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No such thing as global citizenship

Wednesday, August 15th, 2012

Eric Liu has an essay in The Atlantic in which he takes on the question of what “global citizenship” actually means. His answer? There isn’t such a thing as worldwide citizenship–and “if you really want to change the world, first be a good American.”

Liu begins by noting that “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”–but this understanding simply uses the word “citizenship” as a metaphor since one is not actually participating in or tied to a political community. The second understanding does promote global institutions to govern things like the Internet or address issues of territorial disputes, but this government is inherently limited: When a “global citizen” actually needs something from his government, it won’t be the global government to which he will turn, but rather he’ll look to his local and national government for help. And finally, the third notion of global citizenship–that the globalized economy has freed people and their businesses from the confines of the nation-state–is, Liu points out, not so much an understanding of citizenship as it is an “excuse to opt out” of citizenship of any kind.

Instead, Liu writes, nation-states and national citizenship still matter, both for practical and very human reasons:

[Nations] 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.

Read all of Liu’s essay here.