Local Politics, Global Issues

Mayors like Irvine's Larry Agran have set the precedents
for the urban politics of the 21st Century

One of the articles in Sustainability (IC#25)
Originally published in Late Spring 1990 on page 25
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

Question: Where does the phrase "think globally, act locally" get interpreted most literally? Answer: In local politics. Municipalities are discovering that they are directly affected by global issues, and that they have local means at their disposal to take action – and that action can often have, in turn, a global impact.

One of the principal arenas where this is being demonstrated is foreign policy. As executive director of the Center for Innovative Diplomacy (CID), Larry Agran – who until recently doubled as mayor of Irvine, CA – spends much of his time writing and lecturing about the need to democratize foreign policy making. "If we wait until the federal government takes action," he once told the Washington Post, "we might as well kiss off the future of the globe." Agran is not a Lone Ranger on this topic, either – during the 1980s, more than 900 cities passed nuclear freeze resolutions, 120 prohibited the investment of their public funds in firms doing business in South Africa, and 160 declared themselves nuclear free zones.

Will Swaim, former editor of CID’s Bulletin of Municipal Foreign Policy, interviewed Larry Agran for IC in his campaign headquarters last January (Agran was defeated for reelection days before we went to press). For information on CID, write to 1793 Sky Park Circle, Suite F, Irvine, CA 92714.

Will: Why have local governments moved into global affairs?

Larry: There are a number of proximate causes – the politics of the Reagan and Bush administrations is one, the globalization of the world economy is another. But it’s important to look to history for a least part of the answer. Cities are not self-sustaining in any real sense. They never have been. They depend for their survival upon forces well beyond their borders.

Historically, cities have depended upon rural production – food surpluses produced in the countryside. The first cities emerged in the Middle East about five or six millennia ago at the crossroads between far-flung, sparsely populated agricultural communities capable of producing food surpluses – places where people naturally met in their efforts to exchange things. In order to purchase food surpluses, cities themselves produced things that rural folks desired – tools, entertainment, and marketplaces for the exchange of rural produce. Cities became places of exchange – of people and ideas and products. And they’re still that way. No food coming into the city? No products moving out? The city dies.

Will: What are the more proximate causes you mentioned?

Larry: Let’s start with the most important, economy and technology. Technology revolutionizes geography. Telephones, computers, video cameras and television, radio, fax machines, direct broadcast satellite – all these things mean that our concept of space and time, of distance, is dramatically different today from what it was even a generation ago. The typical international airline flight now costs about a sixth of what it did in 1940. A phone call to Tokyo costs one-sixtieth of what it did in 1930. You can send an overseas cable for something like a tenth of the 1970 cost, and one-thousandth of the 1860s cost. All of this makes it much easier for private citizens to find out what’s going on around the world.

This is where we come to economy. The struggle for economic advantage drives technological change. Columbus didn’t sail west just to shake hands with the people of India. His was a money-making venture. But as Columbus and a host of other, predominantly Iberian, explorers set off for what they thought was India, or around the African continent, they created a demand for faster, more powerful sailing ships.

The same impulse is, today, drawing the globe together. In Irvine there are 600-plus international firms. Every one of them depends for its survival upon information about and access to foreign markets.

And, as businesses find themselves more deeply involved in foreign markets, the whole notion of "foreign" is undergoing a metamorphosis. Japanese firms open factories in Tennessee to build cars for export to Canada. Travel anywhere around the world, and you will find evidence that we are entering the era of a global economy.

Will: There are some people who don’t like the notion of a global economy.

Larry: There are things I don’t like either. I mourn the loss of regional culture. But the best way to protect regional culture is to walk the thin line between complete absorption into the international economy – complete adaptability means cultural death – and setting up a kind of economic and cultural Maginot Line.

Will: What can cities do about exploitation and other problems that sometimes accompany this process of globalization?

Larry: Right now international law governing the global marketplace is relatively primitive. That’s where local governments have been especially effective. Two examples: In December 1989, the City of Minneapolis broke its contract with an international law firm because that firm was doing public relations work for the Salvadoran government – a government with connections to the military death squads that have slaughtered 70,000 Salvadorans in 10 years. That’s taking local responsibility for the actions of an international firm. The firm – O’Connor & Hannan – lost a very lucrative contract, something like $500,000 a year.

Example two: In my city and in a few others, we’ve passed local legislation banning the production and use of CFCs and other ozone-depleting compounds. We’ve taken responsibility for our city’s small but significant role in protecting the global environment. There’s no international legislation forcing companies to do that. The Montreal Protocol [a UN-sponsored agreement for protecting the ozone layer] won’t enforce the kinds of obligations we’ve enacted for another 10 or 20 years. We’ve acted responsibly now, because we know that hesitation means disaster.

Will: You’ve said elsewhere that the biggest struggle facing local officials today is persuading constituents that cities must take responsibility now for preserving themselves in the face of the changing global order.

Larry: We’re somewhat in the situation of Sisyphus, aren’t we? This huge global process is unfolding and there are characteristics of it that we find unpleasant. Can we stop the whole process? No. Can we shape it so that the system that evolves is more to our liking? Absolutely. That’s what we’re doing in Irvine.

We have to live life on life’s terms. Those are the only terms we get. The world is presenting us with a fabulous opportunity. We can sculpt it into something that is good, true and beautiful, or we can let it destroy our culture, erode our economic foundation, and foul our environment. But we cannot wish away the global economy.

Will: Are there other forces involved in local government involvement besides these two principal ones, history and economy?

Larry: There are three, actually: History, economy and Ronald Reagan. President Reagan did more than anybody to persuade local officials that they ought to be involved in foreign affairs.

First, there was his rhetoric. Don’t forget, it was Ronald Reagan who rekindled the debate about the nature of federalism. Reagan hailed City Hall as the cradle of democracy.

Second, and perhaps more important, were President Reagan’s actions. He promised to cut taxes, double military spending, and balance the budget. You can’t do all three. While he was a candidate, he never mentioned which programs he would slash. He talked about getting rid of waste and corruption and that sounded fine to almost everybody. What he ended up doing was destroying the federal programs upon which most cities rely to meet housing, transportation, and emergency needs. He shifted the burden for several federal programs to cities and called that "New Federalism."

Will: How did that help spur municipal foreign policies?

Larry: First, destroying urban assistance programs invited the creation of a new, more aggressive cities’ lobby. Organizations like the National League of Cities and the U.S. Conference of Mayors began passing resolutions condemning Pentagon spending increases in an era of declining urban assistance. And I found myself in the company of a group of aggressive Republicans and Democrats who began articulating a new understanding of national security. We wanted to know how a nation with rising levels of poverty, a declining industrial base, record levels of public and private debt, a deteriorating public school system, a choked transportation system, and a hellish natural environment was going to compete in the new world market. We wanted to ask Reagan, "What’s the use of a first-class military protecting a third-world economy and society?"

Will: So the Reagan military budget forced local officials to confront international affairs?

Larry: Sure it did. There was also the fact that Reagan’s foreign affairs interests were often wildly at odds with domestic public opinion. Between 70 and 80 percent of the American people in the early 1980s favored a nuclear weapons freeze. Ronald Reagan refused to consider it. Seventy percent of Americans in the same period favored granting more authority to the United Nations. Reagan did little more than bad-mouth the UN. Something like 60 percent of Americans opposed Reagan’s Nicaragua policy.

Picture all this as steam: it had to find some release. And most often, it found that release through city halls. Nearly a thousand U.S. local governments passed nuclear freeze resolutions, referenda or initiatives. More than 100 divested their public funds from firms at work in South Africa. Cities established themselves as nuclear free zones, linked themselves symbolically and economically with cities in Nicaragua, the Soviet Union and China, as well as Japan, Mexico, and India. The 1980s were a kind of federalist perestroika: As cities got poorer, they got more active, more innovative. They found their voices.

Will: Critics of municipal foreign policy say the nation must speak with one voice in foreign affairs.

Larry: Isn’t it ironic that a democratic nation can give birth to folks whose instincts are so Stalinist? The federalist system is not a decoration on an otherwise authoritarian system of government. The Constitution does not give the federal government a foreign policy monopoly. Nowhere does the Constitution say local governments can’t speak out on issues of legitimate local concern. And with the changes in the global environment and economy, cities that don’t chart a self-consciously internationalist course are going to wither.

Will: What does making the leap to the international order entail?

Larry: First, city officials and civic leaders need to begin to take seriously the increasing fluidity of capital. The days when a factory marked a permanent investment in a community are over. Firms are bouncing around the globe looking for the cheapest production inputs they can find – the cheapest capital, the cheapest labor, the cheapest raw materials.

U.S. cities cannot always be the cheapest. But we have something more to offer – clean environments, better educated workers, high-tech transportation link-ups. We can offer cultural opportunities that will entice foreign firms and employees. When a foreign firm is thinking about locating in California, I want them to look at Irvine and see five things: A responsive local government, well-educated workers, the best cultural opportunities in the region, a transportation system worthy of the twenty-first century, and a natural environment worthy of a weekend walk.

Will: So cities need to create environments that draw firms to the region.

Larry: Exactly. The old way is to cut taxes, loosen environmental restrictions and open the community up to short-term exploitation. The new way is to create a community where people want to live and work. And that means we’re no longer just competing with, say, Los Angeles or San Diego. We’re competing with cities in England, Italy, Taiwan and Australia.

And that brings up the second essential step to making the leap I talked about. You’ve got to make sure local officials know what’s going on in the world. The days when you could elect someone who believed that all he or she had to know was how to fill a pothole are gone. Local government is about much more than filling potholes today. It’s about creating community.

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