One of the topics I explore in some detail in The Way of Improvement Leads Home is the eighteenth-century understanding of world citizenship. I try to suggest that cosmpolitanism was an Enlightenment value that led people to think beyond the bounds of nationhood, but at the same time the United States as a nation was founded by cosmopolitan men who embraced trans-national or “Enlightened” ideals. They understood the founding of this nation as a great cosmopolitan experiment–the application of transatlantic Enlightenment principles to a particular national polity.
Scholars who write about cosmopolitanism often contrast it with love of country or the affections ordinary people feel for the nation. For Fithian, writing in the 18th century, both the birth of the United States in 1776 and a sense of world of citizenship were not at odds. The birth of the nation was the culmination of the cosmopolitan principles he sought to embrace. The struggle for Fithian was not one between world citizenship and national affection, but between citizenship/national affection and a connection to place or locale. In the context of United States history it was this distinction–between cosmopolitan nationalism and locale/place that was the driving force behind everything from the Antifederalist movement of the 1790s to the Confederate States of America of the 1860s to the Populism of the 1890s.
Today, as these scholars teach us, the defenders of “the local” and the defenders of the nation (most of whom are conservative in their politics) have now united against the cosmopolitans (most of whom are liberal in their politics). With this in mind, I found George Will’s recent Sunday column in the Washington Post, “The Cosmopolitan”, to be insightful. The crux of the column is Will’s analysis of Barack Obama’s recent speech in Berlin where he affirmed to the Germans (and the world) that he is indeed a world citizen. Whatever one thinks of Will or his analysis of Obama’s speech, he does make one point that caught my attention:
And no more locutions such as “citizen of the world” and “global citizenship.” If they meant anything in Berlin, they meant that Obama wanted Berliners to know that he is proudly cosmopolitan. Cosmopolitanism is not, however, a political asset for American presidential candidates. Least of all is it an asset for Obama, one of whose urgent needs is to seem comfortable with America’s vibrant and very un-European patriotism, which is grounded in a sense of virtuous exceptionalism. Otherwise, “citizen of the world” and “global citizenship” are, strictly speaking, nonsense. Citizenship is defined by legal and loyalty attachments to a particular political entity with a distinctive regime and culture. Neither the world nor the globe is such an entity.
It seems that Will is correct here. World citizenship, as much as it is a cherished liberal value, is not the kind of value that wins presidential elections in the United States. Obama already has the votes of people who deem themselves cosmopolitans. In order to win, he needs votes from very uncosmopolitan people–the kind of Democrats who voted for Hillary in states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio or the Independents who like NASCAR and whose primary loyalty is to the United States of America rather than to a Tom Paine or Ben Franklin view of world citizenship.