Why There's No Such Thing as Global Citizenship

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There's plenty to be said for international cooperation. But if you really want to change the world, first be a good American. 

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Are we citizens of the world?

In recent years, an unlikely collection of lefty environmentalists, Internet libertarians, multicultural educators, and voracious capitalists has coalesced around the idea that nations don't really matter anymore - that all we need is state-free citizenship of the globe. It's a powerful vision. It has in its favor much evidence and many trends. And it is a mirage.

To be sure, technology and economic globalization have made nations weaker and borders less meaningful. Mega-problems like climate change and financial panics know no boundaries. More than ever, we need to understand the deep interconnectedness of economic, political, and cultural life on the planet. And as Tim O'Reilly notes, the Internet is indeed birthing something like a global brain.

But what we call "global citizenship" is usually one of three things, none of which is quite global citizenship. The first is an ethic of consciousness about the worldwide impact of our actions, and the worldwide forces shaping our actions. This is what educators and environmental activists mean when they talk about being good global citizens. Reduce your carbon footprint. Recognize your shared responsibility for conditions in other countries. Learn about the cultures and histories of those countries.

This version of global citizenship, baked into the mission statements of many colleges and philanthropies, is worthy and necessary. It is certainly global. But it is not citizenship, at least not in the sense of participation in a sovereign political community. It's more a general template for mutuality and pro-social behavior, using citizenship as a metaphor.

A second notion of global citizenship, heard among the tech-minded and among fans of multilateral diplomacy, does indeed contemplate creating or bolstering institutions that can help govern the people of Earth. Whether the issue is regulation of the Internet or adjudication of territorial disputes, we see more cooperative efforts arising to address sticky issues of transnational governance.

This, too, can be a useful thing. At the same time, it has practical limits. When even the most avid self-described global citizen realizes he can't get or afford health care, he will not turn to the United Nations or the World Health Organization. He will turn to his local or national government to enact and enforce laws that provide that care - that is, if he's lucky enough to live in a part of the planet where the government is stable and effective enough to respond.

The third notion of global citizenship, championed by Fortune 500 CEOs and other winners in the global economy, holds that capital has globalized the economy and corporations have transcended their countries of origin, thus freeing capitalists from the nation-state. As Thomas Friedman puts it, corporate leaders don't think any more about being from "here" or outsourcing to "there." The world is their game board, and they deploy pieces wherever cost-effective.

This version of global citizenship is mainly a form of self-justification. It allows economic elites to forget that their corporations were made possible by the investments and institutions of actual nations - and to shed responsibility for the health of those nations. It permits them to treat as God-given and fixed, rather than man-made and malleable, an arrangement in which everything is subservient to capital. This isn't citizenship of any kind; it's an excuse to opt out.

So if there's not really a there there when it comes to global citizenship, what are we left with? Networks and nations. Technology now is enabling us to invert the 1960s slogan and to think local, act global. That is, think about how to change our own localities and then, via technology, link up with local changemakers in other places to form a global grid of action. A few years ago, for example, when the U.S. failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, Seattle's mayor led a network of mayors from hundreds of cities across the planet to reduce their greenhouse gases. This kind of networked localism is only going to increase.

But in the end, nation-states and national citizenship still matter most because they remain the most workable vehicles for collective, large-scale problem-solving. If humanity averts climate catastrophe, it will be because states like China, India, and the U.S. each get their act together - and then act together. And while the Internet fueled the Arab Spring, it has not enabled the citizens of what is still called Egypt to govern themselves. The story after the Spring, like it or not, is being written within the framework of national governments.

Nations matter for a deeper reason too. They give form to the human need both to belong and to exclude. We are hardwired for tribe, and tribe means some are in and some are out. At the opening and closing of each Olympiad, when the five-ring flag is raised or lowered and the Olympic anthem is played, no one cries. No one (not even Morgan Freeman) says "Go World." And no one ever will, at least until we begin competing against athletes from other planets.

This is why, among nations, the United States matters uniquely. The U.S. by design has the most capacious form of tribe possible, based on a universal civic creed rather than blood or soil or deity. Yes, we regularly fail to live up to that creed. But there it stands, challenging us to do better and compelling people from around the world to come here. That makes America the planet's petri dish for new combinations of genes and memes and ways of life.

Citizenship of the United States is also the closest humanity has yet gotten to an actionable version of global citizenship. The U.N. Declaration of Human Rights may be more expansive than the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, but only the latter comes with effective power of enforcement. "Equal protection under law" is a killer app with viral potential.

That's why Americans today - especially if their concerns are global - need to engage more fully in the civic life of this country and to see themselves as citizens of the United States, with all the responsibilities and powers that status entails. Want to be a citizen of the world? Help America be all it can be. There's nothing more cosmopolitan than a true American patriot.

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Eric Liu is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He is the author of A Chinaman's Chance, co-author of The Gardens of Democracy, and the creator of Citizen University. He was a speechwriter and deputy domestic-policy adviser for President Bill Clinton.

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