Political Cosmopolitanism and the Challenges it Faces

By Ian HowarthHuman Rights Abuse

The building blocks of the cosmopolitan international order can be found in what English school theorists such as Headley Bull and Charles Manning call the ‘four key pillars of international law, diplomacy, international organisations and the balance of power’ (Evans & Newnham 1998: 276). These four key pillars determine relations between nations, and form modern international society, and as such are the basis upon which the cosmopolitan international order stands.  The United Nations (UN), the European Union and financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) represent common values and goals.  While the Security Council enforces the balance of power, and the implementation of international law in concert with the International Criminal Court (ICC) which upholds and prosecutes that law.

Cosmopolitanism is often mistaken as little more than a framework for moral judgements rather than as a perspective political framework for world order.  ‘Political cosmopolitanism…refers in general to any position which prescribes types of political practice and institution that operate over, above or across the boundaries of the nation-state and which are at least potentially global in their reach.’ (Hutchings 1999: 153-154)

This definition is clearly very general, and although political cosmopolitanism prescribes its framework above, the moral cosmopolitanism that most people are familiar with fleshes it out.  It is impossible to separate its moral or ethical foundations, from the political ‘frameworks’ it aims to promote as these frameworks are based on certain principles and ethical assertions that western societies have come to represent, defend and seek to export.

It is crucial to highlight political cosmopolitanisms emphasis on ‘frameworks’ in this discussion, as political cosmopolitanism does not necessarily seek to create world government.  In fact ‘most contemporary political cosmopolitans are wary of the idea of a world state formulated according to the familiar principle of state sovereignty.’ (Hutchings 1999: 154)  This is due to the potential for global tyranny within such a system.  ‘In general, contemporary work on political cosmopolitanism is premised on the importance of democratising the covert and undemocratic cosmopolitan decision-making which is already going on in the world.’ (Hutchings 1999: 154)

What political cosmopolitanism seeks to establish is a trans-national system of institutions that promote and protect what moral cosmopolitans see as fundamental human rights, such as democratic governance, freedom of speech, expression, and religion, freedom from unprovoked aggression.  It aims to do this through institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) the World Health Organisation (WHO) and to some extent the United Nations (UN).

The ICC is probably the single best example of a cosmopolitan political structure as it has a global reach that rises above national sovereignty.  It seeks to enforce international standards of behaviour in war, and bring the perpetrators of genocide and tyranny to justice.  In short it aims to uphold the moral certainty’s of western and cosmopolitan thought.

The International Order that cosmopolitans strive for is therefore simply defined as a secular network of global institutions that strive to establish norms of behaviour throughout the international system, based on western concepts of human rights, and representative governance.  It aims to achieve this goal through a number of means the primary and most visible one being the globalisation of international trade.  This has brought the world closer together and made nation states more dependent not only on their own economic and political stability but also on the political and economic stability of their major trading partners, and international financial markets.  This growth in international trade and the emergence of an identifiable global economy has also led to the need for structural controls, and the creation of rules and obligations that apply to the whole of the international economy in order to ensure fair and free trade on a level playing field.   This has been partly achieved through organisations such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the World Bank (WB) and the World Trade Organisation (WTO).

Despite the fact that all three of these organisations are criticised by many cosmopolitan commentators as existing and operating in a moral vacuum the spread of their power and values has had a positive effect on the cosmopolitan agenda.  All three organisations work transnationally and uphold western economic ideals, which promote certain types of government, property right and individualism.  This individualism leads to an awareness of one’s self within a system creating demand and pressure for change.  These developments are seen widely by many sociologists and historians as the keystones that led to European political enlightenment and eventual democratic reform.  This therefore is what the international cosmopolitan order is, and the institutions mentioned above are the vehicles for its spread and its success.   However, this bold idea held aloft by many western intellectuals, and implemented rather cynically by bureaucrats and politicians is not without challenge.

The primary non-western ideology that gains the most media attention and creates the greatest debate is Islamic fundamentalism, and theocracy in general, but this is not the only non-cosmopolitan view of the world.   The Non-Aligned Movement that was first given voice in the ‘1955 Bandung Conference’ (Evans & Newnham 1998: 45), also has a very different view of the world.  The key principles of this movement can be summarised as a belief in the primacy of national sovereignty and consequently of non-intervention of foreign powers or international organisations in their internal affairs.  This later point when taking into account the type of government prevalent within the members of this international grouping is problematic for moral cosmopolitanism.  These governments can be generally defined as autocratic and repressive yet with diverse and rapidly growing capitalist economies.

The remaining communist nations of China, Vietnam, North Korea and Cuba also have very different opinions on the nature of the world order they wish to see prevail.  These powers are strongly opposed to international institutions that promote or aim to project what they see as uniquely western values.  Believing that the ultimate vision for the international order is a cooperative and self-sufficient society established along socialist principles.

The Non-Aligned Movement along with China argue against cosmopolitan values stating that they have equally legitimate Asian or African Values, which are promoted by state business elites within these nations; ‘turning the ‘liberal idea’ on its head, and arguing that individualism and pluralism actually negated economic success.  Asian values in Malaysia and Singapore meant liberal legislation to control the aspirations and behaviour of youth.’ (Baylis & Smith 2001: 460)  Asian Values are an explanation and justification for their systems of government and their attitudes towards western ideas of governance and human rights, couched in terms of economic benefits as a placation against the excessive aspirations of their young populations.

However many see this simply as a justification for tyranny and repression, that seeks to justify and give legitimacy to human rights violations within Asian states on the back of cultural preservation.  This is the common position of many who argue against the adoption of international norms and values with regard to human rights and the ideal of representative government.  They argue the imposition of western values on Asian or African societies is cultural imperialism, or Americanisation.  I personally believe that these arguments are disingenuous and immoral, as no one enjoys being oppressed, poor and scared, which are the brutal facts that the people who live with the realities of ‘Asian Values’ or ‘African Values’ must face in their day-to-day lives.

There is however an important distinction to be made here as regards to the nature of these non-cosmopolitan perspectives, with the Non-Aligned Movement and the Asian Values debate on one side and religious extremism on the other.  While all three represent different non-cosmopolitan perspectives on the nature of international order, the latter two are conducted within the traditional structure of international relations and diplomacy.   They do not actively seek to undermine and ultimately destroy the cosmopolitan agenda, but to maintain themselves as independent, existing outside the cosmopolitan agenda.  Their policies seek to weaken the institutions created as part of the cosmopolitan international order so as to maintain opt-out clauses to meet their specific requirements.

In short the Asian Values debate and the Non Aligned Movement recognise and operate within the international institutions established by the Bretton Woods and United Nations system, and almost all were part of the ‘Geneva consensus on free trade’ (Dunkley 2000: 17), and are members of the WTO.  With all the Non Aligned Movement states recognising the legitimate authority of the United Nations, and using these institutions to promote their interests internationally.

Religious extremism, with a particular emphasis on Islamic fundamentalism, does not operate on the bases of debate within international bodies such as the UN.  The various strands of their argument do not recognise cosmopolitan institutions and more particularly the post war balance of power.  The very aim of this perspective being to destabilise and destroy this balance and it’s supporting structures.   Whereas the previous perspectives aim to persuade and argue using the structures of international society as aides, Islamic fundamentalists preach the destruction of these institutions with the publicised aim of undermining cosmopolitan societies and doing so through terrorism and the fear and distrust it spreads.

It is a common mistake amongst the media and popular debate to portray the terrorist threat as not representing a genuine threat to the current international order.  Furthermore, the individuals behind these terrorist groups are seen as largely simplistic in their approach and possessing no overall global strategic plan for confronting cosmopolitan society.  Whereas it is true to say that the disparate bands of Islamic fundamentalism are not in intimate contact with one another through some James Bond style evil network, they are in common agreement as to their aims and methods.  They are also equally not blind to the clear vulnerabilities of our open pluralistic societies, where freedoms of speech and movement are considered sacrosanct.

September 11th (9/11) was more than just an isolated tragedy; it had a very well thought out objective.  Through the targeting of New York’s financial centre it was a strike against the capitalist bedrock of our western cosmopolitan societies.  Not only did it shake the confidence of the United States, but it also hit the confidence of all the Western Powers, and all those who believe in a cosmopolitan global order.  9/11 placed a global economy gradually climbing out of an economic downturn into a prolonged worldwide recession that hit the livelihoods of tens of thousands of people from Silicon Valley to Mumbai.

The primary goal of terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda is to establish Taliban style governments across the Middle East, and eventually the rest of the Islamic world.  With the subsequent threat to oil supply’s this would present this represents a distinct threat to international security, and the security of key nations within the international order, such as Pakistan and Turkey.

The cause of Islamic extremists is one that is utterly opposed to that of cosmopolitans; the two agendas are bipolar opposites that can only clash, as has been argued by realist academics such as Samuel Huntingdon and Benjamin Barber.  Huntingdon’s The Clash of Civilisations is in my opinion very much what we are seeing unravelling in the world today, a plural cosmopolitan international order cannot be achieved as long as fundamentalist ideology’s such as that of Al’Queda, Hezbollah, the Taliban and Wahhabism Islam still hold sway in the popular politics of a significant proportion of the populations of Muslim countries.

Osama Bin Laden was hailed as a hero from the West Bank to Jakarta by fundamentalist groups who stir up support amongst the young disaffected and oppressed populations of Islamic countries.  These are the very people that could potentially gain the most from the establishment of an international cosmopolitan political order with its moral and ethical implications for the tyranny’s that oppress them.

Benjamin Barbers Jihad vs. McWorld seeks to highlight the ‘deep crisis of modernization [that] exists in many Muslim countries.  Poor living conditions and few opportunities for improvement have created a young frustrated urban population.’ (Baylis & Smith 2001: 464)  A young population that can see the fruits of western capitalism flaunted in the media and enjoyed by their political elites, yet denied to them by crushing corruption and stagnant economies.  This lack of political and economic reform has led to a democratic deficit in the Arab world that drives these young populations into nationalism fundamentalism, and a hatred for the perceived evils of a corrupt international western regime that is weighted against them.

The answer therefore to the question of whether non-western views undermine the building of a cosmopolitan international order is dependent on the nature of the non-western perspective in question.   As I have previously argued the cultural protectionist arguments of the non-aligned movement and the religious fundamentalists is a smoke screen for unrestrained oppression and violence towards civilian populations.  However in the case of the Non-Aligned Movement it does not threaten the construction of an international cosmopolitan order.  On the contrary taking into account their economic integration with the rest of the international system in the long run it will strengthen calls for democratic and plural societies within these countries.

However with regard to the Middle East and the Islamic world, the democratic deficit a term coined by a recent United Nations Report on the state of political institutions and representation in the Middle East conducted by Arab academics, is resulting in the spread of a misplaced doctrine of hate towards Western Society and cosmopolitanism.   This must be confronted through the active promotion of political and economic reforms within these states, only then can a peaceful cosmopolitan international order be established.

If anything can stop the development of a cosmopolitan international order it is in my opinion the uncontained spread of religious fundamentalism which is spreading instability and violence not only within the Middle East and the wider Muslim world but also within Muslim communities throughout the western world. American and European Muslim communities are having a wedge driven between themselves and the wider cosmopolitan societies they live in.   This is creating a source of tension within previously tolerant societies. The recent brutal terrorist killing of Drummer Lee Rigby, a serving British soldier on the streets of his home town and the reactions of right wing political elements in the UK demonstrate this point vividly.  Events such as this are aimed at causing a breakdown in tolerance and mutual respect between different communities within multi-cultural societies.  They constitute a major threat to a way of life that we have come to consider civilised and in my opinion stand as the greatest force against the spread of cosmopolitan values in the world today.


Baylis, John & Smith, Steve (2001) ‘The Globalization of World Politics: An introduction to international relations’ 2nd Edition, Oxford University Press, Oxford p460, p461-467

Booth, Ken and Smith, Steve (1995) ‘International Relations Theory Today’ Polity Press, Cambridge p110-118

Dunkley, Graham (2000) ‘The Free Trade Adventure: The WTO, the Uruguay Round and Globalism – A Critique’ Zed Books, London p17

Evans, Graham and Newnham, Jeffrey (1998) ‘The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations’ Penguin Books, London p45 & p276

Hutchings, Kimberly, (1999) ‘International Political Theory’ Sage Publications, London p153-154

Ledeen, Michael (2003) ‘The end of the beginning’, The Spectator, 12th April 2003, p14-15

Weaver, Marry Anne (2003) ‘Qatar’s Move Toward Democracy’, National Geographic, March 2003, p89- 105


2 thoughts on “Political Cosmopolitanism and the Challenges it Faces

  1. Pingback: Mooseington Press | The Legitimacy of War; An Argument in Defence of Human Rights

  2. Pingback: Mooseington Press | Cosmopolitanism in a World Without Borders

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