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Nationalism and Beyond

Nenad Miscevic

Part Three. Conclusion

Chapter twenty. Pluralistic cosmopolitanism

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  • 1 My presentation owes a lot to Nussbaum (1996) and Held (1995). I also learned a lot from the criti (...)

1In discussing political alternatives to nationalism in chapter nine we have sketched a model which rests upon both the practical necessities of the cohabitation of various ethno-national groups within a single state and across state boundaries, and the moral value of understanding and toleration. It is a moderately cosmopolitan model which welcomes macro-regional integrations that weaken the role of the state, as well as micro-regional diversity that often cuts across state borders. Its kernel is a kind of interactive multiculturalism, enriched with a cosmopolitan perspective. By interactive I mean a multiculturalism which insists on the open character of particular cultures and actively promulgates interaction between them, as opposed to a closed, nationalist multiculturalism. Let me sketch this briefly and roughly, without trying to defend it, since a proper elaboration and defense would require another book.1 In the model, classical states are seen as only one kind of political organization among many, macro-regional, micro-regional, and global. These non-statist forms institutionalize forms of political solidarity that go beyond or rest beneath, or simply cross-cut the boundaries of existing states.

2Secondly, the ethno-national criterion of belonging is certainly not the central criterion of political organization. States are typically multi-ethnic, with ethnic belonging most often cutting across state boundaries. For many ethno-national groups this entails the following needs: first, their loyalties and some of their institutions have to be allowed to cut across state boundaries, so that, secondly, they have a durable interest in the availability of open borders and durable cooperation between two or more states to which they belong, and thirdly, such an interest can only be satisfied by macro-regional integration of these states, accompanied by micro-regional connections across state borders. Obviously, in such a perspective ethno-national groups should be accorded opportunities to develop their political identities, but only to the extent that this is compatible with demands of cooperation and stability. Also, in this perspective classical states are seen as only one kind of political organization among many, macro-regional, micro-regional, and global

3I have just claimed that the ultimate character of this perspective is cosmopolitan. Let me introduce the concept with the help of definitions proposed in the recent literature. First, according to Martha Nussbaum, herself a prominent advocate of the view, a cosmopolitan is someone “whose primary allegiance is to the community of human beings in the entire world” (Nussbaum, 1996, 3). A Canadian political scientist, C. Lu, follows and explains her definition in both its critical and constructive aspects:

A cosmopolitan ethics is commonly understood to refer to a universalistic morality that eschews parochial, especially national, limitations or prejudices. More positively, a cosmopolitan ethical perspective entails the acknowledgment of some notion of common humanity that translates ethically into an ideal of shared or common moral duties toward others by virtue of this humanity. (Lu, 2000, 244)

4Another prominent supporter of cosmopolitanism, German-American philosopher Thomas Pogge, stresses three components of the perspective: first, individualism; secondly, universality, implying that each individual should be an object of concern, and indeed to everybody; which yields the third feature, generality. He distinguishes moral cosmopolitanism (just described) from the legal variety, defined by its commitment to “a concrete political idea of a global order under which all persons have equivalent legal rights and duties, that is, are fellow citizens of a universal republic” (Pogge, 1992, 49). I would like to add cultural cosmopolitanism, which claims that ideal cultural belonging is the one which is open to a variety of cultures, potentially to each and every culture ever created. We have argued for such a model from the existence of strong pressures exercised by actual political forces in the direction of prevention of (nationalist and racial) conflicts, from the actual plurality and interaction of communities, as well as from the actual proximity, geographical, demographic, often cultural (linguistic, historical, and religious) of various groups that typically enter nationalist conflicts. Here is a brief reminder.

5It is agreed on all sides that it is crucially important to prevent (nationalist and racial) conflicts. They are always ugly and often extremely inhuman. This is explained by mechanisms of increasing mutual distrust (the Prisoner’s Dilemma) and the spiral of threats and violence that it engenders; once a group has begun nation building, a reactive nationalism on the part of other groups threatened by it becomes unavoidable, and even conditionally justifiable. We have argued that only a pluralist cosmopolitan political framework can prevent such conflicts (and we shall argue that such a framework should also be culturally cosmopolitan).

  • 2 This has been developed by Onora O’Neill most recently (2000). See also Jones (1999) who credits P (...)

6The realistic basis for such a framework is provided by the actual plurality and interaction of communities. Actual communities are plural (partially overlapping, in general non-concentric) and in intense mutual interaction. Any kind of ethno-nationalist monism, on the other hand, enjoins isolationism. Isolationism is impracticable in given circumstances, and requires unnecessary pressures, use of force, and risks. The best way to secure a durable, stable interaction is by a pluralist cosmopolitan political framework. A close and very important line of thought appeals to the demands of justice governing interactions with strangers, including distant ones. It concentrates on the fate of the world’s poor and the issues of distributive justice.2 I will not pursue this line here, concentrating rather upon those lines that have already been anticipated.

  • 3 See the literature in Gutmann and Thompson (1996).
  • 4 See, for instance, Held (1995), and, for the debate, the criticism by Couture (2000).

7Let me mention a further motivation, which to some tastes might sound Utopian. Many people nowadays see and appreciate democracy not only as a mechanism for the occasional exercise of power by the electorate, but as an ongoing process of public deliberation. The view has been enshrined in the political theory known, among other things, as ‘deliberative democracy’, with prominent authors defending different sub-varieties of the view (most notable are H. Arendt, A. Gutmann, J. Habermas, and C. Santiago Nino).3 Now, what about international decision making, at least among liberal democracies? If public deliberation is of such importance within democratic states, it should also be prominent between states. Of course, actual diplomacy is nowadays a matter for specialists, but within contemporary liberal democracies there has been an increase in public participation in debates on international issues. Now, both thoughtful nationalists and cosmopolitans agree with the commonplace that in order for there to be a useful debate the participants have to share a repertory of symbols, meanings, and general principles. Witness what happens in the absence of such commonality: the NATO bombing of Serbia, and the activities of the Hague war crimes tribunal has met with a lot of hostility and misunderstanding in the whole Danubian region, even among audiences that did not support the policies of Milosevic, nor the activities of the Serbian and Croatian regimes. The bombing, in which the attackers risked almost nothing, was very much contrary to the traditional image of how one fights a war which is very much alive in the region, and has been interpreted as one more sign of haughty arrogance on the part of the US. The attempts of the Hague tribunal to bring to justice highly placed generals was seen as insulting to war heroes, offensive to national pride, and meddling in internal affairs. The only stable alternative to permanent misunderstanding of this kind is the creation of a common political culture across state borders. At least where the liberal-democratic countries, and those who aspire to become such, are concerned, their mutual dealings should mimic the deliberative patterns within each of them. However, a common political culture both presupposes and, once established, further enhances, general cultural understanding and interaction.4

8Although we have described our proposal as multiculturalist, we did not in chapter nine say much about culture proper. Having critically reviewed the issues of identity, values, culture, and tradition, however, we can return to the business of construction, armed with conclusions reached in the debate with the cultural nationalist. We now need to address the following issue: what is the correct form and scope of cultural life and creative endeavor? In particular we want to know whether it is cosmopolitan or narrowly national. We have already shown in chapter sixteen, on nationalist criticism of cosmopolitanism, that the latter need not be indiscriminate and bland. The anti-cosmopolitan option is defended both by traditional cultural nationalists and by more up-to-date authors whom one may call divisionary multiculturalists, whose slogan is ‘multiculturalism, yes, but with a neat separation between co-existing cultures’.

9We have stressed important features of culture that go beyond or stay beneath national limits. We have reminded ourselves that within each macro-region in the world there are sufficient cultural similarities to ground a macro-regional culture, intermediate between a purely cosmopolitan and a purely ethno-national one. For instance, there is such a thing as Central European culture, which contains important Germanic, Slavic, and Hungarian elements, plus, on the margin, Venetian or Turkish admixtures, all merged throughout a millennium of common history. No single ethno-national culture in the region could be historically understood apart from this macro-regional culture, and there is a good chance that many will go on to develop within such a macro-context, but now exposed to globalizing influences from the Anglo-American part.

10The ethno-national framework is certainly not the only one available. As already mentioned, ethno-national traditions as we know them from old nation-states might actually post-date the creation of the nation-state. The fact of cohabitation and the demands that the belonging and dignity of people of varied origins and cultures be recognized, wherever they happen to live, suggest a pluralist, inter-cultural framework that can inherit pluralism from the cosmopolitan Utopia, but make it more graded. Such a culturalist cosmopolitanism should respect the overlapping, but not necessarily concentric, circles of local, national, macro-regional, and possibly other identifications. It can thus reply to criticism typically leveled against cosmopolitanism. Let us recall Gertrude Himmelfarb (first quoted in chapter fourteen), who starts her accusation of cosmopolitanism in dramatically broad terms: “Above all, what cosmopolitanism obscures, even denies, are the givens of life: parents, ancestors, family, race, religion, heritage, history, culture, tradition, community—and nationality” (1996, 77). There is no need, however, for a cosmopolitan to deny that people have families and ancestors. It is rather rabid nationalists who push people into denying and rejecting their ancestors and family if they happen to be of the wrong ethnic origin. In Croatia (as well as in the greatest part of the former Yugoslavia) such a non-Croatian (or elsewhere non-Serbian, non-Muslim) belonging was energetically stigmatized. A more cosmopolitan approach would be either neutral to the belonging of one’s ancestors, or would see variation as an asset and a good to be upheld. It is nationalism, not cosmopolitanism, that permanently falsifies history in order to uphold mythology.

11Let me now argue for the importance of such a moderate, graded, culturalist cosmopolitanism from several sets of considerations that have played a central role in this book. I shall leave to the end the more elitist concerns of creativity, since cosmopolitanism has been traditionally associated with an exclusive interest in such concerns, which has done it more harm than good. I shall argue from three sets of values: first, autonomy, including self-determination, flourishing, and the development of belonging-based identity (in the wide, metaphorical sense); secondly, benevolent impartiality; and thirdly, creativity. The arguments are thus partly cultural, partly moral, and, though to a smaller extent, partly political. In a more general debate one would supplement them with additional moral arguments from the demands of distributive justice (see note 2), and with practical political arguments having to do with conditions for conflict avoidance and durable peace. Here I shall limit myself to considerations discussed in previous chapters, and draw further conclusions from the claims developed there. The arguments proposed in a way mirror the strategy of the nationalist opponent who assumes that political/legal forms should adapt themselves to cultural contents and the values implicit therein. The proposal gladly accepts the assumption, and then introduces a view of culture and values contrary to the nationalist one, the view that has been argued for throughout the book. If both the assumption and the view are correct, then political/legal forms should adapt themselves to a graded pluralist cultural framework.



12Autonomy is a crucial value for citizens of contemporary states. It need not go as far as a search for ‘absolute authenticity’, relativizing all moral frameworks, but it certainly includes the right to decide about the kind of life one wants to lead. Autonomy requires choice about commitments and sets of commitments. It is true that national frameworks usually offer some patterns or ways of life, and thus a context of choice to many people. However, many ways of life offered within a contemporary state are not ‘national’ in any recognizable sense (most professions, such as being a professor of mathematics or a plumber, are quite neutral as far as nationality goes), while others are clearly imported from definite world centers generating the guiding images and the standards of practice (pop culture, Buddhism, an obsession with computers and virtual reality); others still are strictly local, sub-national. Ultimately, only cultural pluralism of belongings, many of them voluntary, secures such a choice.

13A multiculturalist arguing for closed, ‘millet’-like communities might enquire whether members of minorities want to have a choice. Is assimilation a real option for them? It depends on particular circumstances. In contrast to the nationalist picture, we should remind ourselves that very often outbursts of minority demands for separation are not spontaneous expressions of a permanent and natural yearning, but the result of the failure of the majority to provide genuinely equal conditions for the members of the minority, and of estrangement due to this imposed, not-willed isolation of the minority. I have already mentioned that this is particularly true for immigrant minorities. However, a member of an autochthonous minority might also prefer not to be viewed always and primarily in his capacity as member of a minority. Anthony Appiah has developed such a line of argument in relation to race: no matter how much he solidarizes himself with his black companions, he wants his professional talents to be judged on their intrinsic merits, not on the fact that he is African American. He wants to develop his tastes and suchlike freely (Appiah, 1996). This topic dovetails with the issue of flourishing. The latter is impossible without the ability to choose and to re-choose.

14Let me now briefly pass to the subject of identity. Cultural and other acquired ‘identities’ should be plastic enough not to collide with autonomy. We have proposed that one should take acquired identities seriously, but not accord them the dramatic importance that one accords to literal sameness. In contrast to the literal sameness of the person or the self which is, in this banal sense, numerically one, the acquired identities allow for the pluralism of cultural identifications, resulting in a plural and changing cultural identity (in a non-literal, metaphoric sense). The seriousness of cultural identity is not compromised by the fact that it is not literal sameness. It is the psychological importance of identification that makes cultural identity crucial. Let me explain. If one identifies with a trait one is prone to ascribe to it factual importance in one’s past and in one’s decisions. Equally, one tries to act in accordance with the trait and its normative commitments. Furthermore, in the case of a durable identification there is a loop of mutual reinforcement between the trait and the attitude. All this gives enough seriousness to the identification, without any need to promulgate the trait into something that is ontologically necessary for sameness of person.

15The standard nationalist reply is that conviviality is dangerous for identity and thereby for the stability of persons. It is alleged to beget weak, neurotic ‘persons without qualities’. Have a cup of coffee with a foreigner and you lose your soul, as the prophet Isaiah thought. We have seen that this is false and deserves debunking. Psychologically, there is probably no positive correlation between the rigidity of the trait and the stability of identification; flexible traits can support stable identification. Finally, everyday experience shows that people both change their identifications during their lifetime, and that mutually incompatible identifications take turns in taking the lead at various times: I gave some simple examples in chapter fourteen. I remarked there that multiple identifications, far from producing a ‘weak self’, make part of the ordinary richness of life and opportunities. These moral and political consequences of everyday truisms point in the direction of pluralism. In chapter nine I summarized the requirements of such pluralism, first, nondiscrimination and equal concern; secondly, opportunities to develop one’s identifications in a free and spontaneous manner. Equally, one should be free not to identify with such a belonging, to take it as an accidental and limiting trait, without incurring any negative political consequences.


16Pluralism is a school of impartiality which prepares us for life in a world of increasing interaction across national, state, racial, and all other kinds of boundaries. Let me help myself to the arguments of Martha Nussbaum, who presents the cosmopolitan option with references to its Cynic and Stoic origins (1996; 2000). The option enjoins us to give our allegiance to what is good for all human beings; metaphorically, to the world community. (Some critics find an unjustified duality here: in their view our moral duty is to the good, not to people that just happen to exist at the present time.) The proper road to such allegiance is through cosmopolitan education. Nussbaum notes that infants respond indiscriminately to the human face as such; common humanity is the first basis of recognition. Equally, the love of the familiar is balanced with the curiosity for the distant and unfamiliar. A cosmopolitan education should give its due to the latter, expanding the circles of the familiar, and for several reasons. First, through contact with foreign traditions we learn about our own limitations, the contingencies of our tastes and preferences. Secondly, cosmopolitan education makes one better able to cope with the global problems of our age, those that go beyond narrowly national frontiers. Thirdly, we recognize our moral obligation to distant strangers, usually the people most in need of our help. Finally, we learn that the national format imposed by national boundaries is morally contingent.

  • 5 Thanks go to my colleague and friend F. Klampfer for proposing this way out for the moral Herderia (...)

17The nationalist might try to argue for an irreducible plurality of values, each suitable for a different community, (as do moral Herderians (for example Berlin and Margalit). However, the very idea of systematically divergent sets of objective (non-relative and non-indexical) value(-kind)s is somewhat problematic. Values might clash in a single case—Mary might find herself torn between the value of fidelity and the value of independence—but it is not clear that they are in themselves systematically incompatible. Nor is it clear that the Designer of Humankind (say God or History or Evolution) can and should isolate coherent subsets of values, and then assign particular groups to particular subsets. A society insisting on fidelity in total neglect of independence would not be a just one, and, in general, a narrow selection of values to be clustered together and put in effect by a given society would tend to produce drastic but unnecessary limitations. Indeed, unlimited value pluralism is a hotly contested assumption. Many philosophers, the universalists, deny that such fragmentation of value makes sense. Others claim more modestly that there are core values obligatory for any human group, whose availability makes the divergence less dramatic. The moral Herderian is not a relativist, so that he or she is almost bound to accept such a modest claim and agree that there is a core of unifying values common to all morally acceptable societies. The most he or she can offer are ‘cocktails’ containing similar or identical values but in different proportions.5 But why then should divisive value(-kind)s have priority over unifying ones and merit special political protection? The upshot of these considerations is that there is little chance of there being a lot of divergent but genuinely respectable value-clusters for History or God to work with. (It might even happen that there are none.)

18If this holds, it becomes obvious why a deep divergence in respect of serious value-kinds is very often not at stake in national identifications. The closest one may come to Herderian irreducible plurality is in respect of global differences between great religious currents. However, they suffer from several drawbacks from the point of view of Herderian pro-nationalist deployment. First, an obvious practical drawback: they are simply too vast and encompassing to individuate most nations, but at the same time often mixed within a single nation. Secondly, it is far from certain that the genuine moral divergence between religions is as significant as it should be for the purpose of grounding political separation, and when it is, that both sides are morally in the clear. (Remember, the Herderian wants to foster genuine values, not merely alleged ones.) Religion is thus of very limited help to Herderians. When they turn to morals, however, the prospects become utterly bleak. The most publicized nationalist conflicts simply do not fit into the mold of value pluralism. Quebecois and Anglophones do not subscribe to different codes of values, nor do Croats and Serbs (beyond actual denominational differences, which are hardly differences in systems of value and in themselves mean very little to people in the street). Since many people think about denominational differences as paradigmatic differences in values, a caveat is in order. One should distinguish between the emotional charge of belonging to a given denomination (say, Serbian Orthodox)—in contrast to some other (Macedonian Orthodox, or Catholic)—from the actual divergence in non-indexical values promoted by each. For a moral Herderian it is the latter that counts, but for most members of the concerned groups in the twentieth century such a divergence, if it exists, is way beyond their ken. Even a specialist in the history of religion in the Balkans—let alone an average nationalist-in-the-street—would be hard-pressed to identify the values that distinguish various Orthodox churches (beyond the indexical preference for this or ‘my’ church) which have been warring with each other for centuries. Even the great Catholic/Orthodox divide is seen by many enlightened believers as an historically contingent, value-neutral divide.


19Cultural creation depends upon the communication and inter-penetration of different styles of life and work. Indeed, most intellectuals in Western countries today live in quite a cosmopolitan micro-world. As J. Waldron describes it,

  • 6 For further development of this line of thought see Waldron (2000).

The cosmopolitan may live all his life in one city and maintain the same citizenship throughout. But he refuses to think of himself as defined by his location or his ancestry or his citizenship or his language. Though he may live in San Francisco and be of Irish ancestry, he does not take his identity to be compromised when he learns Spanish, eats Chinese, wears clothes made in Korea, listens to arias by Verdi sung by a Maori princess on Japanese equipment, follows Ukrainian politics, and practices Buddhist meditation techniques. He is a creature of modernity, conscious of living in a mixed-up world and having a mixed-up self. (Waldron, 1995)6

20Many intellectuals in Eastern Europe who cannot participate in such a life intensely regret the fact (as witnessed, for instance, by the number of demands upon miserable funds in Eastern Europe for travel money and grants that would enable one to make international contacts). Let us note that the humanities, and the arts in particular, are not the only domains of the international formation of culture. Science is nowadays a truly global and cosmopolitan enterprise of the highest quality. Moreover, an important part of its excellence arguably derives from its universal and universalist features. Finally, the universal character of science does not preclude variation in the contributions particular cultures can make; it is not inimical to local and specific features of culture which are of enduring worth.

21The nationalist might partially agree, but then claim that the only diversity of cultures worth having is the diversity of ethno-national cultures preserved in a pure state or at least in a state which allows them to be recognized as national; that is, the nationalist would appeal to the argument from diversity. We have already argued that it fails: purity is not a good, cultural styles are for the most part transnational, and mixing of cultures produces new and interesting formations and cultural ‘units’. As pointed out in chapter fifteen, the moral of the discussion is that one should leave a wide margin of choice to interested individuals: in fact, they should do the balancing. If the preservation of a culture does not collide with the preferences and long-term interests of its members (including the need for creative innovation), nor with the interest of the other members of their civic (territorial) community, it is better—ceteris paribus—to preserve it than not. This minimal support is due to ethno-national as well as micro- and macro-regional traditions and particularities.

22To summarize, here is one possible line which a moderate cosmopolitan argument might take. A cosmopolitan pluralist culture might be the best means of actualizing the fundamental values of autonomy, creativity, and free and meaningful communication. A graded cosmopolitan pluralist culture is only possible within a broadly transnational political framework. Therefore, a broadly transnational cosmopolitan political framework is valuable in relation to the fundamental values listed. Now, such a framework is not contraindicated on the basis of independent considerations, as the nationalists claim. Therefore, there is a prima facie duty to work on the establishment of such a framework. Of course, the argument just sketched is far from conclusive. Also, even if it is cogent in the abstract, it might counsel a wrong line of action given particular political realities. In a world dominated by imperialism, well-meaning cosmopolitanism might unwittingly serve imperialist purposes. And even if political realities are not so dire, there is a long road from abstract thought to concrete political advice. Still, let me end on a note of hope, namely that the cosmopolitan alternative is ultimately viable in our world of increasing cooperation and mutual dependence.


1 My presentation owes a lot to Nussbaum (1996) and Held (1995). I also learned a lot from the criticism of pure cosmopolitanism proposed by K. Nielsen and J. Couture (Miščević, 2000) and their attempt to combine cosmopolitanism with nationalism, in spite of my ultimate disagreement with their line.

2 This has been developed by Onora O’Neill most recently (2000). See also Jones (1999) who credits Peter Singer with having inaugurated the line (Jones, 1999, 1).

3 See the literature in Gutmann and Thompson (1996).

4 See, for instance, Held (1995), and, for the debate, the criticism by Couture (2000).

5 Thanks go to my colleague and friend F. Klampfer for proposing this way out for the moral Herderian.

6 For further development of this line of thought see Waldron (2000).

© Central European University Press, 2001

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