Sunday, September 25, 2011
As the age of empires fades, Edward Carr argues that the world needs a federal capital.
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.