• Alexander M. Wegner

On the Perils of Cosmopolitanism


(C) Antonio Quagliata

EXTENSIVE FLOWS – OF INFORMATION, RESOURCES, AND PEOPLE – characterize the late twentieth, and what little we have witnessed of the twenty-first century. Globalization has come to be the term employed to describe these flows, and the seemingly borderless world it has allegedly brought forth, has been termed ‘global village.’ A sense of ‘being-in-this-together’ has captured the imagination of billions, and facilitated the implementation of super-structures, intended to tower over the nation-states that emerged post 1648.


These structures, whether in form of the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and–though to a lesser degree–the International Monetary Fund and World Bank–among an abundance of likewise forums–exerted particular appeal amid the devastation induced by consecutive world wars, the anxiety that prevailed throughout the Cold War as well as the need for international assistance–conducive to nation-building–for the many newly liberated states during the process of decolonization from the 1960s onward.


While the continuous correspondence facilitated by such super-structures has certainly been conducive to peace, which in turn has allowed for the economic development that tends to foster human development–reflected by relatively low child mortality and rare occurrence of preventable diseases as well as high life expectancy and literacy rates–it has not resulted in a transition from the nation-state toward transnational government; the latter necessitates legitimacy and consensus, which both rarely are global in scope.


Curiously, while sentiments of solidarity are frequently found between people of different nations, they appear to be less prevalent among among those who associate with the same nation. Communications technology has, arguably, enabled men to sympathize with those in distant lands, but has weakened the ties that once drew immediate neighbors together. In consequence, families, communities and the nation have been and will further be weakened, undermining the basis for global governance.


In fact, as the bonds between citizens dissolve, so does the liberty that the liberal democratic state was intended to bring forth and sustain, and for whose creation generations have fought, sacrificing their lives in the hope that those who come into being thereafter will find themselves amid a peaceful world, a world sculptured in a manner that mirrors both the acknowledgment and understanding of a common humanity, regardless of any surfacing differences. Absent of reciprocity, the national interest is prone to reflect the will of the governing elite, not the hopes of constituents.


Transnational solidarity, however compelling at first sight, may merely reflect an affinity for the convenient superficiality inherent in contemporary interaction; while such shallow schmoozing suffices to enlarge the ego, it is prone to erode morality, as it cannot be fruitful in the absence of nationhood and the liberal democratic structures and processes to which nationhood is conducive. Cosmopolitanism, therefore, is little else than a symptom of ever more shallow, solitary, egotistic and–indeed–faithless man.


Constituents of liberal-democratic nation states, typically endowed with an abundance of material comforts, are likely to be particularly vulnerable to cosmopolitanism, due to a couple of phenomena. First, in their longing for equality, these constituents frequently turn from one another, so to withdraw into the comforts that an extensive government brings forth; in their solitude, the affairs of distant lands begin to exert particular appeal: as constituents commit to them, their societal status heightens, transcending the very equality that prevails where citizenship succumbs to governance. Second, constituents–once subsumed by cosmopolitan sentiments–will encounter the fatigue, despair and anger of those with whom they sympathize; as previously noted, cosmopolitanism cannot meet the expectations it cultivates, so long as the the nation-state is steered by elite interests rather than the hopes of the citizens it accommodates. Curiously, this inability to abstain from cosmopolitanism, and the consequential discontent fostered, erode cosmopolitanism; those to whom sympathy is granted turn against their sympathizers, solidarity vanishes, and any impetus for missions abroad begins to seize.


Cosmopolitanism, thus, is a self-defeating enterprise, rendered evident by recent and present developments both in Iraq and Syria. Despite virtually universal compassion for the victims of 9/11, their families and United States in the immediate aftermath of the attack, solidarity diminished as operations in Afghanistan and the Second Gulf War unfolded. Both missions appear peculiar insofar that Afghan targets could have been pursued through covert operations rather than an extensive military offensive; yet even then, the necessity for such operations for the realization of national interests does not appear obvious. The military offensive in Iraq, on the other hand, seems hardly sensible, as the regime of Saddam Hussein and the Ba’ath Party is unlikely to have posed a direct threat to the United States or its regional and global allies. While the prospects of regime change in Iraq were promising from the outset, the likelihood of a swift and enduring political transition could not have been perceived as promising. Of course, few of the motivations that sculptured the obelisks of history–and will continue to–are known, so that the reasoning behind either mission is unlikely to be revealed in its entirety. Yet the influence of Cosmopolitanism on both, and effect of both on Cosmopolitanism, is clear.


Aside from inducing unimaginable suffering on those affected and their families, 9/11 demonstrated the fragility of liberal democracy; first, it demonstrated that mere might cannot safeguard liberal ideals; second, it illustrated that advancement of the liberal project may unfold in a manner alien to liberal ideals–while operations in Afghanistan have unfolded rather sensibly, operations in Iraq come to be crooked in the face of a ghostly enemy, whose unpredictability hampered the minds and souls of combatants; third, the horrors of war–experienced on both sides–and the seeming impossibility of realizing the envisioned, nurtured the will to withdrawal, no less among US leaders, than among constituents and allies; the government enlarged at the expense of reciprocity.


Thus, Cosmopolitanism fostered missions that are global in scope, without generating governance of equal extent, so that its promise could not be fulfilled. Broken promises and unmet expectations in turn dampened Cosmopolitan fervor, undermining reciprocity as the pillar of liberal democracy and the liberal project at large. The dire state of Afghanistan, the imminent demise of Iraq–which can, however, still be averted–and the dystopian state of Syria are a truly daunting embodiment of Cosmopolitanism’s perils.


When imperfect man treads on the path toward perfection, he unconsciously descends into the abyss; his imperfection distorts his ever more ominous might. The liberal project, for whose ascent generations have fought, cannot be installed by benevolent man from distant lands; it must come forth through the manifestation of a steadfast belief in its promise, and restless devotion to its principles. Only then, it seems, will nationhood arise, and the hopes of constituents come to determine the national interest.


Not the progressive spirit, which characterizes both the left and right, may yield improvement, but the retrieval of Ethical Conservatism. Not fervor, as Peter Berkowitz suggests, but moderation–the balanced and tireless, but delicate and difficult pursuit of numerous liberal principles, rooted in a moderate vision of man and his endeavors–promises to advance the liberal project. Not Cosmopolitanism, but the conservative and moderate pursuit of national interests may yield a world in which man can endure.


Unless thoughts of the past feed into present thinking–which forms the soil of possible futures–the might of man becomes his plight; man resembles an enigma beyond resolve.

Unlike the progressive who promises a world that never was except in his dreams, the ethical conservative promises a world that not only has been but still is, the world of families and communities he knows and loves, which respect limits, practice virtues, teach truth, insist on honesty, and aspire to goodness. –Brian Patrick Mitchell
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©2019 by Alexander M. Wegner