The Risky Rhetoric of Global Citizenship

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The consequences of weakening national identity are not benign.

The rhetoric of global citizenship, whether used descriptively or prescriptively, is now firmly established as a part of the common language of public affairs and higher education. References to global citizenship are almost never pejorative, and even if they do not have beneficent qualities attached to them, then global citizenship is at least presented as something benign or harmless.

The growing tendency to encourage Americans, and school children in particular, to see themselves as global citizens, however, is not without risks to our constitutional republic.

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Besides the fact that global citizenship does not make sense (it is literally non-sense) since citizenship is about membership in an actual civil society or civic order (civitas), the substitution of attention to global citizenship for attention to national citizenship is an invitation for Americans to become indifferent to the wellbeing of the only civic community of which they really are a part.

While responsible citizenship on the part of Americans, the sovereign body in our democratic republic, must include an attention to global affairs, it is another thing to substitute a global identity for a national identity. The consequences of weakening our national identity and national attachments are not benign.

The rhetoric of global citizenship plays on the natural human impulse to live a life free of tragedy, whether associated with environmental degradation or international conflict, or some other asserted threat to safety and happiness. The claims associated with this rhetoric draw sustenance from modern science that favors a comprehensive (“globalistic”) approach to problem-solving, and also from the perception that attachments to local and national identities are either responsible for many of our greatest problems or at least make it difficult to resolve them.

Unlike the American Founders, whose reflections on human existence were based on the phenomena that surrounded them (that is, how human beings and political communities really behave), advocates of global citizenship subscribe to an idealized view of what they think human existence should be like and how human beings ought to behave. In this way, they imitate Karl Marx and mimic a conception of human existence that gave rise to totalitarianism.

Taking actual human impulses seriously led the American Founders to settle on a federalistic system that entrusted the nurturing of citizens to the states and local governments. They concluded that it is more likely that people will acquire the knowledge and skills required for responsible self-government — and protect the fundamental liberties that are critical to genuine human flourishing — if they are entrusted with real power to manage important civic affairs in their own communities.

Local self-government teaches citizens to bargain and form coalitions; it teaches them that self-governance is complicated and even difficult; it teaches people to accept defeat and celebrate victories with civility; and it nurtures habits essential to production and commerce as well as charity and service. Extensive communal interaction means citizens come face-to-face with both the happiness enjoyed by their neighbors as well as the tragedies that are an inescapable part of human existence.

The rhetoric of global citizenship has a centralizing bias that diminishes rather than elevates persons, at least when compared with the “way of life” that is associated with citizenship in the American federative republic where persons are incentivized to stretch themselves to the max and become consequential persons, “big fish” if you will, in a multitude of “little ponds.”

Human flourishing within the thousands of communities that make up the American federative republic is part and parcel of American citizenship, it is of the very “essence” of American citizenship — it is not the very essence of global citizenship or the identification with a fictional community whose members are so distantly connected that any incentive to make sacrifices is attenuated to the point of exerting little influence over each person’s day-to-day life.

Significantly, people who are left without any grounding in a concrete civic order or political community are likely to be defenseless against claims raised on behalf of pervasive control of their lives by officials who are far beyond their reach.

The problem with the rhetoric of global citizenship is not the encouragement it gives Americans to pay attention to world affairs, but the risk that the worldview implicit in this rhetoric will weaken the respect that Americans have for a constitutional republic that has done a remarkable job of securing fundamental liberties critical to both safety and happiness. When respect for the republic is weakened, along with an attachment to what is most immediately one’s own, then the willingness to “go the extra mile” to protect local and national interests also is weakened. Viewed in this light, the rhetoric of global citizenship should be accompanied by a stark warning: “Buyer beware.”

David Marion is Elliot Professor Emeritus of Government and a Faculty Fellow of the Wilson Center for Leadership in the Public Interest at Hampden-Sydney College.

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