Saskia Sassen

Journal of International Affairs, Spring/Summer 2012


Drawing on extensive research about global cities and citizens, this essay examines whether the proliferation of conflicts in cities across the world can overwhelm the urban capabilities that have historically enabled cities to triage conflict via commerce and civic engagement. Critical in this examination is recovering some of the differences between being powerless and being invisible or impotent. Under certain conditions the powerless make history without getting empowered in the process. There are two types of acute challenges facing cities that pertain to this question. One is asymmetric war and the urbanizing of war that it entails. My research finds that cities are a type of weak regime that can obstruct but not destroy superior military force; this weak regime rests on the civic character of cities. The second type of challenge concerns anti-immigrant hatred and violence. In an exploration of the hard work of making open cities, particular histories show us that it is possible to reposition the immigrant and the citizen as, above all, similar urban subjects, rather than essentially different. Cities are one of the key sites where new norms and identities are made. This is a particularly fluid process in our global era, when cities emerge once again as strategic economic, political and cultural sites.

View the essay hereUrban Capabilities: An Essay on Our Challenges and Differences