Tony Blair heralded the end of the Nation State, but it's back (Photo by Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The death of western cosmopolitanism

A global pandemic has shown how beneficial it is to have a strong nation state

This article is part of The Critic’s China series, which includes articles by Patrick Porter, Rana Mitter, Paul Raffaele, Gary Jones and Oliver Wiseman.

In 2005 the prime minister, Tony Blair, took to the stage at the Labour Party conference and implored the audience to come to terms with globalisation. It was, he said, a fact of modern life: “You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer”.

Many in the West, including from his own party, felt that the age of the nation state was over. It was, they claimed, time for a new international system, one based on transnational principles. This was the resurgence of “cosmopolitanism”, or the idea that all human beings are, or could or should be, members of a single community, rather than tainted by outdated notions of national sovereignty — the cultural and political equivalent of globalisation.

Today, however, there is a very different climate. Globalisation is a dirty word in much of the world, and to the surprise of many on the left, the primacy of the nation state is back.

It is easy to blame former President Trump for the revival of national priority. After all, he pushed the “America First” agenda at the expense of not only his country’s foes, but its allies too. He was the one who walked out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, who reduced funding for the World Health Organization (WHO) in the midst of the pandemic, and who threatened to pull the US out of NATO unless nations like Germany stumped up more money. 

The vision of the world pushed by Trump was starkly anti-cosmopolitan. Instead of doing things for the benefit of the global community, everything became a business negotiation, and one that he (as proxy for America) had to win. 

Yet to lay the breakdown of internationalism in general at the door of Trump and the US is wide of the mark.

Part of Trump’s voter appeal was that he was riding the wave of anti-cosmopolitanism that was already surging, as the American sociologist Jack Goldstone notes. Second, there is China. President Xi launched his equivalent of “America First” – the “Chinese Dream” – before Trump was elected. China also contributed to the internal instability that led to Trump’s breakthrough.

Indeed, China has had a profoundly destabilising effect on the economies and societies of the West. A recent study by the Economic Policy Institute, and Washington DC think tank, found that 3.7 million American manufacturing jobs were lost to China between 2001 and 2018. The labour economist David Autor has shown how this manufacturing shock led to deep social disruption, such as in marriage patterns and in the support for fringe political ideas.  

The China affect doesn’t stop there. What Beijing has also done is to show how a government can substantially improve its citizens’ lives if it puts its mind to it: in the last forty years China has moved from economic basket case to having the second largest economy, and has taken hundreds of millions of people out of poverty

With this strong internal base, China is now looking to make an impact abroad. President Xi Jinping has repeatedly called for China to help make the world a better place, much like the cosmopolitanist thinkers of the West. What differs is the method China is using to do so. 

There is a keen sense in the West that “good” should be done for its own sake, rather than to benefit the donor. Take, for example, the controversy over the British government’s decision to roll DFID into the FCO, which was labelled “political vandalism” because it allowed the return of British political influence over where aid money was spent. China, on the other hand, believes that the way to improve the world is to increase its political influence. 

The fact that Western governments put more money into multilateral agencies than China, but have less sway, is not sustainable

One strategy it is adopting to do this is through technology. The Digital Silk Road (DSR) is a Chinese public-private partnership that is installing billions of dollars’ worth of IT connectivity across the developing world. Such is the DSR’s positive impact on global digital infrastructure that the programme is now being referenced by the United Nations as a way to advance its own Sustainability Development Goals. It isn’t altruism that is driving the DSR, however, but national ambition. Not only does Beijing increase its influence in countries where it has built the infrastructure, but it also generates massive revenues for its tech companies like Huawei and ZTE.

It is with a similar desire to rebuild the world and thereby reap its benefits that China is engaging with multilateral agencies like the UN. Although a relatively minor funder of the WHO, it has been accused of manipulating the agency to suit its own ends, including the marginalisation of Taiwan and the obfuscation of the true origins of Covid.

The fact that Western governments put more money into multilateral agencies than China, but have less sway, is not sustainable in the long term. It is hardly a surprise to see the West, especially America, put far more diplomatic effort these days into smaller groupings of countries like the G7 and the Five Eyes Network than the UN.

This does not mean that broader cosmopolitanism – looking at the global horizon rather than just a country’s allies – is dead and buried. As the WHO has noted, many of the worst outcomes of the pandemic have been a direct consequence of the failure to coordinate a response at the international level. And climate change cannot be solved by one or two countries alone. 

There are also plenty of supporters of cosmopolitanism left in the West. In the UK, for example, there was uproar in some quarters over the speech of the then prime minister, when she said, “if you believe you are a Citizen of the World, you are a Citizen of Nowhere”. Many of her critics said that they were proud to consider themselves a global rather a national citizen.

These are difficult days to put the world above the nation. Ironically Covid, whilst demanding an international effort, has shown how beneficial it is to have a strong nation state. China was quick to take advantage of the pandemic by sending out vast quantities of medical supplies to help fight the disease, but always with one eye on what it was getting in return.

Tonty Blair’s championing of globalisation looks decidedly stale a decade and a half on. Unfortunately for those who seek to change the planet for its own sake, rather than for national advantage, so does cosmopolitanism.

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