WASHINGTON – The call for global solutions to global problems has become a familiar refrain: If only we could see past our petty national interests, we could come together to solve everything from climate change to poverty to terrorism. Schools like mine are increasingly being called upon to educate “global citizens” who belong to the world rather than to their nation of birth or state of choice — and who seek challenges to address rather than enemies to defeat.
But the global citizen is like the Himalayan Yeti: a figment of the imaginations of a few, not a living member of the political fauna of the world. And it isn’t something we should try to create.
According to a global-citizenship education guide issued by Oxfam, it is important to teach students that the world is unfair and unequal, and that they can and need to change it. Those terms are, by and large, empty vessels to be filled by the holder of power or the ideological flavor du jour, but most often they refer to a version of the argument that the North is richer than the South and this social injustice (another common term) must be addressed. This formulation does have a modicum of substance, albeit of a tired ideological variety reminiscent of post-colonial grievances. It also carries a set of preferred actions. The global citizen knows to drink only “fair trade” skim lattes.
Many policy schools appear to have embraced the global-citizen concept with particular zeal. Granted, sometimes they aren’t doing much more than repackaging existing curricula and sprinkling in buzzwords: A global citizen is “globally competent,” capable of working in different cultural settings, of communicating across ethnic boundaries, of understanding a variety of cultures and histories. When that’s all global citizenship means, it doesn’t fundamentally change what most policy schools have been doing over the past decades. A well-traveled polyglot with solid regional knowledge and analytical skills is the ideal outcome. George Kennan and Paul Nitze would find themselves at home.
I worry, however, that we are giving up on the goal of incubating policymakers with a clear sense of national identity and a powerful belief in the necessity and right to protect national interests.
Schools no longer aspire to be the next École Nationale d’Administration,which has long cultivated the French classe dirigeante, or like the original incarnation of Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. They have a tendency to portray the world as a collection of problems that only a worldwide cooperative process can address, rather than as a strategic landscape within which each country — with its particular history, intellectual foundations and cultural underpinnings — has to assess trade-offs and act to protect its citizens.
The task of forming reasoning patriots seems to be increasingly ceded to military academies and war colleges, while civilian universities seek to churn out global citizens.
The most immediate risk is that we will face a homogenous and bland educational landscape. Students will have a hard time learning the French or the American perspective on the world, as these will be swapped for whatever the global vision is. So much for intellectual diversity.
More important, if we train elites to be imbued with a higher esteem for the abstraction of a global community than for the reality of the particular group in which they live, we deprive our nation of the ability to defend its interests and maintain its well-being. After all, implicit in the argument for global citizenship is the idea that the pursuit of national interests is dangerous because the solitary actions of individual states undermine the possibility of solving global problems.
But citizens, by definition, are part of a group for which and through which they act. They stand on the battlefield or in the public square for the love of their community, represented most immediately by their neighbors, friends and family. From this love, from this attachment to the very real, arises a sense of responsibility that motivates us to act and serves as a yardstick for our actions. Without it, action is senseless and rudderless.
A global community or citizenry cannot exist, because to love everyone and everything is to love nobody and nothing. Elevating an abstract “global” sweeps away the differences that make, say, the Italian polity and citizenry different from the American ones. When everything is subsumed into a uniform global political mold — a deeply unnatural and ultimately inhuman undertaking — there is nobody in particular to love and for whom to act. The fundamental driver and measure of our actions is destroyed.
Lacking the basic human motivation to sacrifice and make difficult choices, a global citizen would be unable to act with prudence.
A cautionary tale can be found in the history of the Patrice Lumumba University (since renamed the Peoples’ Friendship University of Russia), which for decades produced the communist version of global citizens. There was an anti-Western bent that isn’t reprised in today’s policy schools. But the goal was to unite the students — many of them from Asia, Africa and Latin America — in the conviction that a world revolution was necessary and possible, uprooting the political orders in their respective countries. Particular local conditions, they were taught, could be solved only by the global vision of a united proletariat. The project created more problems and instability than solutions and peace, and in the end it was a failure.
I suspect that the current global citizenship movement will follow suit.
Jakub Grygiel is an associate professor of international relations at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.