In the first of a new series of big questions, John Parker works out what makes a capital of the world and draws up a shortlist. You can give your view by voting in our poll ...

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October, 2011

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 (pictured above) 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.