“Imagine there’s no countries.” Grammar aside (“imagine there are no countries”), John Lennon’s famous entreaty taps into something deep and divisive. The practically-minded all scoff; a world undivided by nations would be barely recognisable, and perhaps to even think about it is to waste one’s time. But there are weightier—and more practical—issues here than covered in a nice but overplayed pop song.
Lennon’s view can be seen as a relatively simplistic version of cosmopolitanism, or the idea that you have moral obligations to all people regardless of their geographical proximity or cultural similarity to you. On the surface this is a view that most non-racists would subscribe to, and is certainly in line with a great deal of serious thought on morality. But while it is appealing, the practical side of things is, as always, more difficult. Nation-states are widespread and deeply entrenched, and obviously tend to act in their own self-interest. Stopping short of a global reorganisation, what would it mean for our political arrangements to actually reflect a cosmopolitan worldview? But before we get to that, it’s worth exploring why the whole question is even relevant.
First of all, nationalism is very much alive in this country. In 2009, Britain’s The Economist reported that Australians have more “trust, admiration, respect and pride” in their country than the citizens of any other first-world nation. From genuine pride in Australia and Australian products to rampant self-righteousness in Bob Katter’s nascent ‘Australia Party’, attaching oneself to a shared cultural identity provides a sense of collective obligation that is, simply, good business. This is Honi Soit, ladies and gentlemen; 100% Australian Owned™ (wink).
Second, two of the major debates currently seizing Australian politics are closely related to the discourse between nationalism and cosmopolitanism. For example, the (often subtly-phrased) question at the centre of the refugee issue is “why should we take care of people from some other country who come here without our permission?” Although nearly everyone agrees that a) helping people in need is important and b) surely not anyone should be allowed to just waltz into any country they choose, this question is a powder-keg.
Another issue, perhaps even more politically charged, is that of the carbon tax and the wider topic of climate change. Here the central questions are “why should Australia act on climate change before so many other countries do? Why should we disadvantage ourselves by being among the first, if other countries aren’t on board?” In each of these issues the interests of a nation are in opposition to some conception of the ‘greater good’. The debate between nationalists and cosmopolitans ultimately comes down to something like immorality vs. practicality.
But why do we even have nations? While people everywhere have always divvied themselves up into groups, nationhood itself is “essentially a product of modernism”, says Sydney Uni’s sociology lecturer Dr Fiona Gill, “and nationalism emerged through a very specific set of circumstances. The printing press, for one, allowed information to spread further afield and united people through common language, which itself became a powerful political tool.” Through feudalism and totalitarianism people were kept together by a shared cultural history, and rulers have long known that the best way to keep distant peoples under your control is through diplomacy: “To rule effectively, you need to create a situation where people choose to be part of a group, rather than having to use force.” And voila, we have everything conducive to the creation and maintenance of nation-states.
So now let’s have a look at some of the main arguments for cosmopolitanism. Round one: national borders are fundamentally arbitrary. There was no grand plan that brought the current national borders of any country into being, merely a series of historical accidents. Mexico used to extend up into Texas. The map of Iraq was drawn up by the British. Fierce patriotism in this context starts to look a bit stupid; it’s the equivalent of someone going “eanie, meanie, miney, moe” and you becoming really attached to ‘moe’.
“But wait!” you cry. “Arbitrary things can still form a part of someone’s identity. And part of my identity is some admittedly abstract thing that makes me Australian (or whatever).” Fair point, dear reader. Regardless of the totally ad hoc way that most nations come about, they are, in some respect, pretty important to almost everyone. Nations are the status-quo and people like the status quo. Not only that, but there are genuinely huge cultural differences between some groups of people, and it would be ultra-naïve to think that everyone would just get along with some basic education.
However, even the professed cultural differences are somewhat exaggerated. On an Australia Day exclusive this year, Channel Ten interviewees mentioned mateship, helping people, tolerance, freedom and doing the best with what you have as essentially Australian qualities. With the exception of some developing and totalitarian nations, these are essentially the same values that nations around the world claim as their own. If you take circumstances out of the equation, people are the same.
And just because something is the status quo does not mean it should be. I won’t tire anyone with a list of some of the terrible things that unchecked nationalism has caused in the past—(see the 20th Century)—but just as we can get cultural kudos for claiming something is All-Australian, that same instinct leaves room for that scourge of public discourse, the word ‘UnAustralian’.
Appealing to nationhood seems to give two-dimensional claims a patina of importance that they can’t get from legitimate argument. “The Jews are not Germans!” “Socialists are un-American!” “Burqas are un-Australian!” Let me stop you there.
Many instances of self-interest in international relations can be characterised as prisoners’ dilemmas, whereby the lack of cooperation between nations results in a bad outcome for everyone involved. This can be seen most clearly in the amping-up of hostilities prior to the outbreak of war (e.g. WWI, the Cold War), and it is the same with the bureaucratic to-and-fro amid the shaping of international climate change policy. It goes something like this:
The US: “If China won’t reduce their emissions, why should we?”
China: “We ain’t doin’ nothin’ if you ain’t doin’ nothin’.”
The US: “Fine, we’ll just sit here.”
China: “Fine with us!”
… until a hundred years later there’s a big problem. If national self-interest can disadvantage everybody in the long run, and no one wants everyone to lose in the long run, then surely that’s enough of reason to shift the status quo in a more cosmopolitan direction.
But then there is the question of implementation. While the UN is often pointed to as a success story for cosmopolitanism, changing the entrenched habits of a group of self-interested parties is notoriously difficult. Even the EU (another potential success story) is rife with problems, not least of which is the globalised, amplified consequences of the financial chaos in Greece. Finally, the alternatives to nation-states are often seen as either an oppressive world-state on one side or anarchy on the other. The response to this simplistic dichotomy is a resounding ‘no thanks’. “Even in a culture of national self-interest, the system just works very well for some,” says Dr Gill. “And why should those who benefit from nationalism give it up?”
The debate between nationalists and cosmopolitans ultimately comes down to something like immorality vs. practicality. The onus may be on cosmopolitans to demonstrate that a more unified world is actually achievable in practice, but nationalists must do more than simply point to the way things are as a reason for things to keep being that way. Indeed, nationalism is based on commonality, and there are, quite simply, other kinds of commonality that can completely trump shared nationhood. Many of you may feel more affinity with Jon Stewart than with Julia Gillard, for example.
Yes, although nations are the status quo, the situation is already changing. In the last quarter-century we have seen the rise of multinational corporations that are more powerful—financially and politically—than some nations; British supermarket chain Tesco is richer than Peru, ExxonMobil is richer than Pakistan, and as of last week Apple is richer than the US government; the rise of the internet has brought with it more information about people in other areas of the world than ever before, as well as immediate international communication and the development of a sense of community that totally transcends national boundaries.
In the face of these and other developments, nationalism may begin to seem more and more parochial despite its persistent importance to many. And when nationalism’s increasing obsolescence is viewed together with its extreme negative consequences in some cases, cosmopolitanism looks more and more like the way of the future. You’re a global citizen, so start actin’ like it.