Richard Falk


Reading Robert Paehlke’s carefully crafted essay on global citizenship provides the occasion both for an appreciation of his approach and some doubts about its degree of responsiveness to the urgencies of the present or, more specifically, its adequacy in relation to the call for ‘transformative vision and praxis’ that lies at the heart of the Great Transition Initiative. Paehlke is on strong ground when he ventures the opinion that the planetization of citizenship is an indispensable precondition for the establishment of global governance in forms that are both effective and fair. His insistence that global governance, to be legitimate, must address ethical issues as well as functional ones associated with sustainability is certainly welcome. He is also persuasive in advocating the formation of a global citizens movement (GCM) that takes advantage of the networking and mobilizing potential of the Internet, combining an initial focus on local challenges with the nurturing of a global perspective. An initial caveat is worry that projection of global citizenship prior to the formation of a global community needs to be approached in a spirit of great caution. The danger lurking, as evident in some premature affirmations of being ‘a citizen of the world,’ (for instance, Gary Davis), is that the sentiment is asserted without the reality of a world community that is a precondition for making it politically relevant. Being the citizen of a state is powerful because nationalism as a motivating ideology is powerful, and because in stable states, a strong sense of national community exists.

Paehlke’s deepest sympathies clearly lie with a pluralistic and decentralized GCM that operates, at least for the foreseeable future, without leaders or a common program of action and, as such, is likely, in his words, to be “less threatening” to the established order. But here is where my analysis and prescriptive horizons depart from his: if a transformative global movement is to emerge from current ferment, then it seems strategic to become more threatening, not less. Flying below the radar is not the kind of praxis that will be sufficient to awaken the human species from its long and increasingly dangerous world order slumber.

I would say that the defining feature of Paehlke’s approach is an implicit belief that with enough patience and persistence, we can get to the ‘there’ of effective and equitable global governance from the ‘here’ of neoliberal globalization and state-centrism that has been accentuating inequality and human insecurity within and between states during the last several decades. He envisions a transformative movement as possible if prudent efforts are made to induce enough global reform to facilitate the kinds of economic development that manage to deliver equity and environmental protection across borders. There is present in Paehlke’s worldview a sophisticated linear interpretation of world history that is particularly exhibited through changes in the organizational scale of political communities and in the application of technology to the fundamentals of economic, social, and political life. In his well-chosen words, the spread of a GCM will likely occur “as crises mature and more people appreciate that global governance is where the long arc of human history is taking us—and has been for centuries.” In effect, just as the small kingdoms of feudal Europe became too small to handle the expansion of productive capacities and the enlargement of the market, so in the 21st century has the state become no longer able to be responsive to the magnitudes of the challenges facing humanity, a reality that he hopes the formation and activity of a GCM will highlight and help with the mobilization of an appropriate theory and praxis of response. Paehlke makes clear that his advocacy of global citizenship does not imply either a prediction or prescription that the only adequate form of global governance is world government. He leaves open to the dynamics of evolving interaction how transformative governmental adjustments will be made, implying that there are alternative paths to optimal modalities of future global governance and that history encourages the confidence that needed adjustments will be forthcoming.

Understandably preoccupied with the inequalities stemming from current patterns of economic globalization, Paelhke believes that a robust GCM will tend to shift political consciousness from the competitive logic of a world of states to the communal logic of a world of people. Such a shift, should it occur in relation to the agenda of global policy bearing on human security, would indeed go a long distance toward satisfying the ideational prerequisites of the Great Transition Initiative. But I find it hard to believe that this shift in outlook could come about unless it is actualized by a prior radical and worldwide social movement that deliberately shakes the foundations of the established political and economic order. These differing logics also reflect the multiple unevenness of various national circumstances that bear on the wages and safety of workers, and the wellbeing of others, as well as fixing the appropriate level of environmental protection. At stake, additionally, is whether there exists enough common global ground to overcome the geographic locus of global policy that has up to this point in modern times given us a world of competing national and transnational interests organized to give preference to the priorities of the West.

How these kinds of tensions can be overcome by approaching policymaking from the perspective of shared challenges and opportunities seems daunting, and suggests that the GCM, despite being oriented by Paehlke toward the local, will fail to exert much transformative leverage. To exert transformative influence, it would have to reorient political consciousness toward the North Star of human interests, which presupposes a qualitative departure from the bounded space of territorial sovereign states whose leadership regards itself pledged to maximize national interests while at the same time, without acknowledgement, promoting transnational financial flows and capital efficiency. The ‘without acknowledgement’ is important as national political leaders must hide the extent to which they are captives of entrenched transnationalized economic elites and thus need to deceive the citizenry as to why certain policy adjustments are politically non-viable even to be proposed.

A robust GCM would benefit greatly from the establishment of some form of global parliament, which has been long advocated by those who do not accept the conventional strictures of citizenship as linked to nationalism. Such a parliamentary institution, depending on how it emerged, could begin to articulate global policy from contrarian perspectives to those associated with the outlook of leading states and hopefully help prepare the ground for the emerge of stronger community feelings on regional and global levels. Especially important would be articulations of the human and global interest, as well as bringing to bear a variety of views not represented by governments acting on behalf of national and sub-national interests and primarily dedicated to the promotion of transnational capital in all its forms. To develop a transformative consciousness, we must first understand the wide gaps between a nationally oriented political consciousness and one that is humanly oriented.

Such a positive outcome cannot be assumed to follow from the mere establishment of a global parliament. As soon as such an institution achieves gains in stature, it would almost inevitably become a site of struggle for competing worldviews, including class conflict, ideological differences, and a variety of culture wars. I mention such concerns in light of the recent experience of the European Parliament, which has had the roller coaster ride of being long discounted as an irrelevant talk shop before being taken gradually more seriously, and now becoming significant enough to alert the most reactionary forces in Europe to its political potentialities. These regressive forces are now determined to take over the institution with the evident intention of pushing the European Union further in Islamophobic, anti-immigrant, and socially harsh directions. These risks of cooption and neutralization cast a thickening cloud over the near future of the European Parliament and in various ways clarify why, over the decades, the United Nations has so disappointed expectations of those seeking a peaceful and just world order and seems often to have become the scene of an institutional race to the bottom or nothing more than a playground for geopolitical rivals.

In effect, I am arguing that a reformist outlook, while useful, is not mobilizing in relation to the deeper concerns about the human future. Such a more relaxed outlook toward the global setting implicitly believes that there is ample time and political space for the transformative forces of humanism to work their magic. I find the evidence and tendencies to be quite the opposite. We are living in a time of emergency as far as the human species is concerned. I know this political consciousness has existed previously. Some respected observers insist that apocalyptic fears are nothing other than a symptom of all civilizational transitions, and that ours reflect the ending of modernity. In opposition, I would argue that the apocalyptic realities of the current challenges make the claim of emergency the only responsible reaction given the evidence surrounding growing risks of species collapses. I realize that Paehlke is arguing against such world order ‘alarmism,’ which he and many others believe to be politically debilitating. I contend, in opposition, that we must orient praxis toward the real if we wish to act with sanity and in an aroused spirit of dedication to a better human future.

The world has had several decades to react and adapt, but has not done so. I would point to the normalization of nuclear weaponry in the security mentality of powerful states and the inability of these same states to act responsibly in relation to the strong scientific consensus about the menace of climate change. What these failures of response to such fundamentally threatening developments disclose, above all, is a biopolitical uncertainty about whether the human species as a species has a sufficient will to survive. We know that individuals have such a will, which is generally extended to embrace family, loved ones, and even friends and neighbors. Also, nationalism has demonstrated the intensity of a national will to survive even at great potential cost to the partial self of nationhood and the larger self of humanity as a whole. The shared security commitment of lead governments to nuclear deterrence during the Cold War expressed an omnicidal readiness to risk the fate of the species, and thereby give an absolute value to the survival of the state and nation. Our hopes for the future depend on determining whether this apparent weak will to survive at the level of the human species is hard-wired into our collective mental processes or is a contingent byproduct of modernity encased in a state-centric and neoliberal world order that can be reconfigured for survival and justice, but not without a difficult struggle organized from below, that is, by a movement that catches on among the masses or ‘the multitude.’

Despite my appreciation of Paehlke’s hopes for the GCM and the fact that many of his formulations are congenial, I find the overall framework of thought and action too constrained by the assumptions that global citizenship can be understood and enacted as a spatial phenomenon. This includes the bias toward promoting local solutions to the extent possible to avoid dangerous and unpopular concentrations of political power. I would argue that time is as important as space in the reconfiguration of citizenship, especially as the challenges become more severe with the passage of time.

For instance, compare the relative simplicity of achieving total nuclear disarmament in 1945, when only one country possessed a few atomic bombs, with the complexities associated with trying to negotiate a disarmament treaty with nine nuclear states that have vastly different security priorities and perceptions. Or consider the difficulties of addressing climate change after the planet heats up by 4 degrees Celsius or more by mid-century as compared to dealing with greenhouse gas emissions effectively in the 1990s when the nature of the threat was first convincingly established by the overwhelming weight of scientific opinion. Even those with some sensitivity to the gravity and urgency of the challenge, such as Barack Obama, are so constrained by the practicalities of politics that they continue to limit recommended solutions to those that are market-based and have already been demonstrated to be ineffective. The larger point here is that citizenship must become as oriented toward time and the future at least as much as toward the geographies and peoples now living within territorial boundaries. To capture this sense of space/time, I have previously championed the ideal of ‘citizen pilgrims,’ those engaged in a journey toward a sustainable and emancipated future that acknowledges and acts upon mounting threats to human survival as well as tries hard to make the planet more morally, aesthetically, and spiritually responsible.

Paehlke ends his essay by distancing himself from ideological markers of left/right and saying that a GCM “need not prima facie oppose ‘globalization’ or ‘capitalism’” in its commitment to finding “quick, small, visible victories that enhance the efficacy felt by citizens” in relation to problems requiring global solutions. In his essay, there is missing any critique of the links between militarism and neoliberal globalization or between global inequalities and the postcolonial interventionism and force projections of the West, especially the United States. There is a certain originality in Paehlke’s stress on the lack of confidence by citizens in relation to activity in the public sphere given the way state and market function in our world. Yet in the end, I find restoring confidence in citizen efficacy and the encouragement of working within the system to be the wrong way to go given what we know, fear, and hope. So conceived, a GCM is likely to divert our attention while we as a species drift ever closer to a nightmarish future. In essence, to achieve a Great Transition of happier dreams we must begin by distinguishing between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ This may seem divisive, but in a world so hierarchical and divided by class, race, and gender, to do otherwise is to retreat disastrously from the realities of political life. It is fine to crave unity, but in the meantime, we are entrapped in a series of structures that reward conflict, produce exploitation, and regard disunity and enduring division as endemic to the human condition. At best, we can affirm dialogic modes of being in the world, an engagement with ‘otherness’ in all its forms, but also with the humbling recognition that there are radically different appreciations of what needs to be done. One benefit of dialogue that transcends state-centric categories is to build communities of belief and joint action that are sensitive to the realities of ‘the human’ and ‘the global’ without needing to abandon identities rooted in the great particularities of ‘the national’ and ‘the personal.’


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Richard Falk
Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Fellow of the Orfalea Center of Global Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He directs the project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy at UCSB and formerly served as director the North American group in the World Order Models Project. Between 2008 and 2014, Falk served as UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Occupied Palestine



Cite as Richard Falk, "Commentary on 'Global Citizenship: Plausible Fears and Necessary Dreams,'" Great Transition Initiative (June 2014), https://www.greattransition.org/commentary/richard-falk-global-citizenship-robert-paehlke.




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