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Global Civics: Responsibilities and Rights in an Interdependent World

Global Civics: Responsibilities and Rights in an Interdependent World

by Hakan Altinay (Editor), Kemal Dervis (Foreword by)

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The simple yet challenging goal of this book is to deliberate the legitimacy, and advance the feasibility, of an important new concept—the notion of "global civics." We cannot achieve the international cooperation that is needed for a globalizing and interdependent century without embracing and implementing this important concept.

The first section of


The simple yet challenging goal of this book is to deliberate the legitimacy, and advance the feasibility, of an important new concept—the notion of "global civics." We cannot achieve the international cooperation that is needed for a globalizing and interdependent century without embracing and implementing this important concept.

The first section of Global Civics is a presentation of the overall idea itself; the second section consists of diverse assessments from around the world of the concept and where it currently stands. The third section discusses various options for a global civics curriculum.

Praise for the Global Civics Program

"I agree with Hakan Altinay that in order to navigate our global interdependence, we need processes where we all think through our own responsibilities toward other fellow humans and discuss our answers with our peers. A conversation about a global civics is indeed needed, and university campuses are ideal venues for these conversations to start. We should enter this conversation with an open mind, and not insist on any particular point of view. The process is the key, and we should not wait any longer to start it." —Martti Ahtisaari, 2008 Nobel Peace Laureate

"The growing interconnectivity among people across the world is nurturing the realization that we are all part of a global community. This sense of interdependence, commitment to shared universal values, and solidarity among peoples across the world can be channeled to build enlightened and democratic global governance in the interests of all. I hope that universities and think tanks around the world will deploy their significant reservoirs of knowledge and creativity to develop platforms to enable students to study and debate these issues. This project is a contribution toward that goal and I look forward to following it closely." — Kofi Annan, Former Secretary General of the United Nations, 2001 Nobel Peace Laureate

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Brookings Institution Press
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Global Civics

Responsibilities And Rights In An Interdependent World


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ISBN: 978-0-8157-2141-3

Chapter One

Why a Global Civics?


The broad manifestations of today's epic global interdependence are well known. Financial engineering in the United States can determine economic growth in every part of the world; carbon dioxide emissions from China can affect crop yields and livelihoods in the Maldives, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and beyond; an epidemic in Vietnam or Mexico can constrain public life in the United States; and volcanic ash from Iceland disrupts travel across Europe. The inherent difficulties of devising and implementing solutions to global problems through nation-states have also become apparent. Traditionally, two broad models have been used to deal with this predicament. The first relies on a wide range of creative ad hoc alliances and solutions. When standard global public heath instruments proved insufficient, the Global Fund to Fight AIDs, Tuberculosis, and Malaria was established. When the Internet became global, its management was turned over to ICANN (Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers), which among other things enlists the input of individual Internet users in its governance, a significant departure from conventional intergovernmental multilateralism.

The second model is based on a more systematic reliance on rule of international law and also on what is known as the global public goods paradigm. Proponents of this concept point first and foremost to the existence of certain vital global public goods, climate being the most obvious example. The global public goods paradigm also implies some commensurability, if not uniformity, in the way people respond to various global collective action challenges. Some tend to feel suffocated by this expectation of commensurability among various global governance tracks; others find it reassuring and liberating. Many in the periphery have been largely absent from this debate, except for expressions of indignation about the unfairness of the status quo interspersed with acts of obstructionism.

Both of these models are premised on the belief that global governance is essentially a technocratic puzzle for which smart institutional design will provide the necessary answers. Yet, what the world is negotiating is, in effect, a global social contract, not a technocratic fix. The key question that needs to be answered is what responsibilities we all have toward people who happen not to be our compatriots. The question is so simple that one is often struck by the strange absence of ready answers to this fundamental question. Generating meaningful responses to this question will entail starting to imagine—without panic or rush, and with all the care and thoughtfulness this conversation requires—a global civics.

In its conventional use, "civics" refers to the familiar constellation of rights and responsibilities emanating from a social contract and citizenship in a nation-state. But what about global civics? Would this be feasible—or even desirable?

There are several plausible objections to the concept of global civics. One can argue that allowing for even a modest level of responsibility toward all the world's 6.9 billion people is so overwhelming that it is a nonstarter. Furthermore, it can be argued that any meaningful experience of pan-global consciousness and solidarity among human beings is nascent at best and therefore cannot form the basis for a formidable constellation of rights and responsibilities, and that the experience of being a global citizen is restricted to a few activists and international elites, like those who gather for the World Economic Forum in Davos. Finally, one can argue that civics assumes effective enforcement and a state, and since there is no world government, any talk of global civics is whimsical.

Notwithstanding such skepticism, I intend to demonstrate that it is, in fact, possible to imagine global civics. In attempting to do so, I first consider the unhelpful views that have impeded fruitful consideration of the concept of global civics. Then I outline the rationale for global civics and offer two thought experiments to operationalize this new concept.

Surrogate Debates

It is not surprising that there is skepticism about the concept of global civics because surrogate discussions about global civics have left much to be desired. Thus the case for global civics needs to begin by defusing several of these minefields.

The first minefield is formed by the group believing in world federation by stealth. Proponents of this view see each international problem as a way to get closer to some federal world government. They seem to be intent on delivering the good life through global structures since they doubt the legitimacy of nation-states and do not appreciate their ability to command allegiance and deliver results. They also have seemingly blind faith in international schemes and overlook the legitimate misgivings of those in many nation-states about turning over their sovereignty to woefully inadequate international institutions. The major negative consequence of this group's agenda is to raise diffuse suspicions about international frameworks and to scare reasonable people who might otherwise be open-minded about pragmatic international cooperation.

The second minefield is created by those who advocate radical cosmopolitanism. This argument, which is advanced by a small but influential group, posits that it is somehow morally reprehensible to care less about people halfway around the world than about one's own family and community. These radical cosmopolitans argue that we should be ready to give up all wealth until the last person in the world is not worse off than the rest of us. Critics have rightfully described advocates of these views as being interested in a hypothetical humanity while possessing a good deal of disdain for the actual fallible and imperfect humans themselves. Such morally virtuous cosmopolitans also underestimate how modern capitalism has improved the living standards of billions. They do not seem to care that preaching rarely works. Like the stance of the first group, this group's excessive demands intimidate reasonable people, who then resist any conversation about global normative frameworks.

The third minefield is laid by the doomsday advocates, a diffuse group of people who tend to think that tomorrow will be worse than today or yesterday. Often their scenarios of impending doom, unless some form of global cooperation is achieved immediately, are meant to spur people to action. However, these doomsayers do not seem to realize that crying wolf one too many times is unproductive. Nor do they appreciate the impressive progress made by humanity through piecemeal and pragmatic international cooperation schemes. And even more important, they seem oblivious to the fact that fear is not a very potent motivator for the most important constituency for global cooperation: youth.

The fourth and final minefield is formed by the cynical realists, who readily argue that life is not fair and that one should grow up and not chase elusive and impractical global frameworks. Many of these cynics live in the advanced industrial countries, and they view all attempts at international cooperation with utter suspicion and are deeply skeptical about all national contributions—in treasure or in sovereignty—to global solutions. However, they underestimate both the need for proactive cooperation among many players to solve tomorrow's problems and the opportunity costs of such cynicism for that cooperation. These cynics also exist in the developing world, where they view any attempt to reform multilateral institutions as a plot to consolidate the power of the privileged few. They pontificate on the inherent unfairness of the status quo without any hint of what they might be prepared to do if they were to be convinced that a fairer order was within reach. Each group of cynics blames the unreasonableness of the other as the justification for their own position.

The Need for a Compass

The minefields laid by these four groups have made the initiation of a thoughtful conversation about global civics a forbidding task. Yet it will be next to impossible for the people living on Earth to navigate in a world of fast-growing interdependence if we do not at least begin to think about a global social contract. There is no reason to assume that interdependence will not continue or even accelerate in the near future. Many perceive that their ability to exercise meaningful control over their lives is eroding. This leads to anomie, anxiety, and a diffuse backlash. The choice is not between returning to the good old days of robust, nonporous borders and almighty nation-states versus being a helpless leaf at the mercy of winds from the far corners of the world. The choice is whether or not humanity will be able to hammer out a global social contract. A set of guiding principles—a moral compass—is needed to enable the people of the world to navigate the treacherous waters of unprecedented global interdependence.

One could think of it like driving a car. Each day millions of people drive at speeds above fifty miles an hour in a ton of metal extremely close to others who are doing the same thing. A slight move of the steering wheel in the wrong direction would wreak havoc, but we cruise carefree because we drive in an implicit fellowship with other drivers and have reasonable expectations about their behavior. Such fellowship with and expectations of other drivers, which serve to mitigate the theoretical risks of driving, can exist because people follow a long-established framework of laws, habits, and conventions about how to operate automobiles.

In an increasingly interdependent world, people need a corresponding global framework to put their minds at relative ease. Part of that reference framework must be based on global civics, a system of conscious responsibilities that we are ready to assume after due deliberation and corresponding rights that we are ready to claim. We all need to ask ourselves: to what responsibilities to other human beings are we personally ready to commit, and what would global civics look like? Two thought experiments can aid in figuring this out.

The Seven-Billionth Human Being

The first thought experiment for imagining the shape of global civics is to speculate about what one would say to welcome the seven-billionth human being, who will join the rest of us on this planet in 2012. A worthwhile exercise would be for each of us to take fifteen minutes out of our day to imagine what we would tell our fellow seven-billionth person about the human condition awaiting her or him. This conversation, however hypothetical, would help us take stock of the global situation that we have all helped produce. It would also set us on a path toward discovering our most imminent responsibilities to each other and the next generation—the essence of global civics.

The first thing we could tell our newcomer is that she can expect to live more than seventy years and that this is twice as long as what people counted on a century ago. We would tell this newcomer that though the world is a very unequal place in terms of income and wealth, disparities in life expectancy are decreasing. We could report in good conscience that the world possesses some effective global public health instruments, and that we have eradicated smallpox and might see the end of polio and malaria in her lifetime. She could be told to expect to have more than eleven years of schooling, education being another area where gross but diminishing global disparities loom large. We could also report that the world that awaits her prizes gender equality more than in any other era, so she can anticipate a more enabling world than her mother or grandmother experienced.

In the spirit of first giving the good news, we can in good faith report that this seven-billionth person will have capabilities that not only empower her but would have been the envy of emperors and tycoons from earlier centuries. In terms of information and knowledge, our newcomer will have unprecedented access through the likes of Google Scholar, JSTOR (Journal Storage), and Wikipedia. The breadth of information and knowledge available and the ease of her access to such information would have been unfathomable to the Encylopédistes and academies of sciences of previous centuries.

At the same time, we should admit to her that there are critical risks. Although we know about the mind-numbing horrors of previous genocides and have resolutely sworn not to allow this ultimate crime to recur, the sad fact is that nobody would likely come to rescue our seven-billionth fellow human were she to face genocide. We would have to tell her that not only have the world's military powers abdicated their solemn responsibility to protect, but they have also not allowed the development of procedures and institutions for people to join a UN volunteer army to intervene in cases of imminent genocide.

We would also need to tell this newcomer that we have set into motion, first unknowingly and then with full awareness for the past twenty years, a chain of events related to climate change that may very soon become irreversible and lead to catastrophic environmental consequences. We now know that hydrocarbons are priced too low and do not reflect the real cost that their consumption inflicts on the environment and future generations. In effect, future generations have been subsidizing our current welfare, and they will need to deal with a deferred and compounded bill. We would need to note that while we were able to devise a plan for collective global action to prevent depletion of the ozone layer, a similar framework to mitigate climate change has thus far eluded us.

Finally, we would need to tell her that for decades in the twentieth century, the world's superpowers gambled with human civilization by amassing thousands of nuclear warheads, and that on more than one occasion, humanity was remarkably close to a nuclear holocaust. Although, as of today, we have not realized the forty-year-old goal of total nuclear disarmament enshrined in the Non-Proliferation Treaty, we have reduced the active nuclear arsenal to a fraction of what it once was.

Working on a welcome message for our seven-billionth fellow human being provides us with an opportunity for introspection as well as a frank accounting of the implicit responsibilities we have to other human beings and future generations, which constitute the very essence of global civics. Doing unto others what we would have them do unto us remains the most resilient benchmark for decent conduct in human history. This hypothetical conversation with our newcomer could set us on a path to answering some of these cardinal questions and help us elucidate what global civics would entail.

A Global Veil of ignorance

In considering the shape of global civics, a second, more elaborate thought experiment is the global veil of ignorance, inspired by John Rawls and his book A Theory of Justice. Rawls proposes thinking about justice both on procedural grounds and in terms of a particular definition: "justice as fairness." According to this definition, the organizing principles for a society would be agreed upon, hypothetically, in an initial position of equality, and these principles would end up governing all further agreements and the kinds of social cooperation and government that could be established. This situation would put people behind a "veil of ignorance," which would keep them from knowing their position in society or their fortune in the distribution of assets and abilities. The point of all this is to ensure that the organizing principles agreed to behind the veil of ignorance could not be designed to favor any particular condition, and that these principles would be the result of fair deliberation and agreement. Although Rawls's basic proposition is a familiar Kantian move, one can argue that all major philosophical and religious traditions have similar tenets. The maxim of treating others as we wish to be treated by them in commensurate situations is both a simple proposition and quite possibly one of the most radical ideas in history.


Excerpted from Global Civics Copyright © 2011 by THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of BROOKINGS INSTITUTION PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Hakan Altinay is a nonresident senior fellow in Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution. Previously he served as executive director of the Open Society Foundation–Turkey and was a World Fellow at Yale University.

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