Rome, London, New York….. These names conjure images of grandeur and power, and have historically been “Capitals” of the world; city centres to which much of the Western world looked with respect and awe. But in our rapidly changing world, what city can most properly called a “World Capital” today? What features define a World Capital? Let us begin with the second question first.
Power and control – military, political and economic – have traditionally been defining features of capital cities. Rome was built on conquests of Europe and was the capital of the Ancient World by virtue of this military power and structure of governance. It was a global capital by force and intimidation. London was the world’s city during the British period of exploration and colonization. The city extended its military and economic power and governance in a manner similar to that of Rome, though with greater subtlety and diplomacy. New York has been, and remains, notable for its pivotal place in world economies and finance.
However, cities worthy of being considered world capitals need not be only those with power and control. Mecca and Jerusalem are capitals of religion, likely significant to a larger proportion of the world’s population than capital cities based on power. Cities associated with learning and culture may also be considered world capitals – Alexandria in the Ancient World, Cairo, Constantinople (Istanbul), and Paris are all cities which have contributed immensely to western culture and may, rightly, be considered world capitals of culture and learning.
Those cities which most would agree have historically been world capitals possess more than power or governance or culture or religion. They are comprised of a mosaic of these things. Rome was built on military power but then also developed culture (albeit one that we view as barbaric in many ways), and became home to a major world religion. This shifting of raison d’être allowed this city to remain a global player for centuries, and to remain significant even today. London had both military (waning since mid 20th century) and economic power and so influenced the globe through these forces. England, and London, were also driving forces in the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions of the 17th to 19th Centuries, leading the world in science and technology. New York provides economic power to the globe, but also culture as a global centre for the arts.
Historically, the size of a city has been linked to its significance on the international stage but that significance has broken down in the last 200 years with the increasing number of cities reaching large population sizes. Population size alone is no longer sufficient to generate the power, influence or culture to create a world capital. If it were the cities of Seoul and Mexico City should be contenders for world capital, but most would agree they are not.
Looking backward it is fairly simple to identify those cities which were world capitals. There were relatively few cities of large size, economic and military might, and political stability. Further, we have the benefit of hindsight in this identification. Identifying a world capital in the present is more difficult. Most large cities which would be seriously considered contenders for the title are cosmopolitan and sophisticated, possessing impressive cultural attributes, economic and political stability, and religious freedom. These attributes which, in the past, were hallmarks of progressive centres are now quite widespread, resulting in few cities being clearly superior to others.
Given this, is a “World Capital” an outdated idea? As with all else in the world of the last 30 years, globalization has “leveled the playing field” homogenizing power and influence of cities throughout the world. Paradoxically, though cities are becoming more similar to each other, they are also becoming more specialized and leaders in various fields. That is, unlike the past where power or culture were centralized to specific cities, today these are dispersed. Certainly, within any category (politics, economics, military, culture, trade, etc.) a small number of cities rise to the surface when considering importance, but they are not consistent across all categories. New York may be the major player in economics and culture, but Washington DC is the capital of politics and military. Each city is reverting to excelling in only one field which, we have seen historically, does not define a world capital. Rather the city must excel in several areas. We can shortlist cities that are highly influential in one or a subset of categories, but no longer across the board.
In today’s world, there is not a “World Capital” but rather a vibrant diversity of cities excelling in different areas. This is a positive feature of our 21st Century society; historically when all power and culture has been focussed on single “World Capitals” the city has benefited but at the cost of the provinces or areas upon which they rely. Rome was built upon the exploitation of Europe. London rose upon the resources of the New World and Asia. Rather than identifying a single city which we all look to with wonder we live in a world with each city providing unique and important attributes to our world.