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Are you a citizen of the world or of your own nation? The answer may determine your politics

There are 193 nation states in the world, with Palestine waiting to become the 194th

When my mother was born in 1936, there were about 70 states in the world. Now there are 193 recognised by the United Nations, with Palestine in the waiting lounge to officially join the club. Ironically, the popularity of state-creation comes during a period of human history in which the sovereignty of states is – for good reason – being eroded.

The greatest threats facing humanity – from climate change to unregulated artificial intelligence (AI) – transcend borders. Taking the long-term view, are nation states fit for purpose?

The question forms part of a lively debate in political theory and international law. Thinkers “oscillate” between two different perspectives, says Dr Graham Finlay of the School of Politics and International Relations at University College Dublin. On one side are communitarians, who believe moral and legal principles are shaped by community bonds or national identity. On the other side are cosmopolitans who promote the idea that we are “citizens of the world”.

“It’s enshrined in the UN charter that states have equal rights to non-intervention for matters that purely concern them ... but that is under pressure from a whole bunch of things”, ranging from global trade to international human rights law, Finlay says.


Former British prime minister Theresa May famously said: ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.’ May’s argument drew on core communitarian principles

Since the Rwandan genocide “there has been this new doctrine of sovereignty which instead of seeing states as having a right to non-interference, sees them as having a duty to protect the human rights of their citizens, and if they fail to uphold those obligations then the responsibility passes to the international community.

“That cosmopolitan approach does seem, in some people’s eyes, to lead to many more interventions, a less egalitarian and more hierarchical international order, and basically a licence for the powerful states to do whatever they feel like to states that are less powerful.”

The Nato-led military intervention in Libya in 2011 was an example of one such “cosmopolitan” intervention. Another was the announcement last week that the International Criminal Court (ICC) is seeking to arrest Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, alongside Hamas leaders, for war crimes.

Finlay notes that the court has drawn criticism over the years from some African countries which say state-building efforts are “not being helped by their leaders being brought before the ICC”. The decision to charge Israel with crimes against humanity is “unprecedented for a wealthy country”, he adds.

The tension between communitarians and cosmopolitans plays out in domestic politics too.

Former British prime minister Theresa May famously said: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” While it was largely a Brexit-themed swipe at the “international elites”, May’s argument drew on core communitarian principles, namely, that the state should put its own citizens first and that guests in the state, be they individuals or organisations, must play by its rules.

“Conservatives have traditionally stressed that human beings have bad tendencies that need to be kept in line – there must be law and order – and that is a real issue. But they also are quite confident in the inherited institutions which have come down to us, or have accrued over time,” says Finlay.

“That can become very problematic when it becomes aligned to nationalism or ethno-nationalism – when you have the full power of the state applied on behalf of one particular group of people.”

The European Parliament elections will be a barometer of how strong the communitarian view is across the EU. While some candidates are campaigning on a platform of “taking back control”, Finlay points out, “an international system where states had absolute sovereignty has never really existed”.

While nation states are not ideal, Francis Fukuyama says, ‘if you’re going to address planetary issues, you first need to get those units to co-operate, rather than delegate serious coercive power to some higher-level body’

You don’t have to be on the right, however, to defend the notion of state autonomy.

US political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who was once allied to neoliberalism, believing naively it would lead to the “end of history”, is now sceptical of simple fixes for the world’s woes. While nation states are not ideal, he says, “if you’re going to address planetary issues, you first need to get those units to co-operate, rather than delegate serious coercive power to some higher-level body”.

With similar pragmatism, Finlay invokes a distinction made by US political philosopher Michael Blake between institutional and non-institutional forms of justification.

“In a non-institutional view, you try to justify whatever can be justified from abstract principles: ‘What would an ideal world look like? Let’s do that.’ Whereas, in an institutional view, you look at the institutions we have and say: ‘What would justify them? What would a just form of those institutions look like?’ So he has both an argument for why the states system works and why it might have extra obligations; why, despite our cosmopolitan moral principles, we would have different moral obligations to our fellow citizens than to people in their own state or coming to our state and trying to enter.”

In short, if and when Palestine becomes a state, it will have to grapple with the same dilemmas surrounding the limits of sovereignty that other nation states face. While it will be joining a rather dysfunctional club, Finlay adds, “the system of states that we’ve come up with, people could reasonably say, is better than the chaos which often preceded the sorting of all these things out”.