Last October, British Prime Minister Theresa May shocked many when she disparaged the idea of global citizenship. “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,” she said, “you’re a citizen of nowhere.”
Her statement was met with derision and alarm in the financial media and among liberal commentators. “The most useful form of citizenship these days,” one analyst lectured her, “is one dedicated not only to the wellbeing of a Berkshire parish, say, but to the planet.” The Economist called it an “illiberal” turn. A scholar accused her of repudiating Enlightenment values and warned of “echoes of 1933” in her speech.
I know what a “global citizen” looks like: I see a perfect specimen every time I pass a mirror. I grew up in one country, live in another, and carry the passports of both. I write on global economics, and my work takes me to far-flung places. I spend more time traveling in other countries than I do within either country that claims me as a citizen.
Most of my close colleagues at work are similarly foreign-born. I devour international news, while my local paper remains unopened most weeks. In sports, I have no clue how my home teams are doing, but I am a devoted fan of a football team on the other side of the Atlantic.
And yet May’s statement strikes a chord. It contains an essential truth – the disregard of which says much about how we – the world’s financial, political, and technocratic elite – distanced ourselves from our compatriots and lost their trust.
Start first with the actual meaning of the word “citizen.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a legally recognized subject or national of a state or commonwealth.” Hence citizenship presumes an established polity – “a state or commonwealth” – of which one is a member. Countries have such polities; the world does not.
Proponents of global citizenship quickly concede that they do not have a literal meaning in mind. They are thinking figuratively. Technological revolutions in communications and economic globalization have brought citizens of different countries together, they argue. The world has shrunk, and we must act bearing the global implications in mind. And besides, we all carry multiple, overlapping identities. Global citizenship does not – and need not – crowd out parochial or national responsibilities.
All well and good. But what do global citizens really do?
Real citizenship entails interacting and deliberating with other citizens in a shared political community. It means holding decision-makers to account and participating in politics to shape the policy outcomes. In the process, my ideas about desirable ends and means are confronted with and tested against those of my fellow citizens.
Global citizens do not have similar rights or responsibilities. No one is accountable to them, and there is no one to whom they must justify themselves. At best, they form communities with like-minded individuals from other countries. Their counterparts are not citizens everywhere but self-designated “global citizens” in other countries.
Of course, global citizens have access to their domestic political systems to push their ideas through. But political representatives are elected to advance the interests of the people who put them in office. National governments are meant to look out for national interests, and rightly so. This does not exclude the possibility that constituents might act with enlightened self-interest, by taking into account the consequences of domestic action for others.
But what happens when the welfare of local residents comes into conflict with the wellbeing of foreigners – as it often does? Isn’t disregard of their compatriots in such situations precisely what gives so-called cosmopolitan elites their bad name?
Global citizens worry that the interests of the global commons may be harmed when each government pursues its own narrow interest. This is certainly a concern with issues that truly concern the global commons, such as climate change or pandemics. But in most economic areas – taxes, trade policy, financial stability, fiscal and monetary management – what makes sense from a global perspective also makes sense from a domestic perspective. Economics teaches that countries should maintain open economic borders, sound prudential regulation and full-employment policies, not because these are good for other countries, but because they serve to enlarge the domestic economic pie.
Of course, policy failures – for example, protectionism – do occur in all of these areas. But these reflect poor domestic governance, not a lack of cosmopolitanism. They result either from policy elites’ inability to convince domestic constituencies of the benefits of the alternative, or from their unwillingness to make adjustments to ensure that everyone does indeed benefit.
Hiding behind cosmopolitanism in such instances – when pushing for trade agreements, for example – is a poor substitute for winning policy battles on their merits. And it devalues the currency of cosmopolitanism when we truly need it, as we do in the fight against global warming.
Few have expounded on the tension between our various identities – local, national, global – as insightfully as the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah. In this age of “planetary challenges and interconnection between countries,” he wrote in response to May’s statement, “the need has never been greater for a sense of a shared human fate.” It is hard to disagree.
Yet cosmopolitans often come across like the character from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov who discovers that the more he loves humanity in general, the less he loves people in particular. Global citizens should be wary that their lofty goals do not turn into an excuse for shirking their duties toward their compatriots.
We have to live in the world we have, with all its political divisions, and not the world we wish we had. The best way to serve global interests is to live up to our responsibilities within the political institutions that matter: those that exist.