In an increasingly polarised and fragmented world, I would like to extol the virtues of being a citizen of the world. I am a proud citizen of the world, and I wish there were more people who felt like me.
The former UK Prime Minister Theresa May famously said in 2016:
“If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.”
These words sparked a big controversy at the time, and many even compared her speech to Hitler (here and here, for example). It is not my intention to restart an old debate here, but I do believe that the concept of us all being “citizens of the world” can be a positive force for good. I would like to use this post to explain why.
I am a proud citizen of the world
I am from the Basque Country in Spain. We speak one of the oldest languages in Europe (which is not related to Spanish or any other language of Indo-European origin), and we are famously proud of our traditions, customs, and culture. Many people in the Basque Country feel neither Spanish nor French (part of the Basque Country is also in France) and would like to have more autonomy or live in a completely independent state.
Apart from my native Bermeo and San Sebastian, both in the Basque Country, I have also lived in Barcelona, London, Paris and now Singapore, I have traveled extensively, and I speak several languages. I consider myself a proud citizen of the world, and I wish more people were feeling the same.
I love the Basque Country, our traditions and spending time there. I think it is a great place to live, and I am pretty sure I will end up living there again, but the world is full of amazing places and if I were born and raised in say Mumbai, Shanghai, Houston or Bogotá, I am sure that I would love them and I would think they were excellent too. We human beings end up loving the culture in which we are raised because that’s what makes sense to our world, but no culture is intrinsically better than any other, and where we are born and raised is a question of random and chance.
Looking at the situation people are in today in many countries in the world, I was lucky to be born in Bermeo. That’s one of the reasons I feel like a citizen of the world. I want all my fellow human beings to have better lives, not only my countrymen, family members, friends or acquaintances. Why them and not others?
Globalism vs. Localism, a false dichotomy?
Internationalism is not the same as globalism, the same way that localism is different from nationalism. The first two would be at one end of the spectrum, the one favoring further integration between countries and their economies and cultures, with nationalism and localism at the other end, the one fostering difference and the value of proximity.
These things usually depend on who you ask and how you precisely define each term, but globalism and nationalism would usually have the more negative connotations of these terms.
I’m not too fond of labeling and categorizing myself or others, hence I won’t select one of these for myself. I believe academics often like to create false dichotomies and spectra to classify concepts and people, but I don’t necessarily think we should all be put into boxes.
I agree with localists in that we usually forge our most essential relationships locally, and that what matters to us usually happens also locally. I can also see that unfettered globalization has increased inequality in many places (it has also raised out of poverty millions, mainly in China and East Asia). Many in other regions of the world perceive it as trying to impose a liberal economic model based on Western culture.
Globalization, as an economic model, has created a lot of wealth, but it has also created plenty of inequalities. Still, I don’t think rising trade barriers is the solution. Anyway, this post’s goal was not to support economic globalization based on a neoliberal capitalist model in which everything goes, but to promote a culturally and politically globalized world in which we feel increasingly closer to each other and can solve global problems globally.
The origin of nations and cultures
Tribalism and localism are natural processes and make sense from an evolutionary perspective. For millennia, our ancestors lived in small groups of 50 people, where they knew and trusted each other and worked together towards the survival of the group. This meant building a strong group spirit, in opposition to anybody else outside that group—we against them. Opposition to THEM helps create a sense of US.
Like Yuval Noah Harari explains in Sapiens, when we started building cities and then nations with thousands and then millions of citizens, we built narratives around religion and nationalism that allowed us to continue functioning as groups, even if we no longer knew everybody else in that group. Those groups were still based on a strong group spirit, built upon anthems, legends, a flag, a king, a god, and other many common symbols, and in opposition to other groups. Again, it was WE against THEM.
This group spirit has made sense throughout all history, until we got to the 20th Century, where the two World Wars, a Cold War and the threat of nuclear annihilation should have made us think whether this is still a good working model.
Now we are facing a global pandemic, a much bigger problem in the form of climate change, rising global inequality, terrorism, wars raging in some countries, health problems linked to obesity in some countries and malnutrition and hunger in many others, the advent of AI and increased automation… and the list goes on, but the two greatest powers in the world are embarked in a trade war, and there doesn’t seem to be any global agreement on how to tackle all these problems.
We need global solutions to global problems, but as The Economist wrote recently, globalization is receding, and we don’t know what will take its place. If it is greater nationalism and localism, it is unlikely to create a better world.
Towards a One-State World?
In a book published more than 30 years ago1, the anthropologist Marvin Harris argued that the number of sovereign political units reached their peak around 1000 BC when there were around 500,000 bands, villages, and chiefdoms in the world. Now there are about 200 independent countries, and if we follow the curve of calculations, there will be one only after the year 2300, which if you ask me it is a bit too late.
Unfortunately, the primary means to achieve this consolidation has been warfare. I am not sure we would survive a global war between several regional powers with the destructive capacity we have today. Luckily there are glimmers of hope in some examples of voluntary and pacific integration of some countries into a region, the main one being the European Union.
The EU and the creation of the United Nations after World War II are good signs towards integration and the eventual arrival of a Global State in which sovereignty resides in all humanity and not in a particular nation, and different regions can solve their differences peacefully and democratically. However, I am afraid we are still centuries away from this state of affairs.
The sooner the better
I am a proud Basque citizen of the world. I love being Basque and loved growing up in the Basque Country, where I feel alive. However, rather than build walls between nations and peoples and look at what makes us different, I prefer to look at what I have in common with other people, be it English, Chinese or Iranian.
Call me naïve, but I wish there were no political barriers between countries, and we were all citizens of the world, citizens of one single political entity, where every citizen of the world would have the same rights and obligations across the globe. We could have something like the Principle of Subsidiarity. This EU treaty article defines that the EU does not take action unless it is more effective or makes more sense than an action taken at the national, regional, or local level. This way, government responsibility would lay as close to the people as possible, but global problems would be solved globally.
In this world, we would keep our languages, cultures, and different ways of living our lives. Still, we would all feel citizens of the same entity and solve our problems through collaboration, not confrontation.
In this world, there would be no wars, and there would be no nuclear weapons left, as they would all be redundant. We would enact a concerted response to the next pandemic, and we wouldn’t be scraping amongst ourselves to see what country gets the vaccine first. We would have an integrated and coherent approach to fight climate change. We would have a global strategy to fight inequality and redistribute wealth fairly. People would be free to move across borders, and all countries would be more multicultural and open.
Call me naïve, but wouldn’t you like to live in a world like this? I definitely would, but then again, I am a citizen of the world, and a very proud one at that.
1Harris, Marvin. Our Kind. New York: Harper Perennial, 1989