During the first stage of his post-victory ‘thank you’ tour in Cincinnati, Ohio, US president-elect Donald Trump declared: ‘There is no global anthem. No global currency. No certificate of global citizenship.’ Trump is not alone in rejecting the idea of global citizenship. Speaking at the Conservative Party conference this autumn, UK prime minister Theresa May asserted that ‘if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.’
There are many who do not take kindly to criticism of the idea of global citizenship. As both May and Trump discovered, some self-styled global citizens see any criticism of their creed as racist, an argument in favour of national chauvinism. This is hardly surprising. Many people are well disposed to the idea of global citizenship. A survey earlier this year found that 47 per cent of British people and 43 per cent of Americans view themselves primarily as global citizens, rather than as citizens of their nations.
Yet while May’s and Trump’s motives are far from progressive, they have a point on global citizenship. It is a moral gesture with little to offer those without national citizenship.
Consider the plight of stateless people in Europe. The UN estimates there are at least 680,000 of them, although the real figure is thought to be much higher. Without citizenship they have little chance to build a life, a career or a family, and can play little role in the economic, social and political life of a nation, never mind the globe. Or consider the desperate inhabitants of the Calais Jungle refugee camp: they risked life and limb to get to the UK because they preferred the legal rights of national citizenship to the miserable reality of global citizenship. And no wonder. As Hannah Arendt put it, to be without citizenship of a state is to lack the right to have rights.
So why do so many value the idea of global citizenship? Why do so many think being a ‘citizen of the world’ is preferable to being a citizen of a nation?