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A Tale of Two Cities: Istanbul and Rome

Istanbul

Why Istanbul?

Few years ago I urged that symbolically and culturally Istanbul deserved to be privately christened as the global capital of the 21st century. It is only world city that qualifies by virtue of its geographic and civilizational hybridity, Western by history and experience, Eastern by culture and location, Northern by stage of development, modernism, and urban dynamism, Southern by affinities, outreach, and partial identification.

The feast for the eyes provided throughout much of the city includes the Bosporus Straight (connecting the Black Sea with the Sea of Marmara) and Islamic architecture featuring the great mosques along its shores, at least one designed by the master architect Mimar Sinan (1490-1588), Ottoman memories preserved in picturesque and grand palaces, the nocturnal vitality of city life in a variety of exotic neighborhoods, excellent cuisine everywhere, and through it all, an intoxicating overall blending of modernity, hyper-modernity, and tradition. Trip Advisor, the influential online guide, confirms this endorsement by reporting recently that currently Istanbul is the #1 favorite tourist destination among the cities of the world. Perhaps, this is certification enough.
 
The fact that Ankara is the national capital of Turkey should not weaken the argument to make Istanbul the first global capital. In fact, it may be an advantage when we consider that a global capital has a different role than a national capital. What makes Istanbul so appealing is its cosmopolitan cultural, spiritual, and political heritage and vivacity, its geographic locus at the crossroads of continents and civilizations for trade and transport, and more recently its suitability as a multi-regional hub for conflict resolution and global dialogue.

As global governance is currently institutionally dispersed, there is no need for the global capital to be known as a governmental center of authority. In this sense, if Washington were ever proposed as world capital the idea should be immediately rejected. The yardsticks that could best support such a claim are based on the combination of hegemonic status and global military capabilities, and such features may be appropriate as indicators of coercive governance but not as the putative capital of an emergent global polity based on peace, justice, and cultural depth. It is precisely because Istanbul’s status is linked to Turkish soft power ascendancy, even if this geopolitical style has been compromised by several recent regional developments, Istanbul seems best situated to serve the peoples of the world as the preferred city to represent the unfolding geo-story of our times.
 
Turkey’s emergence in the front rank of states in the last 12 years is mainly based on a combination of economic performance and political moderation, as well as the increasing outreach of its diplomacy reflected in being elected by an overwhelming vote to term membership in the UN Security Council in 2009-2010, and is seeking a second term in 2015-2016. Instead of remaining the foot soldier of NATO guarding the southern flank of Europe during the Cold War and forgetting about the rest of the world, Turkey under AKP leadership dramatically widened its horizons, and in the process inevitabley stepped on important geopolitical toes. Turkey looked beyond its borders to Central Asia, the Arab world and the Balkans, exhibiting both a recognition of economic and diplomatic opportunities, but also a revisiting of lands once governed from the Ottoman imperial center in Istanbul. At the same time, Turkey was not merely notstalgically engaged in the recovery of past grandeur. It reached out in creative ways to Africa, launching a major assistance program to one of Africa’s most troubled country, Somalia. It also established for the first time significant Turkish economic and diplomatic connections with Latin America. Despite straying some distance from the American led strategic ‘big tent,’ Turkey was steadfast in reaffirming its underlying commitments.
 
The Turkish government has never exhibited an intention to turn its back on the West. On the contrary, the AKP proclaimed European Union membership as its primary foreign policy goal during the first period of its leadership, and only began to lose interest in this project years later when it became apparent that Islamophobia had slammed the European door shut. By then it became clear no matter how much the Turkish leadership met EU demands, the country was going to be allowed to become a member of the EU. It did serve the AKP well domestically as the EU reforms created a useful pretext for civilianizing the government and upholding human rights, thereby making constitutional democracy much more of a behavior reality for ordinary Turks.
 
It is also true that during this period, especially in the last several years, Turkey has hit several bumps in the road. Turkish domestic polarization, always intense, worsened after the AKP scored its third consecutive electoral victory in 2011. After receiving such a mandate, the great populist leader, Recip Teyyip Erdoğan seemed to lose patience managing prudently the deep fissures in the Turkish body politic, and seemed to be acting more in an autocratic than democratic mode. These fractures erupted in a severe storm of protest surrounding the Gezi Park protests of 2013 that were provoked by grassroots concerns that the future of Istanbul was now in the hands of greedy commercial developers enjoying unregulated support from the Erdogan leadership. Turkey’s international image during these years was also weakened by its intemperate and failed solidarity with the anti-Assad uprisings in Syria and its unresolved tensions with Israel. These tensions, although the result of Israel’s unlawful and provocative behavior, nevertheless fueled a surge in anti-Turkish sentiments in the West, especially among Washington think tanks.
 
Few would doubt that Turkey has been traveling a controversial path both domestically and internationally, but in regional and global setting beset by turmoil and uncertainty to an extent that the reputation of the country has not damaged the stature of the city in the eyes of the world. Istanbul embodies the charm and tradition of its illustrious Ottoman past and retains the extraordinary picturesque resource of the Bosphorus wending its way gracefully through the city, a source of continuous spectacle. At the same time, in a process that preceded the AKP but has been accelerated during its period of leadership, Istanbul became overly receptive to the glitz and glamor of capitalist modernity, upscale shopping malls springing up all over the city and huge ungainly buildings and residential projects being constructed without sensitivity to coherent urban design or sustaining the character of the past. In this respect, the irregular modern skyline formed by a poorly sited series of skyskrapers is an insensitive disruption of the harmony of past and present, raising questions about the future. Yet it is precisely this unresolved struggle over the nature of urban space that makes Istanbul a strategic and ideological battleground in the unfolding narrative of a globalizing planet.
 
Given the way world order is constituted even a world city, such as Istanbul, is subject to the authority of the territorial state where it is located and exists beneath the shadows cast by Turkey. Istanbul can only be seriously considered qualified to be the global capital if Turkey offers an acceptable national setting. This means that Istanbul must be situated within a legitimate state that maintains the rule of law, human rights, public order, and an atmosphere of tranquility, as well as being hospitable toward and protective of foreigners. All leading states have severe shortcomings in relation to these criteria, and this includes Turkey, but such limitations should not be treated as disqualifying unless the state fails to meet minimum requirements. There are many among the political opposition within Turkey, and outside, who contend that the Turkish state does fall below this minimum threshold. I disagree. I believe that Turkey as a political actor enjoys a sufficiently favorable balance of positive attributes to allow Turkey to offer a proper national setting for Istanbul in relation to being designated as global capital. The situation could change for the worse in the future, and if so, it would become appropriate to reconsider Istanbul’s status as global capital.
 
A Global Capital: Of Governments, Of People
 
Arguably, the idea of a global capital was initiated after World War I with the establishment of the League of Nations in Geneva, and a conception of world order as Euro-Centric. This was followed, in line with shifts in geopolitical stature, by locating the United Nations in New York after World War II, an acknowledgement of both American global leadership and the West-centric character of world order as of 1945.

It should be noted that New York was not a national capital, and its appeal rested on its fabulous urban facilities, cosmopolitan ethnic and religious makeup, and its unsurpassed cultural depth. In the second decade of the 21st century it would no longer seem appropriate to choose any urban site in the West as ‘the center’ of the world, but it would not be feasible to ignore the West altogether. Turkey offers the perfect compromise, and within Turkey Istanbul has most of the endowments needed at this historical time for the sort of world capital that now provides an existential entrance to the multi-faceted global reality of the early 21st century, but also showcases the epochal tensions of the age: modernity versus tradition; societal permissiveness versus conservative social values; secular versus religious worldviews.
 
Appreciating Rome: “The Eternal City”
 
According to Trip Advisor the second favorite tourist city is Rome, which continues to live up to its reputation at ‘the eternal city.’ It has a long lineage that traces back to its legendary founding in 753 BC. Rome more than even Athens is the birthplace of modernity, yet also the home of the most universal of spiritual institutions, the Catholic Church, with its universally acclaimed papel leadership that resides in that unique polity, the Vatican, located within the city limits of Rome. The restless political leaders of Rome in past centuries sought to extend the Roman political imaginary to the outermost parts of the known world. Our near universal sense of law and citizenship, political structure, transportation, urban vitality and decadence all flow from the Rome’s rise and fall. The Roman Stoic philosophers also gave us the first glimmerings of belonging to a species as well as to an ethnos or religion or civilization. Although Rome was present at the creation of Western civilization, in modern times it has been content to let others carry the torch of the West to the far corners of the world
 
To visit these two cities is to understand why Istanbul deserves to be the world capital and Rome deserves to remain the eternal city. While Istanbul draws strength from its Islamic past and present, its claims are reinforced by investing great energy in establishing an identity that is fit for an era of continuing globalization. Its host country, Turkey, has recently learned to be an indispensable geopolitical player while at the same time becoming a focal point for efforts to forge ‘an alliance of civilizations.’ In contrast, Rome is content to keep what it has, admittedly at the cost of losing some benefits of modernity, not devoting energy to influence the telling of the contemporary geo-story. Perhaps, the biggest cost for Italy is public despair, especially among youth, many of whom feel they must leave country to find a sustainable future for themselves.
 
In Istanbul there is also a mood of some discouragement associated not with the absence of opportunity, but with the difficulties of achieving a satisfying life with too much demanded by way of work and daily tribulations in a crowded city of 15 million—too much traffic and pollution, insufficient income, clashing visions of a desirable future. All of this complexity is leading some Turkish youth to feel a new yearning for a simple life in the country. In architecture, as well, these complementary differences are evident. Rome discreetly hides its embrace of modernity rather convincingly, and the old skyline and harmonious clusters of buildings dominate the city. While Istanbul has a jagged skyline of irregularly placed tall buildings, perpetual traffic gridlock of large and fast cars, Rome is a city where the streets are filled with motorcycles, scooters, and smart cars, as well as varieties of automobiles. Rome mostly rests on past laurels, while Istanbul aspires, alive with ambition that exhausts, and event infuriates, many of its inhabitants. In Istanbul the modern competes with, and often overwhelms the traditional, while in Rome the old classical city of fountains, squares, and parks holds uncontested sway.
 
Urban Pinnacles of our Time: Istanbul and Rome
 
This global reality is strikingly different than what existed in 1918 or 1945. Although world order remains state-centric, its structure is more complex. It is less territorially governed and organized. Non-state actors play much more central organizing roles in the world economy and political system, both as providers of order and as its principal disrupters. The increased economic and technological integration of the life of the planet, as well as the global scale of the threats challenging its future, give a historical plausibility for the first time to the conception of a world capital that represents the authority and aspirations of the peoples of the planet rather than the functional projects of governmental elites.

This conception of a world capital is essentially a cultural expression, and should not be confused with the creation of global problem-solving mechanisms or the harnessing of popular loyalties. It may be a refuge for those seeking a human identity that is neither the anachronistic idea of patriotic citizen nor the sentimental insistence of being a world citizen. Perhaps, the world capital will become a homeland for citizen pilgrims, those dissatisfied with the world as it is, embarking on a nonviolent pilgrimage in search of a future political community that embodies values of peace, justice, and ecological wisdom. It is against this background that I would nominate Istanbul to be the first capital of the world.
 
In the end, we need them both—a world capital for a globalizing world, an eternal city that keeps alive its past while enjoying the present. It is no wonder that Istanbul and Rome are rated the first and second favorite cities in the world. Both share multiple imperial memories and diverse religious traditions, and both contain architectural splendors, cultural legacies, and both partake of an exhilarating and fulfilling lifeworld.


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