to campaign contributions and then recognizing corporations as enjoying the same protections as individual citizens for the purposes of campaign finance. Barber is able to show how local democracy is flourishing regardless, with mayors earning mandates that allow decisive action against the preferences of corporate interests. However, one must presume that if the national level of politics declines that the forces of political distortion and vested interest will turn their attention to the succeeding institutions, whether cities or supranational bodies. There is an old anarchist joke often rendered as a graffito: “If voting changed anything they’d abolish it.” The danger is that the hope in Barber’s account may spring from a lag in vested interests—the “they” of the anarchist slogan—noticing where best to exercise their efforts. The city-level battle for the climate is coming, and the cause of sanity and security will require both intellectual insight and organizational energy in order to prevail. We will face that battle without Benjamin Barber in person, but at least we have his words
Nicholas J. Cull is a professor of Public Diplomacy and is the founding director of the Master of Public Diplomacy program at USC. He took both his BA and Ph.D. at the University of Leeds. He is the author of two volumes on the history of U.S. public diplomacy: The Cold War and the United States Information Agency: American Propaganda and Public Diplomacy, 1945-1989 (Cambridge 2008), named by Choice Magazine as one of the Outstanding Academic Texts of 2009 and The Decline and Fall of the United States Information Agency: American Public Diplomacy, 1989-2001 (Palgrave, New York, 2012). He is the editor of the journal Place Branding and Public Diplomacy, president of the International Association for Media and History, and a member of the Public Diplomacy Council.