What does it mean to be an engaged global citizen?

David Cullen
26 March 2007

It's not easy being a global citizen. In 1948, following his experience as a United States airman in the Pacific war, Garry Davis interrupted the United Nations general assembly to call for world government. He backed up his demand by inviting individuals to declare themselves world citizens. Never a man to issue edicts and then fail to act upon them, he renounced his American nationality and went on to spend decades promoting the idea of world citizenship - mainly by issuing "World Passports" to anyone who cares to apply (and pay a fee), while travelling the world himself in the attempt to persuade countries to accept them.

Davis got himself arrested in an impressive array of countries, for various obscure offences related to the passports' use and distribution ("confusing the public mind" in France is a personal favourite). A life dedicated to patronising the custodial establishments of the world, and generally irritating authority wherever it might lurk: clearly the line between being an active global citizen, and becoming a crank, is thin and indistinct.

The main problem is that there isn't a clearly defined global polity for us to be citizens of - being a citizen simply means having the right to live in a given country. And while we all have the right to live in one part of the world or another, this doesn't quite equate to an inalienable right to stride about the place with impunity - we are corralled into narrow strips of jurisdiction, and if we wish to decant to another we generally have to ask very nicely and fill in lots of forms. On the plus side, the minimal legal rights we are granted to inhabit our planet are at least a start, and there are no serious threats on the horizon to remove them - though I suspect Dick Cheney sometimes dreams of doing just that on stormy nights.

David Cullen is studying Politics and International Relations at Oxford Brookes. He has previously been a removals man, a pumpkin picker and run a sharp-shooter game in a funfair. In his spare time he DJs, is an activist in the Brookes People & Planet Society and blogs at inmyhumbleetc.co.uk

His article is the winning entry in the People & Planet / openDemocracy essay competition

To see extracts from the shortlisted entries, including the runner-up essay by Colin Rowlands click here

For a summary of the competition rules click here

The nation hurdle

The point remains: wherever you look for the forums in which we could begin our quest to make "global citizenship" less of a contradiction in terms, national governments keep getting in the way. The United Nations itself is a state-dominated body and continually hamstrung by the narrow self-interest of its constituent members. Our entire international legal system, including all our human-rights standards, depended upon the acquiescence of state governments in its adoption and still relies upon the whim of those same governments for its enforcement. Should we wish to gather with our fellow citizens at international events, often in the only role left open to us - that of protesting outside - we are at the mercy of state governments over whether such activity is deemed acceptable or not.

When I hurl my newspaper around the room in outrage at some global issue or other, the chances are the culprit is a government of some sort. And whether mine or someone else's, the chances of getting the matter attended to are disappointingly slim - I have petitioned the phone company a number of times for my own red telephone to harangue Australian prime minister John Howard in the dead of night, but they are strangely reticent on this front. Even when the mischief is being wrought closer to home and the authorities respond to complaints with pre-written stock letters that carry an air of paternal concern, actually getting the matter resolved is a rarity. Of course, under the United Kingdom's scrapbook constitutional arrangements we are technically subjects anyway (loyal or otherwise), and the prime minister wields a remnant of the divine right of kings in the form of the royal prerogative - so perhaps I should be less surprised and more grateful for my bits of paper.

In this context, the idea of citizenship acquires seditious overtones: of being engaged in the affairs of that country - perhaps even with a view to affecting them in some fashion - rather than merely inhabiting it. In a representative democracy, it's hard to think of a more iconic statement of engagement than to join a political party, and yet British politicians tend to view the most active members of their own political parties with a torrid mixture of fear, revulsion and pity. For all that they wax lyrical about citizenship lessons and public consultation; the overall impression is they have in mind something closer to patronising people into submission. Perhaps they are over-familiar with Mark Twain's remark: "citizenship is what makes a republic; monarchies can get along without it". You can see how distressing it must be for them: one moment you are teaching the public about their rights and duties which stem from residing in this great country, and the next they are getting ideas above their station and storming the Bastille.

Well perhaps not, but the point remains clear that active citizens are a nuisance in terms of the smooth and uninterrupted workings of government - and so they should be. Even the most responsive governments - those in the liberal and affluent west - fail the subsidiarity test. An unequal world, and international regime, by definition means that powerful governments will take decisions that will have disproportionate cross-border ramifications, and most of those affected will have no means of control over these governments. There is a strong contradiction between any notion of global responsibility, and the idea of national interest. In reality, nations have a huge morass of interests, most of them incompatible, and the "national" interest is generally shorthand for the interests of a small ruling elite. But even at best, global consciousness is uncomfortably shoehorned into this picture as the perverse lobbying priorities of a peculiar national demographic. The question is, as that particular slice of vote-fodder, what are we going to do about it? Do we consider our national governments to be more a part of the problem, or the vehicle for a solution?

The global trampoline

The idea of being a citizen of a global social and political unit, rather than the most immediate one, is as old as Socrates and Diogenes - who each pre-empted Garry Davis by more than two thousand years in that particular claim. Quite what these pioneers of western thought would have contributed to this quandary is difficult to divine at this juncture; apart from any other considerations, the nation-state didn't arrive until centuries later. Interestingly, following the Roman and Greek tradition, a number of intervening figures - including Thomas Jefferson - identified a willingness to take up arms as the primary duty conferred by citizenship.

Perhaps we could update this for the liberal 21st century: is feeling an obligation to engage in peaceful battle with a recalcitrant nation-state now the core requirement of a prospective global citizen? Certainly there have been plenty of high-profile successes for campaigners working within the political systems of their own countries: the almost universal adoption of the aforementioned human-rights standards, the ban on landmines, and the cancellation of some of the most crippling third-world debt, for example. However, for all these triumphs there are others which have been ignored (the millennium development goals spring to mind) and in any case all of these advances run the risk of being overturned in the changing of governments. As we are discovering with the current United States administration, a government that sets its face against any kind of liberal progress can undo a lot of good work in a short space of time.

As a child of the ecstasy generation I fondly remember the first flowerings of dance music; a slew of songs which seemed to suggest global transformation and harmony were simply a matter of boundless enthusiasm and spreading the love in the right way. The triumph of coordinated wishful thinking, if you will. The hippy solution of dropping out, and observing the inevitable collapse of the old order, updated to the soundtrack of hardcore beats and 1970s children's TV. Perhaps a less passive stance in this vein would suggest that the developing of alternatives might be a more time-efficient methodology than either waiting for the world to go away, or banging your head against the walls of an ivory tower. There are significant gaps in the formation of the kind of order we, as global citizens, might like to see - it makes a lot of sense to begin filling them ourselves. And much though the more glamorous end can be somewhat problematic (such as affecting a global citizen's arrest on George W Bush using Pentagon-approved methods of restraint) there is plenty to occupy the more cautious soul. Global civil society is in rude health with the growth of the internet, and by its very nature is very much open to all.

A state of mind

Current thinking about the relationship of the state to the international system from scholars such as David Held and Anthony McGrew maintain that this is part of a growing phenomenon of emergent international governance - that instead of looking for the foundation of world government with attendant fanfare, we should pay attention to a more subtle flowering of networks of governance at the global level. In this analysis, both state and non-state actors assume roles in the ordering of human affairs at a supranational level. All the NGOs and pressure groups which were instrumental in the achievements listed above play a role, as do international organisations and states. So there is an element of false choice in the global citizen's attitude towards government. Any seasoned connoisseur of the multiple-choice question favours the stock answer "all of the above" - as it's so often true.

If we're serious about becoming global citizens, we need to push the existing governing and governance structures in the right direction; demand more direct and democratic representation at the supranational level; create and nurture institutions, organisations and movements which plug the gaps; outflank the ponderous workings of governments and develop the spaces in which global consciousness can flourish and be enhanced. Being a global citizen is a state of mind - it's about saying "this place is my business" and getting involved in it. Both picking up litter in your local neighbourhood, and creating a camp alter-ego to begin a one-man fight against crime are valid approaches, and so is everything in between.

So there you have it - becoming a global citizen is a simple matter of wearing pants outside your trousers, gathering other people's rubbish, assaulting world leaders, standing in long lines in various capital cities, joining the people's militia, ignoring your own interests, storming the Bastille, joining in with the party, collecting letters from ministers, prank-calling people you don't like, bowling with newsprint, distributing "forged" passports and developing a taste for porridge. What are you waiting for? Crank-hood here we come.


This essay is the winner of the openDemocracy / People & Planet essay competition "What does it mean to be an engaged global citizen?"

openDemocracy editor Isabel Hilton reflects on the judging process:

"We asked for originality and engagement and received a gratifyingly large measure of both. Judging the entries was a pleasure: the standards were high, the entries were thought provoking and the final choice was tough. In the end, our winner stood out for the direct and accessible style of his writing and the sense of personal engagement that he brought to the subject. But there many other writers who impressed the judges.

We judged the essays blind, with no knowledge of the age of the writers and we would like to commend in particular Shana Ahmed, aged 15 and David Lawson, 17, whose essays showed a maturity and grasp of the topic well in advance of their years. Their essays, and those of the other deserving finalists, can be read on the People and Planet website. Finally openDemocracy would like to congratulate the winning author and to thank all who took part – the writers, the judges and you, the readers. I hope you will be as impressed with the intelligence and commitment of our young contestants as we were."


With thanks to the judging panel: Isabel Hilton (openDemocracy); Tom Chance (People & Planet); Becky Hogge (Open Rights Group); Stephen Hopgood (Lecturer in International Politics, SOAS); Anne-Marie O'Reilly (People & Planet).


Had enough of ‘alternative facts’? openDemocracy is different Join the conversation: get our weekly email


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData