Cosmopolitanism isn’t dead but it might need a rebrand


A woman walks under election posters of the victorious nationalist Slovenian Democratic Party in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Borut Zivulovic / Reuters

“Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe,” US president Barack Obama reportedly said in the weeks after Donald Trump’s presidential election victory.

Mr Obama’s self-doubt about the liberal politics that won him two presidential terms is reported in a new book by his long-time aide Ben Rhodes. But that single comment about tribes raises several crucial questions. Is cosmopolitanism, an ideology that floats above tribal loyalties, an empty indulgence of the unpatriotic? Is it wrong to fancy oneself a cosmopolitan, literally a citizen of the world, when we live in nation-states, each of which is beset by its own particular problems? Is cosmopolitanism simply out of time?

The answer to all three questions is “no”, although it might not seem that way from successive political developments across the world. Consider all that happened in just the past few weeks.

Slovenia voted on Sunday for an anti-immigrant party that promised to put Slovenians first by defending ordinary working people against the corrupt, non-patriotic elite. Italy’s new far-right interior minister took a hard nationalist line on migrant arrivals, vowing mass expulsions and accusing Tunisia of exporting “convicts” rather than “gentlemen”. And Mr Trump described members of a relatively small ethnically Central American gang in the US as “animals”.

All of the above would seem to suggest the same thing: a narrow world view that elevates nativism to a core principle in domestic and international affairs and dehumanises everyone else. It appears to be irredeemably anti-cosmopolitan because citizens of the world would hardly take such a limited view of the global community.

But cosmopolitanism should not become a casualty in the clash between nationalism and globalisation when it actually seeks to combine the two.

Enlightenment cosmopolitans such as the 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant believed that human beings should see themselves as dual citizens: as members of their respective states and as participants in a wider community of humankind.

And yet, we have a leading British politician, Nick Clegg, recently acknowledging the “tension” between being patriotic and liberal. Mr Clegg seemed to be communicating the friction between nationalism and cosmopolitanism when he lamented the way liberal politicians are “deemed to be just a little too stand-offish about a very primitive, understandable and very strong instinct that we all have to belong to some wider entity”.

That speaks to 18th century Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s complaint that cosmopolitans “boast that they love everyone to have the right to love no one”. Indeed, the claim that cosmopolitans are a detached and indulgent elite has long been peddled by hyper-nationalists.

But cosmopolitans need not be quite so apologetic. Instead, they might usefully underline a basic truth — cosmopolitanism should not be confused with multiculturalism. Nigel Rapport, a former research professor at Montreal university in globalisation, citizenship and justice, once memorably quoted Mario Vargas Llosa’s take on multiculturalism — that dog, cat and mouse should eat from the same plate. But cosmopolitanism, said Mr Rapport, “presupposes individualisation”.

Going by that definition, there can be any number of objections to recent events in Slovenia, Italy and the US but they shouldn’t necessarily be seen as anti-cosmopolitan so much as uncosmopolitan.

Just as Plato regarded the polis or city-state as the normative context of community life, Mr Trump, Slovenia’s probable next prime minister Janez Jansa and Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini seek to limit their policies and action to their own countries and to their own citizens. That might be uncharitable, unfeeling and yes, uncosmopolitan, but probably not strictly anti-cosmopolitan.

Think back to Mr Trump’s first address as president to the UN General Assembly last September. He stressed that diverse nations had the right to their own “values” and “culture” without the interference of outsiders and that the UN was a forum for co-operation between strong and independent nations rather than a mechanism for “global governance”.

The speech recognised the pre-eminence of different nation-states and was informed by an uncosmopolitan spirit but it did at least accept the logic of different manoeuvres by individual nations. It did not make the case for subjugation or slavery, just for a selfish disregard of others.

That is regrettable but it still doesn’t suggest cosmopolitanism is over.

One of the problems with the reporting and analysis of current affairs is the way we now roll everything up together into a tightly wadded continuum that signifies a world turning in on itself.

Newspaper and television reportage increasingly uses all of the following interchangeably — populist, nationalist, nativist, anti-liberal, anti-immigrant, Islamophobic. The effects of some of these political trends might be pretty similar — mostly, they translate into hostility to foreigners, especially Muslims and Africans — but it is important to recognise that they are all distinct impulses. And they do not necessarily render cosmopolitanism obsolete.

Cosmopolitanism has been redefined many times over the centuries but right now, its role may be to provide a template for a patriotic globalism.