Cities Become the New Drivers of Transatlantic Trust

Geraldine Ide Gardner
Ivan Vejvoda
4 min read
U.S. and European cities are on the front lines of a fragile global system and an increasingly complex transatlantic relationship.

U.S. and European cities are on the front lines of a fragile global system and an increasingly complex transatlantic relationship. Local actors are among the instigators of this fragility as demonstrated by Brexit, the rise of populism, and the turn against TTIP; but they are also profoundly impacted by global trends, transatlantic decisions, and national policy agendas that shape the difficult problems many local leaders confront on a daily basis. In a recent speech at The German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) in Brussels, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry laid out the importance of a new transatlantic project: one that will focus on building trust. We believe the engagement of transatlantic cities in this project will be critical to its success.

Two trends shape our perspective. First, both sides of the Atlantic are erupting in populism as a reaction to globalization and a set of winners and losers it has created. This is most apparent at the local level. There is not only a loss of trust in democratic institutions, but also a tension around which level of governance is trusted and best equipped to lead.[1] Cities in the United States and Europe are pivoting away from federal and national governments to lead local policy and investment agendas that emphasize, among other things, sustainability and inclusive growth.  National governments and supra-national institutions, like the European Union, are important partners, but cities are not waiting to act.  Since many transatlantic cities share the same values and institutions of the western liberal order that underpin the transatlantic relationship, they are important actors in Secretary Kerry’s proposed project.  

Second, cities are reorienting themselves globally and have been advocating for a greater voice in international affairs for decades signaling the importance of broader policy issues to their local agendas. Last week the United Nations Habitat III process concluded with the ratification of a non-binding agreement to shape global urban policy over the next twenty years; local stakeholders were active in the process, similar to efforts that shaped the Paris Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).  U.S. and European cities played a leading role in the shaping of these three global agreements, and they will also play a role in their implementation.

Further, 200 mayors and delegations from 500 cities released a manifesto last week in Quito. “A Seat at the Global Table: Local Governments as Decision-Makers in World Affairs,” advocating for greater international leadership of cities and a formal role in global governance. Similarly last month, If Mayor’s Ruled the World author Dr. Benjamin Barber launched the Global Parliament of Mayors. These efforts and others indicate that subnational leaders don’t shy away from big projects and will get actively involved if it is in their interest. The question is whether cities view strengthening the transatlantic relationship as an opportunity to advance their local agendas and global aspirations.

Some are skeptical that cities are ready to take this leading role given the differences in capacity and pressing challenges at home. Others face the challenges of inherent political differences between local and national authorities leading to suppression or anti-urban bias. Two-way dialogue could open the conversation to a broader range of cities, not just the usual suspects who have the time, capacity, and lobbying power to participate in national policy dialogues and global processes. It is on the streets of these cities where discontent and frustration with the status quo is legible. 

With these trends there is a strong opportunity to engage U.S. and European city leaders in strengthening the transatlantic relationship, but it won’t be a natural path given local demands and global orientation. In the U.S., Secretary Kerry’s ongoing commitment to subnational diplomacy, as reflected in the [email protected] initiative launched at GMF, will be an important vehicle for engagement.  As a steward and promoter of transatlantic cooperation, GMF is uniquely positioned to foster dialogue between stakeholders across scales of governance. BUILD — the Bilbao Urban Innovation and Leadership Dialogues — is one of GMF’s platforms for giving urban leaders a voice in our transatlantic agenda. Today we launch BUILD in Bilbao, Spain with 140 leaders from 60 cities dedicated to not only leading change at the local level, but also advancing a strong transatlantic relationship.


[1] For example, in the United States, a 2015 Pew Research report found that in the only 19% of Americans felt they could trust the federal government.  In Europe, trust in local governments, especially in Northern Europe and the UK, has been growing according to a 2015 Eurobarometer report.