Individual Leaders with an International Voice
Editor’s Note: This blog is part of an ongoing series of contributions from participants in The German Marshall Fund’s flagship leadership development program, The Marshall Memorial Fellowship (MMF).
Inside the hilltop boarding station of Pittsburgh’s iconic funicular hang several framed prints of the city’s downtown, dating from the 1940s.
Cars drive through streets thick with smog, their lights on full beam, while streetlamps above the heads of pedestrians struggle to illuminate a path along grimy pavements.
These photographs were not taken in the darkest hours of night, but rather at ten in the morning, or midday even, as Pittsburgh choked under thick smoke and soot spewed out by its many industrial plants. The view these days from the Duquesne Incline’s observation deck — of a glossy, sunlit skyline framed by the Ohio and Allegheny rivers — is a far cry from the Steel City’s heavily polluted past.
And it is a past that Pittsburgh is working hard to move on from, Mayor Bill Peduto noted in a series of quick-fire responses to President Donald Trump’s name-drop of the city in his June 1 speech announcing the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.
When President Trump said that he “was elected to represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris,” Mayor Peduto rapidly pointed out via Twitter that the Hillary Clinton had won Allegheny County (Trump did win the state of Pennsylvania overall). More interesting was Mayor Peduto’s subsequent assurance that the Steel City — which still struggles with air pollution — would “follow the guidelines of the Paris Agreement”.
This much-shared commitment was followed up by comments in which the Mayor stressed that it was up to states and cities to work to meet carbon reduction goals. He went on to co-sign an op-ed with the mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo reinforcing their shared position, and joined many other mayors across the United States in reiterating their commitment to adopt the goals outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement.
Mayor Peduto also highlighted the steps that Pittsburgh has taken to overcome a severe post-industrial slump — by diversifying the economy away from collapsed heavy industry to other sectors, notably education, medical research, and professional services.
It is an example of state, city, and local-level leadership — not always perfectly executed, but generally well-intentioned — that I observed in abundance during my time spent travelling around the United States as a European Marshall Memorial Fellow in spring 2017.
It is an example of how, in a time of highly contested and divisive politics, alternative entities to the nation-state are seeking to pursue policies that better reflect the priorities of their constituents, even if it puts them at odds with national positions.
In my own home capital of London — hit hard in recent months by multiple terror attacks, a catastrophic fire in a high-rise tower block, and a turbulent public mood stoked by an inconclusive general election — it is the city’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, who has stood out.
As the national leadership has wavered in the face of so many serious domestic incidents, Mayor Khan — even when under online attack from the U.S. President — has led from the front. He has demonstrated his leadership in his forthright and humane responses to the recent tragedies that have hit the city, and in representing key issues for his constituents such as the post-Brexit fate of EU nationals living in London — even as they have brought him into immediate conflict with the national government in Westminster.
Subnational entities may not always command the resources, nor legislative clout, needed to enact real, positive change on a large-scale. But recent events have demonstrated how individual leaders and the institutions they represent — with a due nod to the amplifying power of technology — can have a voice in international discourse.
And when certain cities and subnational entities, including some of the bigger U.S. states, compete with countries in terms of size and economic importance, their potential to extend their international roles — and even disregard national policy as in the case of the Paris climate accord — is significant.
Zoe Flood, independent journalist and chair of the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of East Africa, is a spring 2017 European Marshall Memorial Fellow.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.