09/13/2006 07:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Global Federalism: What if the Big Cities Start Acting on Global Problems?

There is an assumption that many problems are so big and complex and cross-border (think climate change) that they cannot be solved by a single country, or by a group of countries, and that a sort of global governance is the only possible vehicle for solving them.

Letizia Moratti, the new mayor of Milan, Italy, has a different idea - and it's one of the best ideas I've heard recently. Some of those problems, she says, are actually very difficult to solve at a global level, because they involve tough policies that get delayed, drawn-out, weakened, compromised by negotiations among national and within supranational institutions.

So, instead of taking the problems to a broader stage, what about taking them to a narrower one: that of the city? What if the big cities of the world started developing projects and agreements among themselves to solve some of the world's problems? "The big cities have today a strategic role in the global context", she said the other day to the Science and Technology in Society conference in Kyoto, Japan (according to a report in the Italian daily Corriere della Sera). "They should start assuming some foreign policy rights and responsibilities".

Let's call it "global federalism", she suggests, as in the opposite of "global government": "Many countries have not signed the Kyoto protocol because at a national level it's often too difficult to commit to such engaging policies. But we could start experimenting with smaller-scale global agreements - among cities or regions". The idea is that big cities and regions, more than nations and international institutions, can be the engine of problem-solving on a global scale.

Last year, if I remember correctly, 150 or so US cities including Seattle and San Francisco, annoyed by the Bush administration's opposition to the Kyoto treaty, signed an agreement to move in the direction of the greenhouse-gas reductions stipulated in that treaty. And more recently, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has set similar limits on greenhouse-gases. So the idea is not new. But Moratti has maybe found the term that may make it stick - global federalism - and that can give a sort of theoretical underpinning to the idea that, if cities start acting as global actors towards sustainability, new mobility solutions and traffic strategies, clean energy, water resources management, etc, when you add it all up there could be significant progress even without national policies and international treaties.

It's a position that's threatening to governments and goes against the whole construction of the global system as it has been done so far. Your opinion?

(Cross-posted on LoIP)