Nationalism Vs Cosmopolitanism – Analysis


This essay is composed of three parts. It seeks to understand the theoretical difference between nationalism and cosmopolitanism by examining the core assumptions of nationalism and cosmopolitanism in the first part. The second part examines the main points of convergence and divergence between the two seemingly opposing notions. And the third part is an attempt to find points of convergence between nationalism and cosmopolitanism.

It is widely believed that nationalism and cosmopolitanism are two conflicting notions. Mostly, cosmopolitanism is portrayed as a solution to problems of nationalism. This contradictory and complex interpretation of the two concepts (nationalism and cosmopolitanism) leads to two major research questions that are discussed in the essay. Is cosmopolitanism a complete antithesis or solution of nationalism? Can nationalism and cosmopolitanism be compatible with each other?

Nationalism seeks to coalesce culturally, religiously and linguistically diverse population. Similarly, it promotes the legitimacy of the state to change the concept of nationalism in form of nurturing consensus on the common values of the majority population. It is regarded as a political doctrine which is used interchangeably with terms such as discrimination, the xenophobia that appears completely opposite to cosmopolitanism. Some of the forms of nationalism encourage rigid definition of a ‘nation’, which excludes those who are not part of a narrowly defined concept or ethnically different. In other words, those who do not fit into the specific domain of a ‘nation’ are not given the rights of a citizen. As a result, labels of ‘outsiders’ or ‘others’ are projected that can become a source of ethnic conflicts in states.

With the emergence of transnational, non-state actors and multiple levels of communication across the world, the focus of the theorist has brought cosmopolitanism back to the limelight. The advocates of cosmopolitan thought criticize the artificial state boundaries constructed in the world that deepens the differences between the ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. To put simply, cosmopolitanism claims to concern with the eradication of economic, social and cultural difference among the people as well as an emphasis on creating conditions for the harmonious world. More so, it attempts to implement a set of ethical values universal to the global population. For example, the commitment to human rights, as defined by the United Nations Organization (UNO) is an appropriate example to understand the assumptions of cosmopolitanism. According to C. Beitz, Thomas W. Pogge and Brain Barry, the philosophy of cosmopolitanism lies in the three main principles; egalitarian individualism, that is, all humans are free and equal beings; Principle of reciprocal recognition, each person has an equal stake in this universal ethical realm and is, accordingly required to respect all other people’s status as a basic unit of moral interest; Principle of impartial moral reasoning requires that each person should enjoy the impartial treatment of their claims – that is, treatment based on principles upon which all could act‟. 1

In Pogge’s view, the failure to reduce the levels of poverty contributes in not only increasing the condition for crimes, but the economic deprivation drives the people towards systematic violence. From the point view of critics, nationalism is based upon the notion that encourages the sentiment of superiority, especially when it comes to the group dynamics. Simply put, one group may discriminate another group over a range of factors. For instance, particular ethnic groups in Myanmar, the Buddhist monks are exploiting the religious and ethnic difference, which leads to discrimination of Rohingya in addition to campaigns of ethnic cleansing.

Comparatively speaking, cosmopolitanism underlines the individualistic attitude towards world while nationalism encompasses a political program as an outcome of an individual’s choice. For the proponents of cosmopolitanism, the aim is to promote rationality by providing people with freedom, equality, and ethical values. Though the jurisdiction of cosmopolitanism goes beyond the national boundaries, but when it comes to nationalism, the jurisdiction is confined within the local boundaries of a state.

To be specific, nationalism and cosmopolitanism both inevitably diverge to a large extent. For instance, Maximilien Robespierre (1758-94) viewed cosmopolitan ideas about the universal rights of the man quite selectively, emphasizing them only when they coincided with his view of the national interest.2

Likewise, advocates of cosmopolitanism view nationalism as a negative phenomenon as it projects values of domination over minority group in a systemic manner. This implies that nationalistic tendency can stoke the tension when it comes to the preferential attitude of one individual or group over another. As far as the criticism of cosmopolitanism is concerned, it is believed that the rationality cannot be devoid of myopic factors. Even though the focus on the universal values can impede the nationalistic tendency, however, this very potential is considered as the solution to the narrow set of values upheld by the nationalists. Therefore, cosmopolitans advocate for a bigger platform to promote the universal set of values.

One of the basic differences between nationalism and cosmopolitanism underscores the chauvinistic values and these are fostered when the identity of one state is presented superior to other states. The idea of American Exceptionalism is a good example to understand this. Likewise, the incident of Charlottesville Virginia unraveled the hostility between the white supremacist and anti-racist protestors. This is to say that differences in belief and dispositions are exaggerated to bolster the claims of one group over another. Arguably, nationalism has the greater potential of turning into a conflict that can ultimately lead to war in comparison to cosmopolitanism. Hence, fewer chances of conflict among the diverse group of people as well as claims of peaceful coexistence; tolerance are some of the prominent merits of cosmopolitanism.

Even though nationalism and ethnic particularism are closely intertwined, however, nationalism can be improved to develop an all-inclusive identity of states. In other words, few types of nationalism have the potential to broaden the definition of a nation, which can act as a bridge to formulate a nuanced approach. On the other hand, cosmopolitanism seems to possess positive connotations attached to main assumptions. For instance, if one compares nationalism with cosmopolitanism, the latter seeks to minimize the chances of difference as well as respect for the rights of others. Despite the apparent difference in the assumptions of nationalism and cosmopolitanism, when it comes application of principles, both (nationalism and cosmopolitanism) stress upon the significance of natural rights. Second, nationalist and cosmopolitan concern with political power in order to make the assumptions accepted at the global level. Both the theories are in favor of human rights and non-intervention that can provide an effective option to reduce tension between them.

Both nationalism and cosmopolitanism project democratic norms, but nationalism restricts itself at a national level that cannot bring a broader change. However, cosmopolitan assumptions involve application and expansion at the global level rather than limiting it within specific territorial boundaries. From the cosmopolitan perspective, individuals are independent of any discrimination especially based on the color, creed etc. In simple words, when people possess the right to choose the representatives by casting votes according to their free will, it can help to mitigate the negative effects and repercussions of nationalism. In comparison to cosmopolitanism, nationalism does accommodate diversity but only domestically. In other words, it is confined within the national boundaries since it lays emphasis on the security of national territory rather than the safety of the citizens.

Of course, the interpretation of nationalism and cosmopolitanism varies from society to society; however, it does not mean that a broad consensus between the nationalist and proponents of cosmopolitanism cannot be achieved. From a normative perspective, the focus on global equality can play a significant role in bridging the gap between the two completely contradictory ideas of nationalism and cosmopolitanism. An emphasis on the sense of obligation to safeguard the interests of others asserted by the nationalist can serve as a strong point of reconciliation. Cosmopolitan values such as the basic tenets of global equality and human rights at the individual level can be extended to state and systemic level. Simply put, if consensus on certain humanist values can be reached at the national level, it implies that those values can be broadened beyond the national values towards the goal of cosmopolitanism. The support for the International Criminal Court (ICC), for instance, is a step towards global justice. By supporting this initiative, democratic nationalism can contribute to the strengthening of cosmopolitan values at a global level. Similarly, the focus of nationalism on the responsibility and concern for the fellow nationals can be broadened to include the values of freedom, social justice endorsed by the cosmopolitan theorist.

In case of Mauritius, for example, people have devised a middle to tackle the cultural difference and avoid conflict. Despite the ideological clash at the individual level, they have reconciled national political power through the exercise of equality and tolerance. The openness of Mauritian discourse, public and private – in particular, the fact that ethnic conflicts and cultural differences are acknowledged everywhere as facts of social life, coupled with the absence of a hegemonic ethnic – indicate the kind of inter-ethnic compromise realized in Mauritius. 3 This does not mean the broad points of contradictions between ideologies of ethnicity and nationalism at the individual level of action are absent; however; the paradoxes are to a great extent reconciled on the national and political level.

Furthermore, it would not be wrong to claim that the respect for difference and robust framework to safeguard the individual rights can cultivate conditions for reconciliation. After all, an individual is a part of a specific group or a community that cannot be isolated from others. So, an individual depends on the other members in order to guarantee one’s right. In one way, two different levels of rights overlap each other. Democratic nationalism lays stress on safeguard of the right of nations to exist and develop while recognizing and respecting internal diversity, it rejects the territorial expansion of nations by promoting social justice, freedom, equality. Therefore, nationalism could be compatible with cosmopolitanism if one focuses on the commitment to common values and inclusion of differences

The belief that all individuals are equal and free regardless of their ethnic and national identity is another point to manage tensions between different ideologies, groups, and individuals. To conclude, the inclusion of human coexistence in the interest of states can help to complement the goals of nationalism and cosmopolitanism rather than the exclusionist approach. In addition, the process of integration can be achieved by granting political rights in order to decrease the chances of conflict as well as addressing the repercussions of preferential attitude. Lastly, it would not harm to include new ideas into an inward-looking approach bounded by the borders of the nations, as minorities prefer to live in a state that provides the political rights and respect for differences.

About the author:
*Iqra Mobeen Akram
works as a researcher at an Islamabad-based think tank.

1. Thomas Winfried Menko Pogge, “Priorities of Global Justice,” The Global Transformations Reader Polity Press Cambridge, 2003, 2nd edition, p. 550
2. Michael Rapport, “Robespierre and the Universal Rights of Man, 1789-1794,”French History, Vol. 10, no. 3, 303-333.
3. Michael Rapport, “Robespierre and the Universal Rights of Man, 1789-1794,”French History, Vol. 10, no. 3, 303-333.

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