February 3, 2012



In recognizing the continuing, and likely expanding, hegemony of the nation-state as the primary unit of global political, economic, and social organization, we need not deny the simultaneous expansion of cosmopolitan sympathies. Liberalization of government controls on trade and finance, greater cross-border immigration and global travel, and the constitution of something approaching a global public through mass media communication of serial cosmopol­itan "moments" all contribute to the spread of cosmopolitan sentiments. But those sympathies are likely to continue to exist alongside national identities and allegiances.

To be sure, global initiatives such as the Millennium Development Goals and other antipoverty programs, as well as post-Cold War military interventions in the former Yugoslavia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya have been justified, to some extent, on cosmopolitan grounds. The US intervention in Libya, to take one recent example, appears to have involved a protracted debate within the Obama Administration between advocates of the cosmopolitan notion of "Responsibility to Protect" (R2P) and pragmatists opposed to the application of US military power in conflicts where there is no clear national interest. In this debate, the cosmopolitans appear to have prevailed.

But we should be careful not to read too much into these examples. In virtually every case, the nation-state remains the institution through which economic and military resources are deployed in service of cosmopolitan objectives. In many cases, it is often difficult to disentangle where national interest ends and cosmopolitan interest begins. The wars in the Balkans and the Middle East can just as easily be explained in terms of the national interests of the United States and its allies in defeating sponsors of terrorist attacks (Afghanistan), securing US regional military hegemony (Iraq and Libya), and averting destabilizing flows of refugees to Europe (a motivation behind European participation in the Balkan and Libyan wars), as through cosmopolitan ones. As such, even where cosmopolitan sentiments succeed in galvanizing national or international action in response to global and regional challenges, those responses are likely to only further establish the nation-state as the focal point for making those decisions and the primary institution through which such interventions are likely to be carried out.

The resulting organization of global affairs is better explained by liberal internationalism than by cosmopolitanism. In this view, nation-states, rather than individuals, corporations, or non-governmental organizations (NGOs), will continue to be the main actors in world politics (though certainly not the only ones) for generations to come. Liberal internationalists maintain that all human beings have inalienable rights, which should be secured by governments resting on their consent. While those rights-securing governments may take various forms, the nation-state is the largest unit that has been able to combine effective government with a sense of solidarity among its citizens. The nation to which the state corresponds can be defined broadly, in terms of a shared culture and language, and it can be generous to minority nationalities that may share its territories. But there is a point at which linguistic and cultural diversity undermine the minimum of community needed to maintain a sense of shared citizenship. A global government would be a Tower of Babel which few would be willing to obey, to provide with taxes, or to support with military service.

Liberal internationalism answers the question of how the world can be organized, if each people, however defined, has a right to its own sovereign, accountable nation-state. The alternative to both Hobbesian anarchy and global cosmopolitanism is cooperation by nation-states. This cooperation can take the form of international law, international arbitration, and international agencies, as well as military alliances and concerts of power. But international is not supranational. Countries may delegate powers to international agencies for some purposes, but as long as the delegations are revocable, they are not surrendering sovereignty.

All America's wars boil down to nothing but the effort to allow each people to govern themselves.

Posted by at February 3, 2012 6:12 AM

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