“We cannot solve problems, by using the same kind of thinking we used when creating them” – Albert Einstein
Could you imagine the global impact, if the UN General Assembly resolution on 4 march 2022 on the war in Ukraine were to be approved by not just 140 nations, but 100,000 governments? Or fake information on weapons of mass destruction that paved the way for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was condemned by 200,000 governments? Or a global decision to move into an emergency mode of action to address the climate, biodiversity, and pollution emergencies would be approved by 500,000 governments?
Very much like in the 1930s and 1940s, it appears that the current global multilateral system struggles to prevent a global war or to present adequate responses to global challenges like pandemics or planetary emergencies.
If the governments of 2, 7, 8, 20, or even 200 nations are not able to succeed in accelerating into an emergency mode of action or in preserving peace, it may be time to listen to the wisdom of Einstein and consider a new thinking for humanity.
The war in Ukraine is a turning point in global politics since the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s. Wars are usually followed by a peace regime to preserve the status quo between winners and losers. But it is hard to imagine who will be considered the winner of this war after its global impacts on food, trade and energy (fossil-nuclear-renewable), especially in the midst of a climate, biodiversity and pollution emergency and an ongoing pandemic. Impacts that, unfortunately, must be added to the offsetting of all-but-incremental achievements in sustainability over the past 30 years.
With the majority of the global population living in urbanized-and-globally-connected human settlements, it is now time to benefit from the capacities, skills and potentials of more than 100,000 local and regional governments as a complementary, transformative and bridging power to ensure a decent livelihood and sustainable planet for today’s 9 billion people and future generations.
The idea of a shared, decentralized, transparent, inclusive and at the same globally effective, fair, ambitious governance is neither new nor has it been proven, yet, to be a better alternative than that of nation-states. Indeed, the world was also not free from wars or conflicts during the city-states’ regime in the ancient world.
Therefore, what we need is a new imagination for multilevel cooperation to strengthen the custodians of peace, prosperity, and the planet, and their achievements and experience in the past 75 years of the United Nations, particularly those on sustainability in the last 30 years.
For so long, engaging local and regional governments in global governance within the framework of the current Charter of the United Nations governance was considered taboo or irrelevant.
Starting with the Local Agenda 21 in 1992 and particularly since 2008, numerous UN deals and initiatives related to sustainability, such as climate, biodiversity, disaster, urban planning, migration, SDGs, environmental governance, food, and health, have increasingly acknowledged the concept of multilevel and cooperative action. After Rio+20 in 2012, the Global Task Force of Local and Regional Governments, where ICLEI plays a leading role, has been facilitating such efforts by bringing together international networks of local governments to undertake joint advocacy work relating to global policy processes.
Meanwhile, the United Nations Secretary-General is also about to create a new Advisory Body for Local and Regional Governments as part of his proposal regarding “Our Common Agenda” which is expected to build on the experiences of the Cardoso Report in 2004, of UNACLA since 2004, and of HABITAT III in 2016.
Considering the growing scale and implications of the war in Ukraine, one may expect that the Charter of the United Nations, which reflects the status quo agreed in 1945 after World War II, will be revised in the near future. The geopolitical discussions dating back to the 2007 Munich Conference the Russia-China Joint Agreement on the new world order and sustainable development announced on 4 February 2022 – just 20 days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine – can be considered as the precursors of such efforts.
In this turning moment, the constituency of local and regional governments should expand their thinking and advocate for a new body of subnational (local, county, regional, metropolitan, territorial, provincial, regional, state, etc.) governments. If counted along with the other UN constitutional bodies such as the Security Council or the General Assembly, this inclusive process will also ensure more transparency and legitimacy to the adopted decisions, making it harder for any nation, government or leader to violate them by acting against the will of billions of people.
A similar example already exists in the Committee of the Regions in Europe, a constituted body within the governance of the European Union that, since the early 1990s, provides a very legitimate opportunity of effective consultation for any decision or action of the European Commission or the European Parliament.
Yet, the success of materializing such major innovations in global processes depends on the timing as much as the strength and legitimacy of its contents. For example, since the UNFCCC and Kyoto Protocol from the early 1990s had no recognition of local climate action, only after COP13 in Bali in 2007 when nations decided to introduce a new climate regime, local and regional governments could start advocating for their involvement in global climate efforts. It was only at COP21 in Paris in 2015 that the importance of their role was highlighted in the preamble and the notion of multilevel cooperation of the Paris Agreement was enshrined at COP26 in Glasgow in 2021.
The decade-long dream of many Mayors and subnational leaders “to have a seat at the table” can only be turned into a reality if a new Charter for the United Nations is to be drafted. While this may take some time, the special working group on intermediary cities of the 2021 G20 Italian Presidency and the unprecedented references to cities and urbanization in the 2022 G7 German Presidency can already be considered important inputs for such a comprehensive advocacy vision.
Our generation has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the future humanity and of our one-and-only planet. If we miss this last opportunity, we may easily prove Einstein right in ways that “the fourth world war would be fought with sticks and stones.” Let’s make sure to rally all skill, opportunities, wisdom and hope of the Urban World now – and make Einstein fail this time. I am absolutely confident that this would be the one and only dispute where Einstein would not regret being proven wrong by us – cities.
This piece was written by Yunus Arikan, Director of ICLEI Global Advocacy, and edited by Matteo Bizzotto, ICLEI Global Communication Officer.