Global Citizenship (long version)

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Douglas Schuler
Public Sphere Project (CPSR)
Lori Blewett
The Evergreen State College

People typically envision their rights and responsibilities narrowly based solely on their status as citizens of a particular nation-state. This helps establish and maintain an "us against them" mindset which often leads to biased interpretations of information and, even, paranoia and hostility in relation to other countries. It can also be used to deny the reality or meaning of oppression and suffering in other countries and to eschew responsibility from helping to redress these problems. Generally, the particularities of specific citizenship also determine whether an individual has access to health care, education, and other rights — rights that arguably should be universal. Moreover, a narrow interpretation of citizenship implicitly cedes power to national governments whose defense of "national interest" can sometimes be used against its own citizens who have no legal access to a "higher authority." A narrow interpretation of citizenship also restricts the participation of citizens in global affairs and global problem-solving.


In the waning years of the 20th century, people worldwide began to take increased notice of the world outside their world. At the same time the national-state, facing economic globalization and enormous challenges as the new realities, seemed to be losing its ability — as well as its interest — in promoting the welfare of its own citizens and the natural world. John Urry characterizes the situation this way: "More generally, global money markets, world travel, the internet, globally recognized brands, globally organized corporations, the Rio Earth summit,


Citizenship is generally described as the formal relationship, usually codified in law, of a person (the citizen) and a state and often is delineated in terms of rights and responsibilities. Its site has shifted from the Greek city-state where the idea first took hold to the modern nation-state whose birth is linked to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that established the convention that countries and its citizens do not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

Many nationalist political movements — the 18th century American Revolution through the 20th century Palestinian Liberation struggle — emphasized national identity and citizenship to assert their right to self-determination and political autonomy from oppressive colonial states. But history is also rife with examples of nationalism used to oppress and remove minority, and sometimes majority, populations (Nazi Germany, Sudan, Serbo-Croatia, South Africa, Israel, and the United States are just a few countries that have engaged in some form of “ethnic cleansing”). At the same time, the liberal concept of citizenship based on a shared national identity offers the promise of overcoming religious and ethnic divisions. From the perspective of economically disadvantaged and oppressed sub-populations, however, the promise of inclusively and shared interests has fallen flat.

Appeals to the global community, through global institutions like the World Court and through transnational social movements, has become an increasingly important alternative (or supplement) to nationalist armed struggle for many minority populations. Disempowered within the Nation State, groups like Via Campesino bring together poor farmers and indigenous people from around the world to resist discriminatory global institutional policies and trade agreements. Of necessity, international social movements work to affect national governments, but their affiliation and their goals are as much global as they are local.

The transnational realm of global capital in a “free market” world, requires global civic response. As national laws are superceded by international treaties and trade agreements, individuals’ rights and obligations become governed by global institutions—the reality that citizens of debt-ridden nations are well aware of. The question is not whether or not we are global citizens. The question is what form will our citizenship take. What are our rights and responsibilities toward global governing institutions and structures. Should governing bodies be directly elected by the governed? How will the rights of the weakest be protected from the strongest in the global polity? What counts as a right? What responsibilities do global citizens have to one another?

We need to ask what types of globalization are empowering to individuals and define and construct ones are likely to lead to collective problem solving. Currently there are few opportunities for people to help address shared problems. Unfortunately, this lack of opportunity comes at time when many of the problems facing humankind are global problems that require global thinking and acting. In addition to preventing people (and their ideas and other resources) from contributing to the general welfare, narrow versions of citizenship are used to establish arbitrary categories of deservedness. Our narrow version of citizenship makes it less likely that global solutions — that work for everybody — are developed. The opposite, in fact, is more likely — that collective dilemmas are "resolved" in ways that are relatively bad for everybody — or nearly everybody.

What could / should people do to promote global citizenship — and what could / should people do to help avoid the more deleterious forms of globalization, such as global, hegemonic rule? There are two useful avenues for people to explore if we are to make headway towards realizing this pattern. The first is to assume the role and responsibilities without seeking permission from an authoritative source; obtaining permission would of course be impossible given that no authoritative source exists who can bestow such a designation. Assuming this role means thinking — and acting — globally; adopting the perspective that the world is densely interconnected, its general health is important and well-intentioned and well-informed citizens can play a positive role. (One caveat, however, is that if civil society continues to do more, there is a risk that the state will do less. For that reason civil society must continue to encourage the state to fulfill its obligations to the common good effectively, equitably, and transparently. The second is to actively work towards some formal recognition of global citizenship by, for example, helping to define and develop the intellectual and administrative scaffolding does not currently exist. Both of these paths could be undertaken individually or through working with existing or new organizations that work in these areas.

Arguably, full or, even, relatively engaged citizenship, is largely a myth. Even within established democracies the practice of citizenship is sporadic and shallow for most of the citizenry. In the majority of the world, citizenship as an enlightened, recognized and fulfilled condition is not even a dream. The defenders of the state-only definition of citizenship need to explain how the concept is helping people worldwide. While they're at it they may also explain how their model can possibly prevail against belligerent countries who pollute, over-consume resources, invade or otherwise disregard the will and well-being of the rest of the world.

When Diogenes, the Greek philosopher, stated that he was a citizen of the world, he was refusing, according to Martha Nussbaum, "to be defined simply by his local origins and group memberships, associations central to the self-image of a conventional Greek male; he insisted on defining himself in terms of more universal aspirations and concerns" (Nussbaum, 2003). But to some scholars, the nation-state is the rightful and permanent well-spring of citizenship and alternative conceptualizations, however tentative and speculative are damned as heretical. Michael Walzer, for example, finds it difficult to contemplate the idea since, "No one has ever offered me [world] citizenship, or described the naturalization process, or enlisted me in the world’s institutional structures, or given me an account of its decision procedures (I hope they are democratic), or provided me with a list of the benefits and obligations of citizenship, or shown me the world’s calendar and the common celebrations and commemorations of its citizens.” As an ironic and unintended side-effect of this critique, Walzer provided a useful (if overly formal) laundry list of practical objectives that proponents of global citizenship would need to consider.

This is not to deny the possibility that some versions of "global citizenship" that humankind may ultimately develop — accidentally or by design — could turn out to be unspeakably evil. This possibility should surprise no one: throughout history, humankind has exhibited an enthusiastic genius for establishing hells on earth that surpass the misery of those conceived by our poets, artists and theologians. The truth is, however, that the future is generally unknowable and choice and chance will always play a part. If, for example, Florida's ballots had been counted in the US national elections of 2000 that country would probably not have invaded Iraq in 2003. One of the questions related to this issue, is who should determine the future of citizenship. Is this the sole domain of national governments, multi-national (or other) corporations, international organizations, and political theorists or do citizens have some role to play?

The ultimate expression of the pattern might seem to be global homogeneity. We don't believe this is desirable, likely, or even possible. We envision a system of overlapping citizenships as this both exists to large extent already and seems to be workable and useful in general. It's important to show how (and help create situations that demonstrate how) global links are more beneficial for people than the alternative, closed, insulated and suspicious communities and nations.

In a conflict that arises when "national interest" is pitted against broader, say world, interests, a person who explores or embraces the broader interests can be labeled as a hopeless idealist or, much worse, a traitor. But how is the "national interest" articulated — and by whom? Is there an ongoing process or dialogue who outcomes decides this issue? Can the state reserve the right "by the power vested in it" to define this concept and, further, to invoke it (however ambiguous it may be) at will as justification for arbitrary state action?

Ann Florini (2005) builds a case that the Internet may help create a global consciousness that is analogous to the nationalist consciousness that the printed word helped inspire. The printing press led to a reconciliation of regional differences and a cheaper and faster way to reach constituencies that were too remote for effective collaboration. This then played a strong role in the development of the nation-state and, hence, nation-state-based citizenship. In similar fashion, Florini surmises that a new global consciousness could help usher in broader, more inclusive notions of citizenship.

Are there examples of de facto global citizenship? Organizations like "No person is illegal" and the Reporters / Doctors / etc. "Without Borders" groups are getting closer to that ideal. Are there practical experiments that could be done now — The growth of "universal declarations," supporting human rights, for example, helps explain why the time might be fairly ripe for thinking like this.

The concept of global citizenship currently lacks the administrative and legalistic trappings of national citizenship that Walzer requires. Nevertheless from Diogenes to the present day, the pursuit and adoption of "global citizenship", however demeaned and under-institutionalized it is at present, continues to provide an compelling vision to millions of people around the world, people who are officially noted as "belonging" to individual, specific countries.

The bottom line, however, for everybody interested in these issues, is that people must think beyond the borders of the countries in which they hold citizenship. Many books speak to this issue including Transnational Democracy (Anderson, 2002), Global Democracy (Holden, 2000) and Environmental Citizenship (Dobson and Bell, 2006). And although these are more likely to be dynamic, idiosyncratic and short-lived, new web sites are springing into existence every day. The Internet makes it easier to learn about "foreign" perspectives, that while they can be as hidebound as their "domestic" counterparts, they help reveal the immense diversity of viewpoints on earth as well as the universality of concerns facing people everywhere.

A more global focus in no way is meant to suggest that people renounce their citizenship. It does, however, acknowledge that one own's government, like any human institution is fallible and that concerns that arise from other countries are likely to have validity that wasn't obvious with the national citizenship filter in place. It may also be the case that the governments of many, if not most, are wrong on some issue and that a citizen-led, transnational approach may be right.

As with other patterns in this category, the journey towards the goal will be incremental, perennial, lurching, and met by setbacks as well as successes. There are tasks for many people with a wide variety of roles and responsibilities; professionals like lawyers, think-tank and NGO staff, government officials and academics can engage with the public on these issues in addition to their more specialized and technical concerns. There are hosts of organizations and projects in which people can engage. See patterns Engaged Tourism or Citizen Diplomacy for more ideas. Communication with people in other countries is especially important because this helps ensure that people realize that people in other countries are real people and not abstract non-persons. This, of course, represents a major hurdle as many people because of poverty, language barriers or other reasons cannot easily engage with people outside of their region.

I accept fully the mandate for a planetary, future-oriented perspective, but seek to avoid any dogmatic assumptions that its realization depends on objective or detached knowledge. (Falk, 1973)


Martha Nussbaum, in her 1994 discussion on the Stoics in "Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism" refers to the fact that each of us dwells, in effect, in two communities — the local community of our birth, and the community of human argument and aspiration that "is truly great and truly common, in which we look neither to this corner nor to that, but measure the boundaries of our nation by the sun" (Seneca, De Otio).

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