Weekly Cutting Edge
Nov 10 2012
Establishing a `future’ capital of the world
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 pre-eminence 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.
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.
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
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
Turkey also has gained economic and political credibility at a time
when so many important states have either been treading water so as to
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.
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
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
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
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.