A modest proposal: Establishing a ‘future’ capital of the world

By considering Istanbul as a “possible future global capital, we are heralding the advent of soft power geopolitics”.

"AKP detractors... have tried their best to discredit the Turkish approach and its chief architect, the foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu," says author [EPA]

The idea of a global city has a long lineage. It is most often associated with being a centre of world trade and finance, but it usually also possesses strong cultural and touristic resources that attracts visitors. 

Along such lines, the persisting tendency is to view the hierarchy of global cities from a West-centric perspective: London, New York, Paris, Los Angeles placed in the first rank, with cities such as Tokyo, Geneva, Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai treated as forming a second tier. 

Of course, such rankings shift over time, reflecting new patterns of economic and political relationships that exhibit the ebb and flow of world history. Such urban centres as Rome, Alexandria, Baghdad, Vienna, Venice and Athens were definitely global cities during their respective heydays. 

But there is a new phenomenon that is especially associated with economic globalisation and the main technological innovations of the past century that has given rise to such designations as “the digital age” or “the networked society”. This radical compression of space and time in the world creates a natural inclination to find, designate and establish someplace as “the centre of the world”, as the “world capital”. 

The claim and perception of being “the world capital” is both a social and political construction that is connected with the realities of global leadership, sometimes reinforced by cultural preeminence and normally narrated in an inherently subjective and self-centred interpretation of the flow of history, however the self is defined. 

From a mainstream realist international relations perspective, we can think geopolitically of the world capital as a reflection of the prevailing distribution of hard power at a given time. Thus in the bipolar world of the Cold War, it was Washington and Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, it became Washington alone. 

Some are now insisting that a new bipolarity is or will shortly be upon us, and even anticipate a new cold war, designating Beijing to be a world capital more or less equivalent, in status, to Washington. 

And for those who believe, and hope, that a more polycentric world is emerging, and would be desirable, then perhaps, in addition to Washington and Beijing, one might add Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin and even Jakarta, if the European Union moves forward, maybe Brussels, and possibly Cairo as well but only if Egypt is able to find stability and regain its regional stature. 

Successful city-states

Of course, all existing cities are contained within a particular state and are subject to its authority, and share its destiny. In the past, there have been some “international cities” without any national affiliation. And today, there are in our world several successful city-states and many states smaller in population and area than the largest cities. 


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Proposals have been made in recent decades to establish Jerusalem as an international city, not only because such a step would contribute to a sustainable and just peace between Israel and Palestine, but because of its sacred and historical engagement with the three Abrahamic religions. 

Most globally ambitious cities in the modern world, then, have this dual identity, as belonging to a state and yet striving for a measure of internal autonomy. As a result, cities often develop a split national personality that combines loyalty and antagonism, the latter often fuelled by the deep-seated tensions between cosmopolitan urban space and the more provincial hinterland, as well as by national politicians that shift resources from the city to the countryside in their quest for votes, or sometimes, to reduce gaps in standards of living. 

These tensions give rise to frivolous suggestions of secession for cities that seem at odds with the ethos of the country as seems to many to be the case for New York City. It is called by its fiercest critics “Sodom-and-Gomorrah-on-Hudson” and by its most loving residents “The Big Apple”. 

Some New Yorkers have daydreams of being a city-state and many Midwesterners would be happy if the dream came true. 

It is much more common for secessionist movements to become serious political projects for territorial communities comprising a minority ethnicity or religion that claims a political and legal right of self-determination. 

Restive urban minorities may riot on occasion and vent their dissatisfaction, but their imaginary rarely includes a scenario of formal disaffiliation. Singapore, which split off from the British colony of Malaya at the moment of independence is one example. 

A focus on cities is one way of circumventing the tendency to view sovereign states as the only political actors worth theorising about in international life. It is true that states have an identity based on governance over a defined space that is recognised in diplomatic circles, as well as enjoying the prerogative of granting or withholding citizenship. 

The primacy of states as international actors is reinforced by membership rules and procedures for international institutions, especially the United Nations, that confers special status on a political community that qualifies as a sovereign state. 

In contrast, the terminology of “global cities” is assigned without any agreed criteria, lacks diplomatic relevance from the perspective of international law, and the idea that there exists one or more “global capital” is nowhere referenced on standard world maps and remains a completely constructed category of status and identity. 

No government would be foolish enough to proclaim its main city as the capital of the world, although the United States came close to doing so during the springtime grandiosity of George W Bush’s presidency. 

Separation of status from statehood

Proponents of a certain leadership role for a given state may for a variety of reasons be tempted to put forward the claim of providing the world with a capital city. It would follow from the very real geopolitical ambition to be at the “centre” of global policy formation and implementation, to have control over a disproportionate share of the world’s resources and to boast of offering visitors the most exciting cultural experience. 

Part of the appeal of the global capital is precisely this separation of status from statehood, and more specifically from the calculus of hard power. Cities, unlike states, have police forces but no armies, although some cities have local guard or militia units, none possess or aspire to possess force capabilities to project hard power beyond city limits. 

In modern times, cities generally lack heavy weapons, do not have foreign policies and enjoy only secondary diplomatic representation. Embassies are in capital cities however remote and small, while consulates are in cities no matter how large and influential. 

In Brazil, for instance, foreign ambassadors resent being posted to Brasilia, the planned and somewhat isolated and artificial capital city, and greatly prefer living in such stimulating urban centres as Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. 

Cities are simply places where lots of people live, work, enjoy nightlife and engage in a range of cultural and economic activities. What, then, motivates a city to be treated, even symbolically, as a political actor and more grandly, to put forward the claim to be the potential or actual global capital? 


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Some assertions along these lines are deliberately extravagant or are merely intended to call attention to past glories, without any serious political intention. The interior Chinese secondary city of Dengfeng, for instance, claims not only to be the centre of the world but the centre of heaven, as well, and indeed in past times it has served as the national capital for nine Chinese dynasties. 

Dengfeng’s self-assertion as a city whose provenance extends beyond China and beyond any given time period is part of its charm and lends traditional and spiritual significance to the very metaphorical idea of being such a reality as the centre of the world. 

Such an idea resembles in certain respects the geographical seats of the great world religions that do indeed possess a centrality for the more devout among the faithful as illustrated by the great pilgrimages to Rome to visit the Vatican or the haj as a journey taken by religious Muslims to their most holy site of worship. 

In my view, such a claim on behalf of cities should be understood as partly a site of struggle between two types of adherents. On one side, those who adhere to the old geopolitics that continues to believe, always somewhat misleadingly, but recently more grotesquely so, that history is principally made by those who prevail in warfare, and little else. 

On the other are those who view history through a soft power rainbow optic in which culture, political vitality, religious identity and ethics shapes and forms what unfolds, and eventually yields a cosmopolitan urban outcome despite being out-gunned on the battlefield, or succumbs and endures the tragedy of alien domination. 

Securitisation of world politics

Cities, more than countries, can be analogised to magnets or force fields where people go to strike deals, to be entertained and well fed, to add pleasure, cultural enjoyment, to enjoy greater privacy in their private lives, to discuss the problems, chase dreams and entertain hopes about the future, to be educated, to be inspired by art and artists, and of course, to be protected by municipal government against violent crime and natural disasters. 

There was a time not many years ago when there was a notable interest in cities as independent political actors on the global stage. There were many conferences organised around the theme “x city and the world”. 

I attended a series of annual gatherings bearing the title “Yokohama and the World” that brought together thinkers and civil society actors from many foreign countries and regions. 

These meetings were a pet project of the governor of the Japanese prefecture and the discussions were vibrant and suggestive, blending wishful thinking, advocacy and an assessment of trends. 

“In the pre-modern world, cities were much more prominent than in modern times when sovereignty, nationalism, citizenship and statehood organised political life.”

The underlying perspective was one in which it was presupposed that what was good for Japan was not necessarily good for Yokohama, that cities might have separate interests and different priorities from those of national political leaders, and that especially the national capital was subject to many distorting pressures divorced from service to the human interest or the wellbeing of Yokohama’s citizenry. 

The global city as distinct actor, complicated by its formal subjugation to the territorial order of sovereign states, suggests that people living in a particular city might not share the postulates of territorial nationalism and were not nearly as inclined to include hard power in their political imaginary. 

The idea of a world order that was basically constituted by the principal cities of the world does suggest an alternate pathway to peace, sustainability, justice and world order that is at fundamental variance from the preoccupation of sovereign states with national security. 

In the Yokohama setting, for instance, there was a much greater willingness to engage positively with China than was then the case for the Japanese government located in Tokyo. Should we not favour a network of global cities as creating a non-territorial approach to global policy that might be much more attuned to global needs and desires, especially if cities could reap the full benefit of the labours of their inhabitants? 

In the pre-modern world, cities were much more prominent than in modern times when sovereignty, nationalism, citizenship and statehood organised political life. 

Socrates felt that death was preferable to being exiled from Athens, the city that he loved, and exile was often seen as the worst punishment that could be inflicted. Even Machiavelli, centuries later, rarely celebrated for his tenderness, expressed a romantic attachment to his native Florence: “I love my city more than myself.” 

In the course of the transition to modernity, there were many instances of resistance on the part of cities that did not want to get swallowed by these larger political communities established in every instance by conquest. It is rare to grasp the deep connections in the past between political violence and the constituting of larger “legitimate” political communities. 

The relationship between state-building and war that is so fundamental to the securitisation of world politics is, in other words, neither new nor without deep roots in the histories of every sovereign state and all major cities. 

If there’s a city other than Istanbul that has “exerted such an influence on our collective imaginations”, it is Venice [EPA] 

Revival of city-states

But with the revival of city-states such as Singapore and Hong Kong, and the success of several micro states, we can observe a far weaker linkage between security and hard power, as well as the rebirth of the medieval idea of community viability. These political entities become secure by being useful to others, viable for themselves, and generally defensible, but not by being able to extend territory and control of resources by conquest. 

Although this portrayal must be expanded to admit that most modern states did originate with cities that did expand for the sake of food security and wealth or to provide their city with security against marauding neighbours or the vagaries of weather. 

Nevertheless, this experience of the past is suggestive of how it might be possible to transform the political imaginary of states with respect to their most fundamental reason for existence, inducing more dedication to the security of people (“human security”) less to the security of governments (“national security”). 

“… if Turkey had become a member of the EU, it would no longer be perceived as favourably by many non-Western constituencies.”

I believe that the idea of proposing a global capital is a defensible endeavour if we take into account the degree of integration that has been achieved by markets, by globally constituted battlefields, by changing geopolitical patterns, by struggles to generate global policy that is commensurate with such collective goods problems as climate change and nuclear weaponry, by global travel and globalisation of political identity and the dispersion of families throughout the planet by migration and forced displacement.  

Of course, the choice of this city rather than that one is political, economic, ethical and even aesthetic and hedonistic. 

My initial sense of which city offers the most plausible site of the global capital is rather pluralist. 

For instance, if our outlook is geopolitically grounded in the outlook of hard power realists, then the argument for choosing Washington to play that role seems rather obvious despite its recent experience of relative decline. 

Yet, if the speculation is more normative, connected with human values, then we would probably pick New York, especially because aside from the being the headquarters of the United Nations, it is a most notable global city from the perspective of ethnic diversity, finance and cosmopolitan culture, although its short lifespan and West-centric orientation limits the quality of its candidacy given 21st century post-colonial realities. 

London also could be considered, having the advantage of a long lineage, rich tradition, as well as finance and culture, and the birthplace of the English language. 

Until very recently, a case could be made for Brussels as the hub city for the European Union, as well as NATO, and giving expression to the idea that the world we live in is mainly responsive to economic and military power (an inversion of the 9/11 attacks that targeted the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon as the two pillars of the American world role). 

Brussels could also be championed as a precursor of a post-statist world order that is constituted by regional groupings, but its Western identity and association with the extensive European overseas empires and colonial crimes are fatal handicaps in our post-colonial world that bases notions of legitimacy more and more on de-Westernising claims of civilisational identity. 

I find none of these cities as sufficiently endowed with the combination of features that might justify christening it as the capital of the world. But I do have a promising candidate: Istanbul. 

Istanbul as global capital

This may seem surprising, because although achieving a much higher profile in the last decade, Turkey as a state is not viewed as belonging to the top tier of countries in the world, including among emerging states, its currency is not much valued beyond its borders and its language is spoken only in its own country, among a few nearby Turcoman minorities and some central Asian countries that gained independence a couple of decades ago when the Soviet Union fell apart. 


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As well, Turkey has some severely troublesome internal problems, especially its inability to accommodate the grievances of 12-15 million Kurdish minority and important international unresolved issues such as its relationship with the Armenian diaspora and its various tensions with Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Syria and Iran. 

There are more serious issues as well that make Istanbul’s candidacy problematic in many quarters. It is situated in Turkey that has some severe unresolved human rights issues and has not come to terms with either the Armenian genocide of 1915 or the Kurdish struggle for autonomy and self-determination. 

“Should the sins of the state be visited upon the city” is an unanswered question, but what about the sins of the city? Istanbul has had a spectacular building boom in recent years, with shopping malls and upper income restaurants and hotels, and an overall atmosphere that may not be conducive to a fulfilled life for the majority of inhabitants who must struggle with the ordeals of living and working in a city of rising living costs and limited resources for human satisfaction if not the recipient of a large salary. 

How then can Istanbul be seriously considered in our search for a global capital? I would point to several factors. Increasingly, Istanbul is a city of choice for those international travellers in search of touristic fulfillment and it rarely disappoints visitors despite its awesome traffic that clogs streets well past midnight and its polluted air. 

It has also become a secure and acceptable place to hold the most delicate diplomatic discussions, whether involving such regional issues as Syria and Iran, or wider concerns about Afghanistan and Africa. 

Istanbul is convenient to reach for global gatherings, and Turkish Airlines was recently selected as the best in Europe. Important, also, is the fact that Turkey is not Europe, which is more than a geographic description, being a cultural and religious reflection, given greater recent authority by the European Union’s rejectionist response to the Turkish application for membership. 

Many comment that Turkey has been fortunate to remain outside the EU during its current crisis, but more than this, if Turkey had become a member it would no longer be perceived as favourably by many non-Western constituencies. 

Turkey also has gained economic and political credibility at a time when so many important states have either been treading water so as to remain afloat. 

It has also pioneered in achieving a stable interface between secular principles and religious freedom, moving away from the “over-secularisation” – to borrow the designation from Ibrahim Kalin – that occurred during the long period of Kemalist ascendancy that ended in 2002 with the control of the Turkish government by the AKP. 

Such factors take account of the Turkish milieu of which Istanbul partakes. 

Geopolitically and geographically unique

But is not such acclaim for Turkey irrelevant to the advancement of Istanbul as global capital? One of the distinguishing features of the Erdogan leadership has been to shift the attention of the country and the world to Istanbul, just as Ataturk sensed that a modern Turkey would need to repudiate its Ottoman past and so moved the capital city to Ankara, a fresh start for the young republic. 

For the AKP, Istanbul is a way of reviving pride and the traditions associated with the pre-republican era. This is not a crude form of neo-Ottomanism, but a realisation that Istanbul was a treasure trove of cultural eminence unmatched elsewhere and a subtle reminder, through its extraordinary mosque architecture, of its former religious stature as the home of the Islamic Caliphate. 

As well, Turkey geopolitically and geographically provides a unique set of linkages between Europe and Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Europe and Africa, and offers the world a more cosmopolitan understanding of the Mediterranean world. 

I would also mention the degree to which Turkey’s most celebrated author, the Nobel laureate, Orhan Pamuk, has been inspired by the imaginative excesses of Istanbul as a city. Sometimes, referred to as “the biographer of Istanbul”, Pamuk’s The Black Book and his memoir of growing up in the city have brought the magic and mysteries of Istanbul into the hearts and minds of many millions around the world. 


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Tell me a city other than Istanbul that has exerted such an influence on our collective imaginations? Some might answer “Venice”, recalling Thomas Mann’s great story Death in Venice, as well as the haunting novel The Comfort of Strangers, set in Venice by Ian McEwan, but the charisma of Venice is as a place of menace and degeneracy. 

What most enhances Istanbul’s candidacy, in my judgment, is the degree to which this Turkish worldview has been articulated in a clear manner. 

More than any other current political leaders, those who have spoken for Turkey during the last several years have understood and expressed the need to bring a change about the way in which security and power have been achieved in modern international relations, while at the same time not losing an appreciation of the resilience of the old ways during a period of global transition. 

This innovative projection of Turkish influence has been rooted, to the extent feasible, in soft power geopolitics stressing the mutual benefits of peace, trade, cultural achievement, civilisational pride and dialogue. 

Turkey’s preferred orientation has recently been significantly readjusted to take account of a series of unexpected developments arising from the aftermath of the Arab upheavals, especially in neighbouring Syria. 

Despite Turkish foreign policy being confronted by hard power challenges within its borders and region, Ankara’s underlying commitment to a new paradigm of world order has not been abandoned. 

New balance amid the turmoil

The Kurdish challenge, the Syrian internal struggle, tensions with Iran have led to a dramatic modification of the earlier flagship promise of “zero problems with neighbours”, but even this seemingly unrealistic goal, if sensitively and contextually considered, retains its essential wisdom, which combines principle associated with maximising peaceful relations with states and their peoples and promoting mutually beneficial interests. 

AKP detractors, whether Kemalists within or Israelis without, have tried their best to discredit the Turkish approach and its chief architect, the foreign minister, Ahmet Davutoglu. 

How to strike a new balance amid the turmoil of the region has so far made fools of us all! Yet, I am convinced that Turkey continues to do its best to increase the prospects for soft power geopolitics while taking the necessary prudent steps to avoid undue vulnerability to those political forces that continue to rely on hard power solutions for conflict, including the perpetration of mass violence against their own people. 

By considering Istanbul as a possible future capital of the world, we are heralding the advent of soft power geopolitics, as well as responding to the receptivity of Turkey as a state willing to provide the peoples of the world with a safe haven for dialogue, negotiation, empathy and the satisfactions of a post-Western world civilisation. 

We are also recognising the geographical and geopolitical convenience of Istanbul as a crossroads connecting several civilisations and religious traditions. 

Such a proposal can be dismissed as a wild exaggeration of the Turkish role in the world or as a perverse instance of wishful thinking. But it is forward partly in response to an interpretation of trends in our globalising world, and also as an expression of the kind of flourishing future that will most likely be of most benefit the peoples of the world.   

Richard Falk is the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights.