The Case for Global Civics

Hakan Altinay
Hakan Altinay Former Brookings Expert

March 10, 2010


“Civics” often refers to the familiar constellation of rights and responsibilities emanating from 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 6.7 billion people is so overwhelming that it is a nonstarter. Furthermore, it can be argued that any meaningful experience of pan-global 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 we do not have a world government, any talk of global civics is whimsical.

Notwithstanding such skepticism, here I attempt to demonstrate that it is in fact possible to imagine global civics. First I 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. Finally, I argue that universities should be key sites for the conversation about global civics. One of the invaluable missions of a university education is to equip younger generations with the information and analytical tools for them to exercise competent control over their lives and become conscientious citizens. Given our increasing interdependence, a university education which does not provide effective tools and forums for students to think through their responsibilities and rights as one of the several billions on planet Earth, and along the way develop their moral compass, would be a failure.