Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook. City diplomacy in times of conflict
- In transit
- Jan 23
- 6 mins
Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook’s academic and professional career is in the purest Atlanticist tradition. Specialising in the interface between foreign policy and cities, she is an indispensable voice in the analysis of modern diplomacy. She claims that the war in Ukraine is eminently urban, a topic she broached during her visit to Barcelona to deliver a speech at the seminar “The War in Ukraine. The Urban Dimension of a Geopolitical Threat”, organised by the CIDOB.
Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook has been Executive Vice-President at the Bertelsmann Foundation since last August. Of German-American origin, she has studied and worked at some of the leading universities and research centres in the United States and Europe. A political scientist who trained at Brown University, specialising in European Studies at the London School of Economics and in Public Administration at the Harvard Kennedy School, she embarked on her professional career as a television journalist working for CNN in Atlanta and in London. She has served on the management board of the European Policy Centre in Brussels, has led major research projects at the Harvard Kennedy School, and has served as director and CEO of the leading German think tank, the German Council on Foreign Relations. She contributes to leading international publications, including the Financial Times, The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as leading academic journals on transatlantic relations, security, diplomacy, technology and urban policy.
In 2011, she co-founded the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard with Nicholas Burns, the current United States ambassador to China. She served as executive director of the project for a decade. The programme aims to analyse and understand the role of modern diplomacy in an increasingly complex and globalised world. Since its inception, it has reached out to emerging players in the international relations system, who it considered key to understanding the main challenges linked to globalisation. Challenges such as geopolitical conflicts, climate change, pandemics, disruptive technology, growing inequalities and citizen disaffection, which is jeopardising the social contract, and actors as varied and influential as transnational corporations, philanthropic institutions, international activism, think tanks and cities. Clüver Ashbrook believes that modern diplomacy must be equipped to grasp and tackle these challenges and to act as an interface with these actors.
Alongside academic specialists on urban issues such as Saskia Sassen and Bruce Katz, she shares the idea that large metropolises are the main laboratories of these global challenges, and that their density accelerates the speed at which they develop and take shape. She contends, following Benjamin R. Barber, that mayors are pragmatic people who, impervious to partisan politics, are far more capable than nation states to identify and diagnose citizens’ real problems and to put forward solutions. This makes them trustworthy and bolsters their democratic dimension, even in milieus marked by authoritarianism. In fact, she underlines the capacity of many US cities to stand up to the Trump Administration by declaring themselves a safe haven for migrants and refugees, or by aligning themselves with the Paris Agreement on climate change when the Federal government walked away from its commitment.
“War has been urban since the dawn of time and, as we are seeing in Ukraine, cities are prime targets because they simultaneously concentrate hard and soft, political, economic and symbolic power”, says Clüver Ashbrook.
Very much in the vein of urbanist Richard Florida, she talks about the power of global cities and their capacity to accumulate economic assets, institutional headquarters, creativity, talent and opportunities. However, like Saskia Sassen, she also talks about expelling cities, gentrification, digital divides, job insecurity, mass tourism and pollution. That is why she considers it so important for cities to talk to one another about the problems they share and the necessary solutions. Metropolises such as New York, Tokyo, Sydney and Barcelona, but also Johannesburg, Buenos Aires and Jakarta, are grappling with very similar challenges and their national governments do not have the solutions or the appropriate regulatory and financial frameworks.
For more than a decade, she has been closely monitoring and analysing cities’ diplomatic activity. She highlights the leadership of a group of visionary mayors who, in recent decades, have managed to put cities in the international relations system. These mayors are working together in the face of multiple crises to navigate the path towards climate neutrality and resilience, to guarantee the right to housing, to bridge the digital divide, to foster post-pandemic recovery and to promote peace.
I had the opportunity to speak with Cathryn Clüver Ashbrook about war, peace and urban diplomacy on the occasion of her visit to Barcelona to deliver a speech at the seminar “War in Ukraine. The Urban Dimension of a Geopolitical Threat”, which we organised at the CIDOB (Barcelona Centre for International Affairs). During the conversation, she stressed the fact that “War has been urban since the dawn of time and, as we are seeing in Ukraine, cities are prime targets because they simultaneously concentrate hard and soft, political, economic and symbolic power.” Cities are home to government headquarters, economic, social and cultural activity, critical infrastructure and scientific and technological resources; they are hubs of information as well as disinformation and propaganda, and often exert a strong influence on a nation’s identity and prestige.
In this regard, she believes that the Russian army’s strategy involves isolating, cutting off and attacking the country’s main urban centres, thus crippling their capacity to make decisions and defend themselves. It also involves undermining local power by threatening and even kidnapping mayors in an attempt to dismantle the leaderships in which much of the capacity for local resistance is rooted. Clüver Ashbrook highlights “the resilience of Ukrainian cities, a resilience that cities around the world are identifying with.”
According to the German-American political scientist, it is in situations such as the one being experienced in Ukraine that city diplomacy becomes highly relevant. Beyond condemning the attack and calling for a peaceful resolution of the conflict, the metropolises are joining forces to support their counterparts in Ukraine, mobilising resources and agents acting in solidarity, notably the diaspora, and taking in refugees who have left the country. She draws attention to the work being carried out by platforms such as Eurocities and the Pact of Free Cities, led by the mayors of the four capitals of the Visegrad Group, namely, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Bratislava.
It is in the reconstruction of Ukraine that urban diplomacy will have to play a decisive role. “If this is not done, there is a risk, as has been shown in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, that violence will prevail and that a state that was not a failed state will end up being a failed state.”
But it is in the reconstruction of Ukraine where Clüver Ashbrook believes that cities, and therefore city diplomacy, will have to play a more decisive role. It will take “all the urban intelligence of cities like Barcelona to define solutions to address the enormous challenges that the undertaking will require and to ensure human security in all its facets.” If this is not done, as has been shown in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, there is a risk that violence will prevail and that a new failed State will emerge. This is why the international community must involve the cities and actors engaged in talks aimed at designing the roadmap for reconstruction, such as those held during the Recovery Conference in Lugano in July, and in Berlin in October.
As pointed out in a recent report by the Truman Center for National Policy, efforts to link city diplomacy to countries’ foreign policy need to be stepped up. This calls for enhancing cities’ capacity to play a role in the international relations system, strengthening the links that unite them and their capacity to come up with solutions by leveraging the knowledge, innovation and intelligence of the leading actors in their territories. Clüver Ashbrook is committed to continue working to “unlock the full potential of cities in the international arena and their link to democracy, peace and the responses citizens demand.”
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