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What is the capital of the world?

What is the capital of the world?

Once it was Rome, then Constantinople, later London and then New York. But what is it now? And how could you tell?

Once it was Rome, then Constantinople, later London and then New York. But what is it now? And how could you tell?

September/October 2011

John Parker

London

When politicians were debating where to put the headquarters of the new United Nations in war-torn 1946, one place stood out as a potential unofficial capital of the world. New York was then the world’s biggest city, with 12m people. It was the largest and most influential metropolis in the richest, most successful economy. It was a hotbed of ideas about how to make cities better. It was a cultural magnet, home of skyscrapers and abstract expressionists, bebop and jazz. Joan Didion, the writer, describes arriving in New York in 1954: “it was summertime, and I got off a DC-7 at the old Idlewild temporary terminal in a new dress which had seemed very smart in Sacramento but seemed less smart already…and the warm air smelled of mildew and some instinct, programmed by all the movies I had ever seen and all the songs I had ever heard sung and all the stories I had ever read about New York, informed me that [life] would never be quite the same again.”

Six decades later, the cold-war order is gone; America’s economic dominance is under challenge from China and others; the UN is in need of an overhaul. Over the years, there have been many proposals to uproot the general assembly, recently by Russia to move it to St Petersburg (2001), by Canada to Montreal (2007), by Singapore (2008) and Dubai (2010) to those city-states. So it is not a stretch to imagine the UN might move. And it is not a stretch to ask the bigger question, what might be the world’s next unofficial capital? 

If global panjandrums were to pick the world’s largest city, as they did in 1946, the choice would fall on Tokyo, which overtook New York in the pecking order soon after the UN settled there, and now has a population over 30m. But size, as they say, isn’t everything. Power, economic connections, culture, education—all these things matter, too. Throughout history, the world’s largest cities have been dominant not just because of their numbers but because they were capitals of international empires. This was true of Rome in the first century (the first city to reach a million people); of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in the fifth; of Chang’an (now Xi’an), China’s capital in the seventh; of Baghdad in the tenth century; of Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital, at the end of the 15th century; and of 19th-century London (the first city to reach 5m). Huge though it is, Tokyo is not in the same category. It is not very international and is home to comparatively few foreign residents for a city of its size.  

Power is important, but the capitals of the world’s two most powerful countries—the nearest things to imperial cities today—do not quite fit the bill either. Beijing is a non-starter as a global city and will continue to be so as long as the Communist Party maintains its iron grip. In New York and London, between a quarter and a third of residents were born abroad. In Beijing the share is below 1%. Outsiders have to have a stake in a city if it is to get global status. 

Washington, DC, looks a more plausible candidate for that. It contains more people who take the rest of the world seriously than any other place. The IMF and World Bank—the two prime international financial institutions—are based there. Washington takes itself seriously too, but so it should: as in 19th-century London, decisions made there matter more to the rest of the world than those taken elsewhere. Powertown has the capacity to make and unmake wars, to rescue or cripple economies. Yet there is more to being a dominant city than political authority or a multitude of think-tanks. Washington—a city of “northern charm and southern efficiency”, as John F. Kennedy said—has little going for it except the authority of the United States, and that is slipping. It is international without being cosmopolitan; it inspires respect but not imitation; it has political power, but not the power of example. 

In 1957, five years after the UN moved into its headquarters on East 42nd Street, Jack Kerouac was finishing his book “On the Road” a few blocks away in Times Square. After returning from a trip round America, he found himself at rush hour amid “the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair [sic] of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck amongst themselves, the mad dream—grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying.” Kerouac was criticising 1950s consumerism, of course, but his description captures what makes a city thrive: millions hustling for a buck. And the more things people have to hustle over—the more occasions they have for grabbing, taking and giving—the more their city becomes truly international.  

Cities are products of trade. Market towns trade crops; second cities trade manufactures; international cities design and trade everything, especially services; and global cities—a category comprising only New York, London and Tokyo—specialise in international financial services. Over the past 50 years, the world has seen a trading revolution. Cities used to send each other finished goods (cars, say, or computers). Now they trade services and parts as well (spark plugs, or recording heads for hard drives). Every step in the production process is broken down; parts are made separately and shipped for assembly. The result is that trade around the world has boomed, the number of international cities has boomed with it—and more are vying to join this select global club.  

Hence any shortlist of potential capitals of the world ought to include not just the established trio, plus Washington, but the fast-growing metropolises of the fastest-growing economies: Shanghai and Beijing, Mumbai and Delhi, São Paulo, Mexico City. This means excluding places which are great cities in their own right—Paris, Berlin, Los Angeles—but do not quite fit our definition. (Sorry, continental Europe.) Of those that do, all except London and Washington have populations of 15m or more. Unless you want your global capital to trade exclusively in government services—to be a glorified Canberra, in short—then this emerges as a threshold of sorts.

But, as with population, so with economics and trade: size still isn’t everything. Over the centuries, cities such as Baghdad and Constantinople waxed great upon their reputation for learning, the fame of their educational establishments, their openness to new ideas and their ability to attract the best minds to teach and think in their schools and courts. Some of these attributes can be measured, by looking at how many universities a city has, how many of its residents were born abroad, how many languages are spoken there.  

So Intelligent Life has subjected the contenders to a scoring system that rates them on five attributes. These are: power and influence (mostly political); income and wealth; educational standards (universities and graduates); cultural life (theatre, publishing, an art scene) and global connections (foreign residents, airports, tourists, foreign languages taught at school, phone calls, internet connections and so on). We have tried to make the scores impartial but some, such as those for power and culture, are inevitably subjective.  

The results suggest the dominant cities are still those of the rich world, not yet the up-and-coming one. On our list, four cities are in industrialised countries, five in emerging markets. The rich-country four take all the top four places, perhaps reflecting the weight the marking system gives to education and connections. It turns into a two-horse race, with London and New York well in front, scoring highly on almost every measure. We have given each measure equal weight. Giving more to, say, power and influence and less to education, would change the results and benefit emerging-market capitals accordingly.  

So London is our unofficial global capital, the new New York. And if you think that conclusion wrong, your scepticism has a distinguished lineage. New York may seem the obvious choice for the UN headquarters now, but it did not look that way to everyone at the time: among those voting against it were Britain, France and the Netherlands.

Peter David

Washington

Numerous irrelevancies can be advanced on behalf of rival cities. Paris is more beautiful, London more cosmopolitan, Beijing more commercial. But only Washington has a serious claim to be the capital of the whole wide world. 

It certainly looks the part. If you were going to invent a global capital from scratch, you might well endow it with a broad mall, a domed capitol, neoclassical temples, a reflecting pool, a towering central obelisk. But such a city would be a Disneyland without the thing Washington still has in unrivalled abundance: sheer, raw, world-bestriding power. 

China snaps at America’s heels, and yet it is the grey men in the grey Treasury Building here who still run the world’s biggest economy. Just round the corner is the Federal Reserve, running the world’s reserve currency. On the far side of the fast-flowing Potomac sprawls the Pentagon, still the world’s biggest office building: its 25,000 denizens run a defence budget as big as the rest of the world’s added together. And from the white mansion at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, a modest home compared with the Elysée or Buckingham Palace, the president can still depose potentates in Mesopotamia and bump off jihadists in Waziristan. 

The residents of Washington are undeceived by its architectural grandiosity. Hailing from greater American cities, they pine for the electricity of New York or the karma of San Francisco. For all its monuments and avenues Washington can feel provincial, even languid. But every so often you look up from your iced coffee to catch a flight of choppers scudding over the rooftops and remember: for good or ill, here is the nearest facsimile our age offers to the might of ancient Rome.

James Miles

Beijing

Sadly, the answer has to be Beijing. Sadly because it is a city neither of physical charm (except in the few remaining neighbourhoods of imperial-era alleyways), nor of great culture (few are in awe of Beijing’s museums, theatre or music), nor even of breathable air (the Olympic games in 2008 marked a rare smog-free period). Its politics win few admirers. Citizens enjoy far more freedom than they did 30 years ago, but not to oppose the Communist Party. Beijing is not even especially welcoming to outsiders. No matter how long they stay, foreigners cannot acquire citizenship. It has just put up new barriers to migrants from the rest of China, making it almost impossible for most of them to buy cars or homes (to ease traffic jams and keep housing affordable, ostensibly). 

Beijing cannot exert power globally in the way that Washington can. It lacks the military muscle and soft power of America (though it is spending huge sums on building up both). But unlike America, which has quite a few enemies, there is hardly a country in the world that does not want to court Beijing. Even countries that are suspicious of it (America included) treat it with wary respect, if not outright fawning. Washington radiates power, whether hard or soft, in huge doses. But in parts of the world resistance is strong too: try expressing admiration for America in Pyongyang. The power that emanates from Beijing is weaker but more pervasive. Some ridicule American culture; few dare ridicule China’s. Paying homage to it is a ritual that Western powers are especially anxious to observe. During an agenda-packed trip to Beijing in 2009, President Obama spent valuable time visiting the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. 

China’s emperors were once said to rule tianxia—all under heaven—even though in practice distant “barbarians” were beyond their control. Why not make China very happy by simply recognising Beijing as the capital of tianxia? It might at least make China more co-operative in solving the world’s problems, from financial crisis to climate change, by allaying its suspicions that the West is ganging up against it. Let China decide, as the emperors once did, what tianxia actually means.

Adam Roberts

Delhi

Dilliwallahs love their booming city for its hustle, colour, food and culture, religious mix and the political clout it wields over a country the size of a continent. Persuading outsiders of its charms may be harder. It is an intense place, whether in crammed old corners or amid the mighty elegance of Lutyens’ buildings. Yet there is a far-sighted case for seeing Delhi as the world capital.

It’s Asian, for a start. Any geopolitician worth his salt now accepts that power ebbs from Atlantic nations and back to the East, where growing economic heft supports a stronger diplomatic voice, military strength and general assertiveness. We can say farewell to more developed contenders, London or New York. Demography counts too: as Asians are roughly half the human race, they deserve representation.  

Size matters. In a decade or so India will not only be a mighty economic power, it will pass China to become the most populous country of all. Delhi slurps in young migrants and is already a megacity. By one reckoning its greater area, counting the business hub of Gurgaon and other exurbs, is home to 21m people. History helps, too. The old Mughal (and British Indian) capital claims a royal advantage: it presides over a uniquely diverse nation, where 1.2 billion people chatter in nearly 1,600 languages. Coping with that mind-boggling mix is handy practice for an aspiring global leader. 

The clincher, however, is its values. No city in an authoritarian state could guide the world, even if its leaders brag of rising wealth and high-speed trains that run on time. Delhi’s infrastructure may wobble, yet the liberty to speak out is a greater resource. India, despite its chaos, protects its liberal, secular, outspoken nature—something both valuable in itself and conducive to long-term stability. As in ancient Rome or modern Washington, a capital must be a forum where fierce debate, street protests and political rivalry may freely play out. We need a big, growing, multifarious Asian city where the contest of ideas can flourish. Delhi is the best candidate.

Adrian Wooldridge

New York

The great urban story of the 20th century was the rise of New York. In 1900 there were several contenders for the title of capital of the 20th century. Fifty years later the debate had been settled. Paris was charming but provincial. Berlin was not even the capital of Germany, let alone the world. London was stodgy. New York was the perfect expression of both American power and the modern spirit, from its gravity-defying skyscrapers to its convention-breaking intellectuals, from its ethnic neighbourhoods to its unparalleled high culture.

The great urban story of the 21st century will be the survival of New York. There will be no shortage of challengers from the emerging world: Shanghai and Beijing, as China becomes the world’s biggest economy, and Mumbai and São Paulo. There will be cities from the old world, notably London, that may decide that their best hope lies in unshackling themselves from their decaying host countries and turning themselves into global cities. These challengers will have plenty of resources on their side: emerging world giants will break records for the tallest building or the fastest train, and London will continue to beguile with its museums and mansions. But they will all fail. Beijing and Shanghai have little soul and even less intellectual life. Mumbai and São Paulo are too much of a muchness. London is New York’s most serious challenger. But great cities cannot grow in exhausted soil: London will become no more than a luxury hotel for the super-rich and a rest home for impoverished locals.

New York’s claim to pre-eminence will rest on more than the weakness of its rivals. New York thrived in the 20th century because it represented the best of modernity: openness to ideas and talent from the whole world; the chance to determine your fate and invent your identity; and, as a consequence of all that, the relentless dynamism that turns challenge into opportunity. Those qualities will stand it in as good a stead in the current century as they did in the last.

Edward Carr

Singapore

Have you ever been to Canberra? Dull and safe and good for nothing but politics, it’s as if an alien had taken up town planning. Its lakes, bridges and low-slung offices are triumphs of sterile coherence which cannot begin to match the soft beauty of Sydney Harbour or the ethnic hum of Melbourne. And yet, Canberra is the ideal capital for a federation of rival states, each jealous of the others. Were Sydney the kingpin, New South Wales would have too much power. Were the government in Melbourne, Victoria would once again rule Australia.  

In the age of empires, the world’s capital was inevitably the Imperium. Rome, London, Paris and Washington, every dome had its day. But the age of empires is fading. If you think London and New York are too Western to be the world’s capital, that is because the West needs to make room for the rest. If you are not convinced by the claims of Washington, Beijing or Delhi, that is because no one country looks able to conquer its way to global supremacy. Increasingly, the world is a federation of rival states that all guard their independence and all expect their say. 

As in Australia, the rules for choosing the capital of federations are different from the rules of empire. The Imperial capital exudes power, but the federal one should be unthreatening. James Madison, constitutional architect and fourth president of the United States, justified carving Washington out of 100 square miles of sparsely inhabited countryside by arguing that politicians need to gather without any one member state being able to impose “an imputation of awe or influence”.  

The Imperial capital needs art, culture and food to lift the spirit – spiced with danger, squalor and vice to revive the jaded palate. A federal capital is more likely to be purpose-built and doused with official culture: 1960s Brasilia rather than carnival-clogged Rio, Abuja rather than teeming, fetid Lagos. The cities that become capitals of federal countries are nobody’s first choice, because first-choice cities tend to belong to a dominant or near-dominant province or state. The European Union’s founding treaty honours Rome, and its engine was tuned in the ministries of Paris and Berlin, but they plonked its capital in boring old Brussels. 

If federal capitals score badly on power and culture, they excel themselves on the rest of our checklist: wealth, education, cosmopolitanism. So the world capital should be somewhere efficient and neutral. Somewhere you can get easily in and out of. Somewhere used to welcoming travellers from all over the world. After the second world war, that place was Geneva. Today, as Europe and the United States turn inward, it should be in burgeoning Asia.  

That is why my vote goes to Singapore. Not because it is the world’s greatest city, but because it is the closest match to the ideal capital of an increasingly federal world. The city state has no enemies. It does not take sides in geopolitical arm-wrestling. It has one foot in Asia and one in the West. It is a fabulously well-connected trading hub. Its people are educated high-achievers. It ticks along like clockwork. 

Singapore’s sterility and fussy outlook might not be what you’d choose for a weekend break, any more than you’d bother with Canberra on a trip to Australia. But order and efficiency are pluses when it comes to helping the world go round. The lesson from federal states is that you don’t choose a capital for fun – that’s what you want from your home town. You want a capital where you can get things done. So forget the doomed attempt to rediscover ancient Rome. If you picked a capital for the 21st century, you’d pick Singapore.  

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