Tag Archives: Hong Kong

What If a Russian Snowden?

9 Aug

Political Crimes’ are Non-Extraditable and Snowden’s Transfer to the United States for Prosecution would have been a Setback for Human Rights and International Law

 

What is most troubling about how the Snowden case has played out diplomatically and via the media is the almost total refusal to focus attention on the central legal, moral, and political issues. The United States Government from the outset has acted as if it is entitled to have Snowden transferred to its custody because he is a fugitive from American criminal justice. Pursuing this line of reasoning, Washington has exerted pressure on Latin American governments not to grant Snowden asylum and expressed disappointment with Hong Kong, China, and Russia for their refusal to comply with the U.S. request. The assumption has been that this is a simple instance of cooperative law enforcement, and it is thus unfriendly and unreasonable for another government to shelter Snowden by a grant of asylum.

Barack Obama has underscored the importance he gives to this issue by canceling a scheduled a high profile summit meeting in September with Vladimir Putin. He even contends that Russian non-cooperation in relation to Snowden exhibits a ‘Cold War mentality’ that backslides from recent instances of Russian-American cooperation such as after the Boston Marathon bombing. Fairly construed, it would seem that it was Obama, not Putin, who was guilty of Cold War posturing. Recall that even during the Cold War Nixon agreed to meet with Nikita Khrushchev in Moscow at the height of international tensions. It is Obama who frequently tells us of his readiness to negotiate even with the most obdurate of Republican hardliners, but apparently this willingness does not extend to foreign leaders who fail to do what Washington’s wants! Further, it should be appreciated that it is Putin who has affirmed from the outset that he didn’t want the Snowden incident to harm Russia’s relations with the United States. Even after the cancellation of the diplomatic meeting of heads of state, Putin has expressed regret rather than righteous indignation, or even disappointment. As so often, the misuse of political language, 1984 style, inverts reality, and misses what could have been used as ‘a teaching moment’ on the protection of human rights and the promotion of political pluralism in a world of sovereign states.

The misleading character of this Snowden discourse also goes largely unnoticed because it has been not substantively contested, especially by China and Russia. The Latin American triumvirate of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua base their offers of asylum on a principled human rights rationale, but even they do not explain their reasoning, especially its legal roots and political justification. All of this leaves a false impression that both sides of the debate about Snowden are acting within a domain of pure discretion, and even leading human rights organizations have reinforced such a misunderstanding by remaining largely silent spectators. As a result, Obama’s petulant cancellation of the summit, and with it an important opportunity on which to explore ways to end the Syrian internal war and to avert a military confrontation with Iran is irresponsibly lost, and for what?

The overall situation could have been far better understood if all parties involved had put forward arguments that articulated their claims in a coherent manner. The United States could have then insisted that despite Snowden’s claims of a political motivation, his acts of espionage and conversion of government property, should not be viewed as ‘political crimes.’ Such a position could have included the assertion that the revelation of American surveillance efforts endangered national and global security, putting the American people and foreign countries at risk, and that there existed a world interest in preventing terrorism creating a shared interest in the enforcement of criminal law. Such a rationale would doubtless include an insistence that present levels of secrecy and scrutiny were reasonable, restricted, and necessary. Further, it would be claimed that the collection of data was done in a non-invasive manner protective of privacy to the extent possible, and designed only to identify suspicious behavior. In effect, the U.S. Government could have argued that what Snowden did was tantamount to complicity with ‘terrorism’ and should be dealt with as a matter of transnational criminal law enforcement and diplomatic cooperation so as to serve the global public good and promote human security.

The Russian position would rest on a contrary line of reasoning based on the belief that Snowden’s acts clearly constituted a ‘political crime’ because of the political nature of what was revealed, the absence of any commercial motivation, the absence of any violent acts, and the evident intention of Snowden to warn the peoples and governments of the world about legally dubious secret and excessive encroachments on privacy and confidentiality of communications. This means that even if an extradition treaty between the countries had existed to oblige Russia to cooperate with the United States in relation to the enforcement of criminal law, a request to extradite Snowden would be rejected because of the nature of his alleged crimes. It is standard practice, long upheld in doctrine and practice by the United States as well, to include a political crimes exception to the mutual obligation to extradite.

In fact, if Russia had transferred Snowden to the United States for prosecution, there would have been a widespread public outcry, no doubt intensified by the perception that other whistleblowers in the security area, especially Bradley Manning and Julian Assange have been recently subject to vindictive and abusive treatment for comparable breaches of American secrecy in the name of national security. The Russian decision that Snowden’s acts should be treated as political crimes seems convincing and reasonable, although regrettably  not articulated along these lines.

As should be obvious, my sympathies lie with the governments that seek to provide Snowden with sanctuary, treating him in effect as ‘a prisoner of conscience’ and someone whose acts will be remembered not for their alleged criminality, but because they raised vital concerns about the nature and proper limits of democratic governance in the 21st century. What Snowden did was not easy. It has established him for many of us as a brave individual who had the courage to step outside the edifices of government and corporate bureaucracy to scream ‘enough!’ Perhaps, the scream has come too late, past the tipping point in this ominous revelation of a digital panopticon. Let us hope not.

In each of these instances where government secrets of the United States were disclosed, the leadership of the country has refused to discuss the substantive issues raised beyond a monolithic denunciation of ‘the leaker’ and a less than credible plea, ‘trust us!’ Trust us, the national security government as we have the experience, knowledge, and sensitivity to strike the right balance between the requirements of security and the protection of freedom. ‘Fooling most of the people most of the time’ is not a prescription for sustainable democracy even acknowledging the vulnerability of the country to the difficulties of addressing the security threats posed by extremist violence in the post-9/11 world.

Unfortunately, also, the most influential media in the United States has not helped clarify the terms of debate by reference to the legal, moral, and political issues. Instead it has largely exhibited its lack of independence and pro-government bias in the Snowden Affair in three major ways:

–consistently referring to Snowden by the demeaning designation of ‘leaker’ rather than as ‘whistleblower’ or ‘surveillance dissident,’ both more respectful and accurate;

–totally ignoring the degree to which Russia’s grant of temporary refugee status to Snowden for one year is in full accord with the normal level of protection to be given to anyone accused of nonviolent political crimes in a foreign country, and pursued diplomatically and legally by the government that is seeking to indict and prosecute; in effect, for Russia to have turned Snowden over to the United States under these conditions would have set a morally and politically scandalous precedent considering the nature of his alleged crimes; such a decision would have been especially objectionable as there was no extradition treaty that established any legal obligation to hand over individuals accused of crimes by a foreign government, and thus to transfer Snowden would have meant doing  gratuitously what even a treaty had it existed would not have required;

–failing to point out that espionage, the main accusation against Snowden, is the quintessential ‘political offense’ in international law, and as such is routinely excluded from any list of extraditable offenses; there are good reasons why the safety valve provided by whistleblowers and dissidents is especially valuable for the citizenry of democratic societies at the present time. When the nature of security threats is so widely dispersed, and can extend to citizens and the far corners of the earth, the possibility of anti-democractic abuse is great. What Snowden has revealed, shows that this danger is more than a possibility, and calls for remedial action in the United States that establishes more restrictive guidelines on what the government may do in relation to privacy and confidentiality than previously existed. In effect, Snowden performed a public service that is being indirectly acknowledged by new attention given in Congress and by the media to a rebalancing of security and freedom more responsive to the values of privacy.

If these elements had been clearly articulated, the United States Government would have seemed ridiculous to complain about the willingness of some foreign governments to give Snowden asylum, and worse than complain, to use its diplomatic leverage in relation to small and vulnerable government to induce them to do the wrong thing. The Obama administration, and Senate hot heads could call Snowden a traitor and bemoan his unavailability for prosecution to their heart’s content, but such behavior would be then seen for what it was: a petulant empire exhibiting its rage and frustration because its hard power global presence was of no use, and its policy options were effectively constrained because other countries abided by the rule of law. Under these conditions to be threatening foreign governments with adverse diplomatic consequences if they refuse to play ball is not only exhibiting a child’s frustration, but it is self-defeating. If properly presented, those countries that offered asylum or refused Washington’s demand for the transfer of Snowden to American custody were behaving in accord with the best teachings of human rights. What should be surprising is that more governments were not forthcoming, leaving it to such small countries as Bolivia, Venezuela, and Nicaragua to withstand the strong arm tactics of the United States, perhaps signaling a welcome new resolve throughout Latin America to no longer accept their former regional identity of providing a backyard for the benefit of the colossus of the North.

If anything, President Vladimir Putin, considering the nature of the Snowden disclosures about the global reach of American surveillance systems, acted with an exceptional respect for the sensitivities of the United States. Instead of merely pointing out that Snowden could not be transferred to the United States against his will, Putin went out of his way to say that he did not want the incident to harm relations with the United States, and beyond this, to condition a grant of temporary asylum on Snowden’s unusual pledge to refrain from any further release of documents damaging to American interests.

Such a tactful approach to a delicate situation hardly merits the hyperbolic aggressive words of the supposedly liberal Democratic senator from New York, Charles Schumer: “Russia has stabbed us in the back..Each day that Mr. Snowden is allowed to roam free is another turn of the knife.” We should ask these deeply aggrieved senators for honest answers, including John McCain and Lindsey Graham, who added their own fiery denunciations of both Snowden and Russia, what they would have done if the situation had been reversed—if a comparable Russian whistleblower had revealed a Russian surveillance system that was listening in on secret government deliberations in Washington as well as invading the privacy of ordinary Americans. I suspect they would have demanded that Obama cancel the meeting because of what such disclosures revealed about Russia’s wrongdoing.

I would expect that the righteous indignation surrounding such revelations and the gratitude in the United States that would be bestowed on a Russian Snowden would know few bounds. The American media too in that situation would have been quick to produce experts on a nightly basis explaining why extraditing such a person would be wrong, and that there existed a contrary duty to provide sanctuary from the harsh workings of the Russian criminal justice system. Pious suggestions would be made that this Russian Snowden is deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize.

In a not so subtle way, the Snowden diplomacy is yet another illustration of American exceptionalism: that is, there is an obligation for others to do what our government would never think of doing. What might be called ‘the iron law of hegemony.’ International law and morality operate on a contrary logic: equal situations should be treated equally. Revealingly, American domestic law is clear about its commitment to protect a Russian Snowden: “No return or surrender shall be made of any person charged with the commission of any offense of a political nature.” 18 United States Code §3185. The United States has repeatedly shielded even individuals associated with violent political acts if the target involves a hostile government or its citizens and property, most notoriously Cuba.

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Global Big Brother and the Snowden Hollywood Chase

16 Jul


The post below is a major revision of another piece on the Snowden Affair that was published in AJE. I have dwelled on the pursuit of Snowden because it raises such vital issues of principle, but also because so much of the public discourse has proceeded on a mistaken understanding of the applicable international law. Beyond the legal guidelines on extradition and asylum that are applicable, there are considerations of world order: protecting dissent and pluralism in a global setting in which the principal political actors are sovereign states that increasingly rely on secrecy and security rationales to constrain democratic open spaces. What Snowden did was to expose this dynamic of constraint in relation to secret surveillance programs administered  by private, for profit, contractors. Also exposed was the ‘Global Big Brother’ implications of extending surveillance to foreign societies and their governments. It is these questions that should receive our attention, and the Hollywood circus chase of Edward Snowden should cease for humanitarian and political reasons.

 

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I find the discourse surrounding the Snowden Affair bewildering. The latest reports suggest that the United States is using maximum political leverage, including coercive diplomacy, to discourage small Latin American countries from granting asylum to Edward Snowden. It is also complaining that Russia is giving Snowden ‘a propaganda platform’ and expressing its ‘disappointment’ with China/Hong Kong for its earlier refusal to expel Snowden back to the United States to face charges once his passport was cancelled.

 

This anger is misdirected.  Taking the overall situation into account, whatever anger has been generated by the Snowden Affair, should be directed at the United States for expecting other governments under the circumstances to transfer custody over Snowden. From almost every angle of relevant law, morality, and politics the human rights case for protecting Snowden against the long arm of American criminal law is overwhelming. Anyone who commits nonviolent ‘political crimes’ should almost always be entitled to be protected, and should certainly not be compelled to hole up in an airport transit lounge for weeks of anguishing suspense while governments sort out the interplay between dealing justly with Snowden and not upsetting the diplomatic applecart.

 

The persisting official U.S. approach was concisely conveyed by an American embassy official in Moscow to a Human Rights Watch representative who then was apparently asked to relay it to Snowden at his airport press conference held a few days ago: “U.S. authorities do not consider him to be a human rights defender or a whistleblower. He broke the law and he has to be held accountable.” Yes, Snowden broke American law, but he did it to reveal improprieties in the American surveillance programs that raised serious questions of the Constitutional rights of citizens, as well as the overseas legitimate concerns of foreign governments.  President Obama made an enigmatic statement to the press about the pursuit of Snowden: “We’re following all the appropriate legal cannels and working with various other countries to make sure the rule of law is observed.” If read as I would interpret the applicable rule of law, the United States should abandon its efforts to gain custody as Snowden’s alleged crimes are ‘political offenses.’ Obviously, Obama has a different understanding.

 

Russia did its part to create legal confusion when the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, told the world media that Moscow was refusing to comply with the American request to turn Snowden over because Russia had no extradition treaty with the United States, but such an assertion overlooks the political offense exception to extradition, which should certainly be applied here.

 

It has become increasingly evident even to American public opinion that a twisted logic has gripped Washington in this case. What is more, the underlying U.S. assumptions have been partially accepted by many governments throughout the world who should know better, namely that Snowden should not be the benefit of sanctuary in the face of this all out effort by the United States to prosecute him criminally. There are no applicable extradition treaties that bind the governments to turn Snowden over for prosecution to the United States in the countries where he has so far been present, and even if such a treaty did bind China or Russia, it should not be of help to Washington. Remember the elaborate inquiry into whether the Spanish extradition request in 1998 so as to prosecute the Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, should be honored led to an elaborate set of legal inquiries in Britain where he was detained; he was finally sent home from London to Chile on the grounds that his medical condition made him unfit to stand trial in Spain.

It is standard practice for international law to allow governments to refuse a request for extradition in the event that the accusation involves a political crime.  It is true that the definition of a political crime is unsettled. It is widely understood that violent and heinous behavior involved in genocide, crimes against humanity, terrorism, and maybe hate speech, are not considered to be ‘political crimes.’ The rationale for this exception to transnational criminal law enforceable is humane and in keeping with a pluralist world of sovereign states. As with any protective policy, there may be a cost, but the democratic ethos is in favor of incurring such costs in the interest of curtailing abuses of state power. Such costs seem worth bearing, especially in the United States, considering several recent trends: projection of global power in a unique manner; imposing a regime of homeland security on the American people that has been shown vulnerable to abuse; a decline in the checks and balance mechanisms that offer the citizenry protection against autocratic tendencies of government, especially under wartime conditions; privatization of the security and paramilitary functions of the state. Snowden’s acts should be seen as swimming against this authoritarian tide.

 

It is a matter of upholding the quality of world order, as well as supporting an international legal order that makes the world safe for political diversity and dissent. It is the latter norm that is raised by the Snowden disclosures, the global public interest in strengthening the options of individuals who challenge what they believe to be an overreaching of state power. In the world of the 21st century, ideological diversity is less significant than whistleblowing dissent that is a fantastic public service on behalf of democratic openness, countering tendencies to rely on excessive secrecy in the name of post-9/11 security in which literally everyone, everywhere is a hypothetical threat. Of course, the balance of values and interests is not so clear except to conspiracy-minded dogmatists. The state is responsible for protecting its people against threats, and these can be mounted from within and without. It is said that ‘two wrongs don’t make a right,’ but here it is possible that ‘two rights should not be treated as a wrong.’ It may be that Snowden deserves some credit even here as reportedly he has not disclosed some material that would expose the way in which the National Security Agency (NSA) operates, which could jeopardize reasonable data collection procedures.

 

Should revealing a secret government surveillance system of global proportions be treated as revealing an international  wrong? It should be a ‘no brainer’ that Snowden’s alleged crimes are quintessentially ‘political’ in nature, which would make a grant of extradition an unlawful and regressive violation, as well as an encroachment on Snowden’s human rights. Not only this, but by far the most serious ‘crimes’ exposed by Snowden documented the seeming wrongdoing of the U.S. Government and its private contractors, including Snowden’s employer, Booz, Allen, & Hamilton. As the world now knows thanks to Snowden, the controversial surveillance targets were not only the totality of Americans, but, as well, included foreign governments and many of their most confidential activities. Under these circumstances, it seems surprising that Washington has been so vigorous in the pursuit of Snowden under conditions that made it inappropriate to prosecute him for crimes under U.S. law so long as he remained outside the country.

 

To date, the mainstream media dutifully tagging along with the crime chase narrative. The American strategy has managed to keep public attention focused on Snowden rather than on what his disclosures to date have revealed, and what more further bomb shells may be present in the material that is in the hands of the media, but not yet disclosed. It is one more negative example of ‘American exceptionalism.’ It is hard to imagine that the political leadership in Moscow or Beijing, or even London or Paris, would be lecturing Washington in a similar fashion if the shoe were on the other foot. Such a government would probably and sensibly shut up, and hope that the whole mess would quietly slip from view. Why the United States decides to act differently is worth a separate investigation.

 

We need to realize that extradition is a technique to foster maximum international collaboration designed to encourage the enhanced enforcement of national criminal law. If extradition is unavailable, as here, or even if it had been available, it would be inapplicable, there exists no respectable legal basis for the American international pursuit of Snowden? The approach adopted by Washington is quite absurd if examined objectively, and rests exclusively on its presumed geopolitical clout. What the United States has been arguing is that since it claims the authority to cancel summarily Snowden’s passport (which itself may not be ‘legal’ since the right to travel is constitutionally protected unless there has been a prior formal judicial proceeding), he has no legal right to be present in a foreign country, and hence the politically appropriate act by a foreign government is to expel him forthwith to his country of nationality. In effect, such an approach if generally adopted would make extradition completely superfluous, and in fact, because of its limitations, far less effective than the passport cancellation/expulsion ‘remedy’ that would circumvent the political crimes exception where it is most needed and appropriate.

 

Lawyers, of course, earn their living by finding ingenious ways to produce counter-arguments that sometimes override not only common sense, but public reason. In this vein, it can be plausibly argued that the crimes charged against Snowden involve espionage laws and theft of government property, and as such, extradition could be granted because such behavior does not deserve to be treated as a political crime? Some commentators have reinforced this assert by pointing to the volunteer Israeli spy, Jonathan Pollard, who has languished in American jails for years to show that the U.S. is entitled to gain control over Snowden to punish those who violate its espionage laws. Even the slightest reflection would reject the relevance of such an analogy. Pollard was unlawfully giving highly classified information to a foreign government and apprehended in the territory where the crime was committed, which makes the political nature of the crime irrelevant. If Snowden remained in the United States his political motivations could be argued in a court, but would not exempt him from criminal indictment and prosecution. His crimes could then be explained as politically motivated extra-legal instances of civil disobedience in the Thoreau/Martin Luther King tradition. Snowden’s conduct might also be defended legally by stressing his non-criminal intentions and the ‘necessity’ he reasonably believed provided a basis to reveal the realities about the truly frightening scope and depth of surveillance, and thus avoid the greater harm to public interests by its undisclosed contiuation. These were more or less the arguments that Daniel Ellsberg so persuasively relied upon in the Pentagon Papers case 40 years ago to support his contention that the American people were entitled to know how their leaders manipulated facts and law to justify Vietnam War policies.

 

What the U.S. Government is attempting with Snowden, it seems, is a classic instance of bait and switch. Since extradition could not get the results Washington so desperately wanted even if it had been available, only diplomatic leverage could do the job. Here international law is less help to Snowden, although I would have hoped that international morality would come to his rescue. The debate now evidently swirls around the appropriateness of a grant of asylum by some foreign government, and securing safe passage to such a country. Surely, a foreign government that acceded to American demands and handed Snowden over for prosecution would bear the responsibility of knowing that Snowden’s imprisonment would follow as certainly as night follows day, and that they were weakening the protection of individuals who are wanted by governments eager to prosecute political crimes.

 

So far no government has been so craven as to adopt such a course of action, although none has really mounted a principled challenge to what the United States has done, and several European states have unlawfully denied air navigation rights to Bolivia’s presidential plane because the United States suspected that Snowden was on board. And apparently Austria allowed the plane carrying Evo Morales, President of Bolivia, to make an emergency landing and then be searched, and only after it was found that he was not on board was the plane allowed to resume its flight. If he had been on board, then issue of transfer would have been raised.

There does exist an extradition treaty between Austria and the United States that entered into force in 2000, and contains the following provision in Article 4(1): “Extradition shall not be granted if the offense for which extradition is requested is a political offense.” End of story!

 

States possess wide discretion with respect to asylum policy, although asylum  is conferred as a human right by Article 14(1) of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Asylum should be granted whenever there exists well-founded grounds for fearing persecution if the person in question is expelled to the country of nationality. The granting and withholding of asylum has always been surrounded bycontroversial ideological considerations. During the Cold War the United States, although not formally granting asylum, never deported someone seek sanctuary from Castro’s Cuba or other Communist countries and rarely allowed sanctuary for claimants from anti-Communist countries even if fears about their wellbeing if returned were well established. It is far preferable to put asylum policy on a principled basis, but as matters now stand, there is no international legal standards that govern asylum practice.

 

Because asylum, unlike extradition, is treated as discretionary at the national level, diplomatic pressure is to be expected. Asylum is situated at the interface of law and morality, creating ample room for political maneuver. Intense geopolitical pressures can be brought to bear as in this case, but inappropriately from the perspective of human rights or the maintenance of a democratic and pluralist world order. It is particularly unseemly to place small Latin American countries under the gun of United States’ retaliatory diplomacy, especially when these governments are acting empathetically toward someone whose challenged conduct was undertaken on behalf of freedom and democracy with nothing personal to gain materially and much to lose.  It was not as if Snowden was disgruntled after being fired from his lucrative joy as a government contract employee. Or even like the CIA retirees who wait until their pensions kick in before breaking with the agency, and writing their

‘show and tell’ stories.

 

Surely, Russia is better situated than Venezuela to harbor Snowden without having to worry about adverse political consequences.  In Russia went ahead and offered Snowden asylum, perhaps the White House would express its frustration by issuing an intemperate statement about Russia’s unfriendly move, but likely leave at that. Doing anything more would be incredibly foolish, but of course that is no assurance that it wouldn’t happen.

 

All along the true challenge to the U.S. Government, the American and world independent media, and to governments and people throughout the world is consider whether such a massive regime of secret unregulated surveillance by the U.S. government in the name of national security is legally, morally, and politically acceptable. Snowden’s individual fate, although properly a matter of the greatest concern, is secondary to the substance of the issues of principle that are present.  In an unusual show of global public spiritedness and sensitivity, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights issued a highly relevant statement: “Snowden’s case has shown the need to protect persons disclosing information on matters that have implications for human rights, as well as the importance of ensuring the rights of privacy. National systems must ensure that there are adequate avenues for individuals disclosing violations to express their concern without fear of reprisal.”

 

Despite the hue and cry associated with this rather indecent and extended effort by the U.S. Government to gain custody of Snowden, it is forgotten that his ‘criminal’ acts have already had some beneficial results:

–opening an overdue national debate in the United States as to the proper balance between surveillance and security;

–creating a global awareness of the extent to which the American surveillance regime has a global reach that threatens confidentiality of foreign governmental activity and the privacy of ordinary persons everywhere;

–encouraging relevant Congressional committees to consider placing limitations on invasions of privacy;

–tightening of the rules and policies relating to Department of Justice interference with journalists via acquisition of phone logs and emails.

 

We will miss the most crucial point of Snowden’s ‘crimes’ if we do not devote our attention to these fundamental political challenges directed at human security, democratic ways of life, and a pluralist world order. To be  distracted by the circus of the Snowden chase any longer is to play along with a shameless geopolitical caper!

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Istanbul: A Modest Proposal

2 Nov

 

            An earlier version of this short essay was published a few days ago in Al Jazeera English online as an opinion piece. My most trusted Turkish friends felt that it grossly exaggerated Istanbul’s credentials as a possible future world capital, and in deference, I will tone down some of the language, and call attention to some problematic features of the Turkish political landscape that should not be ignored in proposing such a status for Istanbul. At the same time in the Swiftian nature of ‘modest proposals’ to be immodest! I think it was an American comedian who said “if you haven’t gone too far, you haven’t gone far enough.” Or when Jean-Paul Sartre at the end of his life was asked about what he regretted most about his overall public role, he responded, to the effect that he had sometimes been too cautious, not sufficiently extreme. Norman O. Brown, who did much in the 1960s to inspire the study of human consciousness, once said in the course of a lecture that in psychoanalysis “only the exaggerations are valuable.” It is in this spirit that I continue to believe that Istanbul has the most to offer the peoples of the world as a global capital, but I would welcome a debate on whether the idea of a global capital is a sensible idea given the nature of globalization and if it is, whether there are preferable alternatives to Istanbul. Of course, one idea would be to neuter the idea of a global capital by choosing an uninhabited island mid-ocean, but I would imagine that almost no one would feel connected to such a place, any more than they do to such existing sterile national capital startups as Brasilia and Canberra.            

 

            The idea of a global city has a long lineage with deep roots in the pre-modern world. Indeed it seems correct to observe that global cities existed before national cities, preceding the formation of the modern state. A global city is most often associated with being a center of world trade and finance, but usually such a city also possesses strong cultural and touristic resources that attract visitors. Thinking in this manner explains the persisting tendencies is to view the hierarchy of global cities from a West-centric perspective: London, New York, and Paris placed in the first rank, with cities such as Tokyo, Geneva, Sao Paulo, New Delhi, Hong Kong, Singapore, Berlin, Rome, Shanghai, Istanbul, and Los Angeles treated as forming a second tier. Of course, such rankings are quite arbitrary, shift over time, reflecting new patterns of economic and political relationships that exhibit the ebb and flow of world history. Such urban centers as Rome, London, Alexandria, Baghdad, Vienna, Venice, and Athens were definitely primary global cities during their respective heydays.

 

            But there is a new phenomenon that is especially associated with economic globalization and the main technological innovations of the past century that has given rise to such designations as ‘the digital age’ or ‘the networked society.’ This radical compression of space and time in the world creates a natural inclination to find, designate, and establish someplace as ‘the center of the world,’ as the ‘world capital.’ Of course, the claim and perception of being ‘the world capital’ is both a social and political construction that is connected with the realities of global leadership, sometimes reinforced by cultural preeminence, and normally narrated in an inherently subjective and self-centered interpretation of the flow of history, however the self is defined. In the end such a designation is bound to be controversial, and likely contested.

 

            Of course, from a mainstream realist international relations perspective we can think geopolitically of the world capital as a reflection of the prevailing distribution of hard power at a give time. Thus in the bipolar world of the Cold War it was Washington and Moscow. After the collapse of the Soviet Union it became Washington alone. Some are now insisting that a new bipolarity is or will shortly be upon us, and even anticipate a new cold war, designating Beijing to be a world capital more or less equivalent in status to Washington. And for those who believe, and hope, that a more polycentric world is emerging, and would be desirable, then perhaps, in addition to Washington and Beijing, one might add Delhi, Rio de Janeiro, Berlin, and even Jakarta, if the European Union moves forward, maybe Brussels, and possibly Cairo as well but only if Egypt is able to find stability and regain its former regional stature.

 

            Of course, all existing cities in the 21st century are contained within a particular state, and are subject to its authority, and share its destiny. In the past there have been some ‘international cities’ without any national affiliation, and there are today in our world several successful city-states, and many states smaller in population and area than the largest cities. Proposals have been made in recent decades to establish Jerusalem as an international city, not only because such a step would contribute to a sustainable and just peace between Israel and Palestine, but because of its sacred and historical belonging to all three of the Abrahamic religions.

 

Most globally ambitious cities in the modern world, then, have this dual identity, as situated within a territorial state and yet striving for a measure of internal autonomy. As a result, cities often develop a split national personality that combines loyalty and antagonism, the latter often fueled by the deep-seated tensions between cosmopolitan urban space and the more provincial hinterland, as well as by national politicians who shift resources from the city to the countryside in their quest for votes, or sometimes, to reduce gaps in standards of living. These tensions on occasion give rise to frivolous suggestions of secession for cities that seem at odds with the ethos of the country as seems to many to be the case for New York City. It is called by its fiercest critics ‘Sodom-and-Gomorrah-on-Hudson’ and by its most loving devotees as simply ‘The Big Apple.’ Some New Yorkers have daydreams of being a city-state, and many Midwesterners would be happy if the dream came true. It is much more common for secessionist movements to become serious political projects for territorial communities comprising a minority ethnicity or religion that claims a political and legal right of self-determination. Restive urban minorities may riot on occasion and vent their dissatisfaction, but their imaginary rarely includes a scenario of formal disaffiliation. Singapore is a rare exception to this pattern, split off from the British colony of Malaya at the moment of independence. More common is the experience of Hong Kong, being reabsorbed by its powerful Chinese neighbor.

 

            A focus on cities is one way of circumventing the tendency to view sovereign states as the only political actors worth theorizing about in international life. It is true that states have an identity based on governance over a defined space that is recognized in diplomatic circles, as well as enjoying the prerogative of granting or withholding citizenship. The primacy of states as international actors is reinforced by membership rules and procedures for international institutions, especially the United Nations, that confer special and often exclusive status on a political community that qualifies as a sovereign state. In contrast, the terminology of ‘global cities’ is assigned without any agreed criteria or conferred status, lacks diplomatic relevance from the perspective of international law, and the idea that there exists one or more ‘global capital’ is no where referenced on standard world maps and remains a completely constructed category of status, identity, and desire. No government would be foolish enough to proclaim its main city as the capital of the world, although the United States came close to doing so during the springtime grandiosity of George W. Bush’s presidency. Proponents of a certain leadership role for a given state may for a variety of reasons be tempted to put forward the claim of providing the world with a capital city. It would follow from the very real geopolitical ambition to be at the ‘center’ of global policy formation and implementation, to have control over a disproportionate share of the world’s resources, and to boast of offering visitors the most exciting cultural and touristic experiences.

 

            Part of the appeal of the global capital is precisely this separation of status from statehood, and more specifically from the calculus of hard power. Cities, unlike states, have police forces but no armies, although some cities have local guard or militia units, none in modern times possess or aspire to possess force capabilities to project hard power beyond city limits. Cities generally lack an arsenal of heavy weapons, do not have foreign policies, and enjoy only secondary diplomatic representation. Embassies are in capital cities however remote and small, while consulates are in cities no matter how large and influential. In Brazil, for instance, foreign ambassadors resent being posted to Brasilia, the planned and somewhat isolated and artificial capital city, and greatly prefer living in such stimulating urban environments as Sao Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. Cities are simply places where lots of people live, work, enjoy nightlife, have access to extensive financial services, and engage in a range of cultural and economic activities. What, then, motivates a city to be treated, even symbolically, as a political actor, and more grandly, to put forward the claim to be the potential or actual global capital?

 

Some assertions along these lines are deliberately extravagant or are merely intended to call attention to past glories, without any serious political intention to project power. The interior Chinese secondary city of Dengfeng, for instance, claims not only to be the center of the world but the center of heaven, as well, and indeed in past times it has served as the national capital for nine Chinese dynasties. Dengfeng’s self-assertion as a city whose provenance extends beyond China and beyond any given time period, is part of its charm, and lends traditional and spiritual significance to the very metaphorical idea of there being such a reality as the center of the world, much less heaven. Such an idea resembles in certain respects the geographical seats of the great world religions that do indeed possess a centrality for the more devout among the faithful as illustrated by the great pilgrimages to Rome to visit the Vatican or the haj as the obligatory journey taken by devout Muslims to their most holy site of worship.

 

            In my view, such a claim on behalf of cities should be understood as partly a site of struggle between two types of adherents. On one side, those who adhere to the old geopolitics that continues to believe, always somewhat misleadingly, but recently more grotesquely so, that history is principally made by those who prevail in warfare, and little else. Such a belief is usually coupled with the Weberian insistence that it is the sovereign state that establishes its identity by its possession over a monopoly of legitimate force. On the other side, are those who view history through a soft power rainbow optic in which culture, political vitality, religious identity, and ethics shapes and forms what unfolds, and eventually yields a cosmopolitan urban outcome despite being out gunned on the battlefield, or succumbs and endures the tragedy of alien domination. Cities, more than countries, can be analogized to magnets or force fields where people go to strike deals, to be entertained and well fed, to add pleasure, cultural enjoyment, and to enjoy greater privacy in their lives, to discuss their problems and receive guidance, chase dreams, and entertain hopes about the future, to be educated, to be inspired by art and artists, and of course, to be protected by municipal government against violent crime and natural disasters.

 

            There was a period not many years ago where there was a notable interest in cities as independent political actors on the global stage. There were many conferences organized around the theme ‘x city and the world.’ I attended a series of annual gatherings bearing the title ‘Yokohama and the World’ that brought together thinkers and civil society actors from many foreign countries and regions. These meetings were a pet project of the governor of the Japanese prefecture, and the discussions were vibrant and suggestive, blending wishful thinking, advocacy, and an assessment of trends. The underlying perspective was one in which it was presupposed that what was good for Japan was not necessarily good for Yokohama, that cities might have separate interests and different priorities from those of national political leaders, and that especially the national capital was subject to many distorting pressures divorced from service to the human interest or the wellbeing of Yokohama’s citizenry. The global city as distinct actor, complicated by its formal subjugation to the territorial order of sovereign states, suggests that people living in a particular city might not share the postulates of territorial nationalism, and were not nearly as inclined to include hard power in their political imaginary. The idea of a world order that was basically constituted by the principal cities of the world depicts an alternate pathway to peace, sustainability, justice, and world order that is at fundamental variance from the preoccupation of sovereign states with national security. In the Yokohama setting, for instance, there was a much greater willingness to engage positively with China than was then the case for the Japanese government located in Tokyo, reflecting a web of national and international considerations. Should we not favor a network of global cities as creating a non-territorial approach to global policy that might be much more attuned to global needs and desires, especially if cities could gain wealth and prestige while contributing to the further intermingling of civilizations and thereby laying the foundations for a more peaceful and sustainable human future.

 

            In the pre-modern world cities were much more prominent than in modern times when sovereignty, nationalism, citizenship, bounded territoriality, and statehood organized political life. Socrates felt that death was preferable to being exiled from Athens the city that he loved, and exile was often seen as the worst punishment that could be inflicted. Even Machiavelli centuries later, rarely celebrated for his tenderness, expressed a romantic attachment to his native Florence: “I love my city more than myself.” In the course of the transition to modernity there were many instances of resistance on the part of cities that did not want to get swallowed by these larger political communities established in every instance by conquest. Most of us remain unaware of the deep connections in the past between political violence and the constituting of larger ‘legitimate’ political communities. The relationship between state-building and war that is so fundamental to the securitization of world politics is, in other words, neither new nor without deep roots in the histories of every sovereign state and all major cities.

 

            But with the revival of city-states such as Singapore and Hong Kong, and the success of several micro states, we can observe a far weaker linkage between security and hard power, as well as the rebirth of the medieval idea of community viability. These political entities become secure by being useful to others, viable and vibrant for themselves, and generally enjoying ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ but not by being able to extend territory and control of resources by conquest. Although this portrayal must be expanded to admit that most modern states did originate with cities that did expand for the sake of food security and wealth or to provide their city with security against marauding neighbors or the vagaries of weather. Nevertheless, this experience of the past is suggestive of how it might be possible to transform the political imaginary of states with respect to their most fundamental reason for existence, inducing more dedication to the security of people (‘human security’) less to the security of governments (‘national security’).

 

 

            I believe that the idea of proposing a global capital is a defensible endeavor, even if seen only as laying the groundwork for the future, if we take into account the degree of integration that has been achieved by markets, by globally constituted battlefields, by changing geopolitical patterns, by struggles to generate global policy that is commensurate with such collective goods problems as climate change and nuclear weaponry, by global travel and globalization of political identity and the dispersion of families throughout the planet by migration and forced displacement.  Of course the choice of this city rather than that one is political, economic, ethical, and even aesthetic and hedonistic.

 

 

            My initial sense of which candidate cities offer the most plausible site of the global capital is rather pluralist. For instance, if our outlook is  geopolitically oriented according to the logic of hard power realists, then the argument for choosing Washington to play that role seems rather obvious despite its recent experiences of relative decline. Yet if the speculation is more normative, connected with human values, then we would probably pick New York, especially because aside from the being the headquarters of the United Nations, it is a most notable global city from the perspective of ethnic diversity, finance, and cosmopolitan culture, although its short lifespan, vulnerability to extreme weather events, and Westcentric orientation limits the quality of its candidacy given 21st century post-colonial realities. New York and Washington also suffer from the role of the United States as the gatekeeper for access, which in the post-9/11 world has made entry problematic for many of those invited to perform culturally or participatein political or academic conferences.

 

            London also could be considered, having the advantage of a long lineage, rich tradition, as well as finance and culture, and the birthplace of the English language. Until very recently a case could be made for Brussels as the hub city for the European Union, as well as NATO, and giving expression to the idea that the world we live in is mainly responsive to economic and military power (an inversion of the 9/11 attacks that targeted the World Trade Center and the Pentagon as the two pillars of the American world role). Brussels could also be championed as a precursor of a post-statist world order that is constituted by regional groupings, but its Western identity and association with the extensive European overseas empires and colonial crimes are fatal handicaps in our post-colonial world that bases notions of legitimacy more and more on de-Westernizing claims of civilizational identity.

 

            I find none of these candidate cities as sufficiently endowed with the combination of features that might justify christening its as the capital of the world. But I do have a promising candidate provided it can overcome some present obstacles: Istanbul. This may seem surprising, because although achieving a much higher profile in the last decade, Turkey as a state is not viewed as belonging to the top tier of countries in the world, including among emerging states, its currency is not much valued beyond its borders, and its language spoken only in its own country, among a few nearby Turcoman minorities, and some central Asian countries that gained independence a couple of decades ago when the Soviet Union fell apart. As well, Turkey has some severely troublesome domestic problems for which no near-term solution seems forthcoming, especially its inability to accommodate the grievances of 12-15 million Kurdish minority, important international unresolved issues such as its relationship to the Armenian diaspora, its various tensions with Israel, Greece, Cyprus, Syria, and Iran, and its dysfunctional, yet abiding and severe, internal polarization between those who governed during the Republican Era, and those who have run the country since 2002.

 

            There are more serious issues as well that make Istanbul’s candidacy problematic in many quarters precisely because it is such an integral part of the Turkish state. The central question is raised: ‘Should the sins of the state be visited upon the city?’ It is not an easy question. And what of the sins of the city? Istanbul has had a spectacular building boom in recent years, with shopping malls and upper income restaurants and hotels, and an overall atmosphere that may not be conducive to a fulfilled life for the majority of inhabitants that must struggle with the ordeals of living and working in a city of rising living costs, unhealthy air, and limited resources for human satisfaction unless one is the recipient of a large salary.

 

            How then can Istanbul be seriously considered in our search for a global capital? I would point to several factors. Increasingly, Istanbul is a city of choice for those international travelers in search of touristic fulfillment, and it rarely disappoints visitors despite its awesome traffic that clogs streets well past midnight and its polluted air. It has also become a secure and acceptable place to hold the most delicate diplomatic discussions, whether involving such regional issues as Syria and Iran, or wider concerns about Afghanistan and Africa. Istanbul has without fanfare also taken steps to emphasize its rising importance: with Spain it jointly administers the UN project on ‘Alliance of Civilizations’; it held recently a very high profile inaugural session of the World Economic Forum; and it also has become a favorite non-European meeting ground for a variety of UN sponsored events.

            Istanbul is convenient to reach for global gatherings, Turkey is a permissive gatekeeper with respect to visitor access automatically issuing visas for a small charge, and Turkish Airlines was recently selected as the best in Europe. Important, also, is the fact that Turkey is not Europe psychologically, even if a small part of its territory is treated as being in Europe. Turkey’s Asian identity is not just a geographic description, but is far more a cultural and religious imprimatur. It has been given greater recent authority by the European Union’s rejectionist response to the Turkish application for membership. Many comment that Turkey has been fortunate to remain outside the EU during the current Euro-crisis, but more than this, if Turkey had become a member it would no long be perceived as favorably by many non-Western constituencies. Turkey also has gained economic and political credibility at a time when so many important states have either been treading water so as to remain afloat. It has also pioneered in achieving a stable interface between secular principles and religious freedom, moving away from the ‘over-secularization’, to borrow the designation from Ibrahim Kalin. This rigid version of being secular dominated the Turkish political scene during the long period of Kemalist ascendancy that ended in 2002 with the control of the Turkish government shifting to the AKP as a result of electoral victories. It is necessary to account of such factors as Istanbul can not be separated from its embeddedness in the Turkish reality.

 

            But is not such acclaim for Turkey irrelevant to the advancement of Istanbul as global capital? One of the distinguishing features of the Erdogan leadership has been to shift the attention of the country and the world to Istanbul, just as Ataturk had strongly believed that a truly modern Turkey would need to repudiate its Ottoman past and so deliberately moved the capital city to Ankara as part of a fresh break with history for the young republic. For the AKP the re-glorification of Istanbul is a way of reviving pride and the traditions associated with the pre-republican era. This is not a crude form of neo-Ottomanism, but a realization that Istanbul was a treasure trove of cultural and religious eminence unmatched elsewhere, and a subtle reminder, through its extraordinary mosque architecture, of its former stature as the home of the Islamic Caliphate. As well, Turkey geopolitically and geographically provides a unique set of linkages between Europe and Asia, Europe and the Middle East, Europe and Africa, and offers the world a more cosmopolitan understanding of the Mediterranean world. I would also mention the degree to which Turkey’s most celebrated author, the Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk, has been inspired by the imaginative excesses of Istanbul as a city. Pamuk is sometimes referred to as ‘the biographer of Istanbul’ because his great The Black Book and his memoir of growing up in the city so brilliantly capture the magic and mysteries of Istanbul, which has attracted millions of hearts and minds around the world, endowing the city with an almost mystical identity for many of us. Tell me a city other than Istanbul that has exerted such an influence on our collective imaginations? Some might answer feebly ‘Venice,’ recalling Thomas Mann’s great story ‘Death in Venice’ as well as the haunting novel, The Comfort of Strangers, set in Venice by Ian McEwan, but the charisma of Venice is as a place of menace and degeneracy, although its exotic beauty is unquestionably one of the urban wonders of the world.

 

            What enhances Istanbul’s candidacy, in my judgment, is the degree to which this Turkish worldview has been recently articulated in a clear manner. More than any other current political leaders, those who have spoken for Turkey during the last several years have understood and expressed the need to bring a change about the way in which security and power have been achieved in modern international relations, while at the same time not losing an appreciation of the resilience of the old ways, however anachronistic, during this agonizing period of global transition. This innovative renewal of Turkish influence has been rooted, to an unparalleled extent, in soft power geopolitics stressing the mutual benefits of peace, trade, cultural achievement, ciilizational pride, and dialogue.

 

            True, Turkey’s preferred orientation has recently been significantly readjusted to take account of a series of unexpected developments arising from the aftermath of the Arab upheavals, especially in neighboring Syria.  Despite Turkish foreign policy being confronted by hard power challenges within its borders and region, Ankara’s underlying commitment to a new paradigm of world order has not been abandoned. The Kurdish challenge, the Syrian internal struggle, tensions with Iran have led to a dramatic modification of the earlier flagship promise of ‘zero problems with neighbors,’ but even this seemingly unrealistic goal, if sensitively and contextually considered, retains its essential wisdom, which combines principle associated with maximizing peaceful relations with states and their peoples and promoting mutually beneficial interests. As Foreign Minister Davutoglu has repeatedly stressed, when a neighboring government commits atrocities against its own people, then Turkey sides with the people, not the government that has discredited itself. When the zero problems approach was first proclaimed, it might have prevented future confusion, if this qualification had been made explicit.

 

AKP detractors, whether Kemalists within or Israelis without, have done their best to discredit the Turkish approach to foreign policy. Undoubtedly the new challenge is complex and difficult: How to strike a new balance amid the turmoil of the region that has so far made fools of us all! Yet I am convinced that Turkey continues to do its best to increase the prospects for soft power geopolitics while undertaking the necessary prudent steps to avoid dangerous vulnerability to those political forces that continue to rely on hard power solutions for conflict, including the perpetration of mass violence against their own people.

 

            Considering Istanbul as a possible future capital of the world can be interpreted as a side-effect of the advocacy of soft power geopolitics. It also responds to the receptivity of Turkey as a state willing to provide the peoples of the world with a safe haven for dialogue, negotiation, empathy, and the satisfactions of a post-Western world civilization. We are also recognizing the geographical and geopolitical location of Istanbul as a crossroads connecting several civilizations and religious traditions. Such a proposal can be dismissed as a wild exaggeration of the Turkish role in the world or as a perverse instance of wishful thinking, but it is put forward partly in response to an interpretation of integrative trends in our globalizing world, and also as an expression of the kind of flourishing future that will most likely be of most benefit the peoples of the world.

 

   

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