Cities, or more particularly global cities, increasingly channel foreign relations that we think of belonging to nation–states. But one should not think that this is an entirely good thing, leading us towards enlightened progress and away from injustice. The foreign relations law that cities make has a dark side.

Global cities that have been remaking the world economy as much as culture and politics have seized our imagination over the last forty years. The sociologist Saskia Sassen sees them as new modes of production that transform societies. The density, complexity, and diversity of human contacts in (some) modern urban spaces provide fertile soil for knowledge industries, from banking, law, and data management, to entertainment and fashion. Bursting national boundaries, the global cities demand from the rest of the world conditions that fuel their growth. They have become empires of talent.

But, as Sassen teaches us, these empires also demand people who provide essential but menial service: restaurant workers, cabbies, construction workers, housekeepers, nannies and the like. The same freedom from national boundaries that drives the knowledge economy also gives knowledge workers better access to people who provide the best menial service at the lowest cost. The cosmopolitanism of global cities creates, rather than erases, hierarchies, which law usually confirms and bolsters.

Sassen focused on London, New York, and Tokyo, but today a representative if incomplete list of “global cities” should include Beijing, Mumbai, Los Angeles, the Pearl River Delta, San Francisco, Singapore, Shanghai, Sydney, Tel Aviv, and, perhaps nostalgically, Amsterdam, Berlin, Milan, Moscow, and Paris. These global cities and their metropolitan extensions are economically dynamic and multicultural environments where creative and smart people have the best chances to make their way in the world. They are hubs of networks linking people, production, and consumption, and require law that reinforces these networks. They also have service workers who face legal or social barriers to the full enjoyment of their lives and who usually live in separate, often inferior, neighborhoods.

From these basic features of global cities we can infer the types of foreign relations law that they want—the foundations of which are free movement of people and the removal of barriers that keep talented people apart. The global cities’ foreign relations law must promote, rather than hinder, the draw that they have on both knowledge workers and those who provide the services that enable the talented to do their work. It also must reinforce local efforts to push back against ignorant prejudice that divides people and thwarts talented minorities (racial, religious, sexual, and the like) from making good on their potential. This links foreign relations law to human rights law. What we do not see is equally strong support for ending the social and cultural barriers that separate knowledge workers from menial workers. A view that valorizes the talents that make up a knowledge worker permits, even if it does not require, an attitude that depreciates the untalented (or perhaps the differently talented). As Samuel Moyn has persuasively argued, contemporary human rights law has gone missing in action with respect to the particular interests of the urban underclass.

If we think knowledge and human rights are good things, then we must embrace global cities as engines of progress and liberation. People who sit on panels at academic conferences have mostly thrived under these conditions and want more. Certainly this is true for me, a privileged legal academic who has practiced his trade in more than a dozen countries, including the majority of the cities listed above. The appeal of global cities and the foreign relations law that they demand seems so easy to take for granted that one might stop there.

But one cannot neglect the dark side. The great urban economies create two kinds of tensions, internal and external. Within the global cities, one might think that knowledge workers, enlightened and evolved as they are, would want the service class that supports their work to live as fully and well as possible. What we see around the world, however, are structures—sometimes legal, sometimes cultural and social—that leave servers vulnerable and exploited, not to mention inexpensive. An extreme example is the Hutong System in the great cities of China, which denies most civil rights to unskilled workers who migrate from the countryside to labor in the factories or provide the basic services that sustain knowledge workers. The Soviet system of limited domestic passports, which imposed severe conditions on internal migrants to Moscow and St. Petersburg (the limitchiki), provided the model. The United States achieves something very similar with its approach to undocumented aliens, who are tolerated due to the essential services they provide but remain vulnerable due to their legal insecurity. Other great cities, such as London and Tokyo, rely on language, culture, and educational qualifications, rather than the law, to create a service underclass. The banlieues that surround Paris embody these divisions.

Externally, the great cities remain embedded in nation–states. Singapore excepted, these states contain many people that do not work in knowledge economies or support those who do, and may even see the cities as threats. London presents a vivid example of how conflict between the city and its national periphery can produce radical changes in foreign relations. Brexit happened for many reasons, but an important dimension of the Leave vote in the 2016 referendum was hostility to London and its perceived indifference to much of the rest of the country. The result is a legal, political, and constitutional upheaval that seems likely to play out over a generation or more. In states that do not channel politics through contested elections, such as China and Russia, the problem may be even worse, as the rulers fear the masses and engage in international stunts to keep them on side. Russia’s annexation of Crimea, for example, played well domestically, whatever the international opprobrium. Perhaps it is a bit of a stretch to see current events in Hong Kong as a conflict between knowledge workers in the Special Administrative Region and factory and agrarian workers in the mainland, but the regime manifestly worries that concessions to the former will bleed into its relations with the latter. The result is not pretty.

The situation in the United States is not quite as extreme, but we have issues and they seem to be worsening. Looking narrowly at the field of foreign relations law, one might recall the many times when Second Circuit, the highest federal court that takes in New York, defended its decisions as necessary to protect the city’s status as a world financial center. Without exception, the Supreme Court rejected these arguments, sometimes sustaining judgments but always overturning the reasoning. More recently, we seem to be going through a crisis in our foreign relations that seems largely a consequence of the last presidential election. However one feels about the electoral college, that election exposed a deep political divide that tracks geography, with the great global cities in one camp and many other parts of the country in the other. Policies that enrage knowledge workers in the cities, whether trade wars or crackdowns on undocumented aliens and asylum seekers, seem to go down better in the heartland. Supreme Court reversals of the regional courts on these issues confirm this pattern.

The cosmopolitanism and battle against prejudice that we like about global cities, then, comes at the price of deep divisions between knowledge workers and menial service providers within the cities and instability, disruption, and conflict in foreign relations generally. The global cities generate prosperity for some, but unevenly, and peace for no one. Foreign relations and its law reflect this.

What, one may ask, should be done? For a start, recognize the problem. We need to give ourselves over to the project of dissolving the barriers between talent and service, even though we are great beneficiaries of the system as it is. This also means, for those of us who work in the factories that churn out the best knowledge workers, trying to guide our students towards modesty and skepticism. They see in the global cities a world that rewards their talents and skills and think this is good for everyone because it is good for them. We need to teach them to reconsider.

This essay was prepared for the Workshop on Cities, Geopolitics, and the International Legal Order held at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perry World House in September 2019. It was made possible, in part, by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. View the original publication here.

Paul B. Stephan

Coordinating Reporter, Restatement of the Law Fourth, The Foreign Relations Law of the United States

Paul B. Stephan is an expert on international business, international dispute resolution and comparative law, with an emphasis on Soviet and post-Soviet legal systems. In addition to writing prolifically in these fields, Stephan has advised governments and international organizations, taken part in cases in the Supreme Court of the United States, the federal courts, and various foreign judicial and arbitral proceedings, and lectured to professionals and scholarly groups around the world on issues raised by the globalization of the world economy. During 2006-07, he served as counselor on international law in the U.S. Department of State. He currently is a coordinating reporter for the American Law Institute’s Restatement (Fourth) of the Foreign Relations Law of the United States. Other interests for Stephan, who joined the University of Virginia’s law faculty in 1979, include taxation and constitutional law.


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