Commentary

Post-Imperial Cities

Last month I revisited three post-imperial cities: Moscow, Berlin and Istanbul. They had a remarkable resurrection since I had first visited them, which is the subject of this column.

I first visited Moscow in the early 1990s just after Yegor Gaidar’s prime ministership; East Berlin a week after the fall of the Berlin Wall; and Istanbul in the late 1960s. All three were suffering from the post-imperial communal melancholy, which the Turks call huzun and which is brilliantly described in Orhan Pamuk’s memoir Istanbul: Memories and the City. It “stems from poverty, defeat and loss”. But in all three there is a new spring — rising incomes, new building and an elan among a growing and youthful middle class that only rising aspirations accompanied by prosperity can bring.

The sources of this renaissance are similar. In all three, the dead hand of past dirigisme was swept away, though imperfectly, in the 1990s as their countries joined the second great era of globalisation. It has also led (at least in Turkey) to the rise of the parvenu — the new political and economic elites — whose seeming vulgarity and crass tastes are derided by the old melancholic and defeated elites they have replaced.

The turnaround in their economic fortunes has also in different ways refurbished their old imperial instincts. For it was the erosion of their economic preponderance in the global system that was in large part responsible for the destruction of their empires.

This is clearest in the case of Russia where its de facto Tsar, Vladimir Putin, has overseen an economic renaissance underwritten by Russia’s vast natural resources. He has bemoaned the dissolution of the Russian empire as the greatest geo-political tragedy. He wants to bring in the “near abroad” into an informal empire, based on an economic union like the European Union (EU) and a military alliance like Nato.

It is unlikely that he will succeed. For, apart from its demographic collapse, the heavy-handed authoritarian capitalism that Russia has embraced has led to many of the best and brightest seeking their fortunes abroad. Nor is it likely that the newly independent constituents of the old Russian empire are likely to embrace the newly resurgent Russian bear. Russia’s best course would be to follow the liberalising course charted, but not implemented, by President Medvedev, weaning Russia away from reliance on natural resources towards its considerable human capital, and becoming a high-tech “normal” European country.

The case of the resurrection of German imperial instincts after its reunification is less clear-cut. On one of my recent visits to Berlin, I stayed in a hotel overlooking Frederick the Great’s parade ground in the East, and saw how the old architectural symbols of Prussian and German power that were destroyed in the East were being rebuilt. With the rebuilding of Hitler’s Chancery one could sense how someone sitting there could feel the power of a German Reich, which was unimaginable in provincial Bonn. For, as the title of A J P Taylor’s magisterial book The Struggle for the Mastery of Europe suggests, the Germans for the last 200 years have sought to create a German-led Holy Roman empire.

The route through two cataclysmic world wars proved a dead end. Since then the German political elites have been creating an indirect European empire through a gradual deepening of the EU. The euro, wrung out by the French as the price of their acquiescence to a united Germany reluctant to give up its cherished Deutsch mark, is now poised to implode as a result of the contradictions of its inception: putting the cart of monetary union before that of political and fiscal union. Though the German elites now seem to be willing to create this United States of Europe, will the French, who have always wanted Europe to be a union of nation states? It thus remains to be seen whether the current euro-zone crisis will lead to Germany finally fulfilling its long-standing imperial ambitions.

This leaves Turkey. The beginning of the end of Kemalist etatism can be dated to the economic liberalisation undertaken by Turgut Ozal, which opened the economy and restored some microeconomic sense. This was complemented by the macroeconomic stability established by Kemal Dervis and maintained by the moderate Islamic governments of Recep Tayyip Erdogan .

These have allowed the pious business class of Anatolia to create a vibrant economy, and provided Erdogan the political muscle to challenge the old Kemalist elites and their main political enforcer — the army. This new-found political and economic vigour has allowed Turkey under the AKP to realise that it can modernise without necessarily westernising. Though there are fears that Erdogan wants to eventually become an Islamist Attaturk, I think these are overblown.

Turkey under the AKP has provided a model of a democratic moderate Islamic country that has been an economic success through largely following the “Washington Consensus”. Erdogan is now successfully trumpeting this across the “new” Middle East. This is all to the good. I have long believed that the multi-ethnic Ottoman empire, despite its growing economic sclerosis, provided a tolerant peace to the highly diverse populations of the Middle East. As Turkey is realising that its future lies not with a reluctant and sclerotic EU, but on re-establishing its hegemony in its old Middle-Eastern domain, the resulting regional order could ensure the peace its inhabitants have been denied since the 1918 Treaty of Versailles.

There are two other post-imperial cities — New Delhi and Beijing — that with their economic resurgence are emerging as the centres of two prospective imperial powers (one reluctant, the other too eager). Their huzun too has lifted. Their resurrection marks not only the benefits of economic liberalism, but — along with Istanbul — also that of the older Eurasian imperial systems defeated by the Western gunpowder empires. Their competition or collaboration with the sole remaining superpower will determine whether the post-war global order of the American Pax, promoting unprecedented global prosperity, will be maintained or eroded.

Deepak Lal is the professor of international development studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.