Migrant Crises: The Cosmopolitan Imperative

The founding of international institutions in the wake of the Second World War represented, in some ways, a significant step toward realizing cosmopolitan norms (Benhabib 2006; Held 2009). Despite this progress, however, “nationness” remains, as Anderson has observed, “the most universally legitimate value in the political life of our time” (2006, 3). While states remain a primary site of politics, the on-going migration crises originating in Afghanistan, Iraq and more recently Syria, demonstrate the problematic nature of continued reliance on nations as primary mechanisms for developing and implementing responses to global dilemmas.

That is, these emergencies demonstrate that the increasing interconnectedness of people around the world demands an outward-looking cosmopolitanism that is becoming not only desirable, but also necessary. Rather than offering a comprehensive proposal for building cosmopolitan institutions here, I follow de Greiff (2002) and argue that individuals, institutions and states must assume responsibility for fostering a “cosmopolitan attitude” as a first necessary step in addressing the global character of issues confronting humanity in the 21st century. This essay focuses on United States and European government leaders’ decisions but, to prove successful, a cosmopolitan attitude should not simply be encouraged among those individuals, but also should be fostered in their respective countries’ populations and those of states’ citizenries throughout the world.

Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism

Audi (2009) has argued that nationalism and cosmopolitanism exist on a spectrum. Nationalists give priority to concerns of their own nation while cosmopolitans place a higher value on human needs and interests (Audi 2009, 466). Those with a nationalist outlook base decisions on a threshold criterion that those choices benefit a country’s population first and foremost, without regard to their effects on individuals living elsewhere. A nationalist response to crises gives preference to citizens and perhaps resident non-citizens first and only secondarily, if at all, considers the impacts of governmental decisions on anyone else.

In contrast, according to Calhoun, cosmopolitanism requires “focusing on the world as a whole rather than on a particular locality or group within it” (2008, 428). Held has contended that cosmopolitan claims are the “principles of democratic public life” stripped of the liberal assumption that they can only be enacted in a “territorially based political community” (2009, 540). The essential thread running through the work of these scholars is an effort to encourage human societies to move beyond limiting their concern for assessing the implications of their collective choices to their own populations and bounded political communities. Basing his argument on Habermas’s Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy (1996) among other works, de Greiff has argued that individuals, irrespective of their state of citizenship or residence, must develop a cosmopolitan attitude that, “consists of an obligation to assess the morality of one’s acts at least in part in light of the acceptability of their consequences by everyone affected by them, regardless of borders, territorial or otherwise” (de Greiff, 2002, 419).

Building a widely shared and deeply committed cosmopolitan attitude among individuals throughout the world is important for several reasons. First, judging decisions by their consequences for everyone affected is not only a moral consideration, as de Greiff (2002) has argued, but is also a minimum normative standard for democratic decision making as well. All those endeavoring to build democratic institutions and to improve existing ones should strive to realize this metric. Second, according to Beck, the nationalist outlook fails to understand that the consequences of a state’s political, economic and cultural actions today “know no borders” (As cited in Rantanen 2005, 251). This is key to the current nation-based international system’s general inability to address global problems that transcend traditional borders. A cosmopolitan attitude, on the other hand, begins from an understanding that state borders today exist primarily on maps, and the movement of ideas, goods, pollution and people will continue regardless of what form these formal boundaries assume.

Nationalist Responses to Forced Migration 

At the end of 2014, a total of 59.5 million individuals were forcibly displaced from their homes worldwide by conflicts and circumstances beyond their control (UNHCR 2015, 3). In the first half of 2015 alone, 5 million individuals were displaced and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expects these numbers only to grow. During 2014 and the first half of 2015 the largest number of individuals fled from Syria, followed by Afghanistan. More than a decade after the U.S. led invasion of Iraq, that nation remains in the top ten countries with the highest number of displaced persons (UNHCR 2015, 6). One result of such large movements of people, both internally and across international borders, has been extreme nationalist reactions.

In late 2015, for example, many U.S. governors reacted to the November 13 suicide bombing attacks in Paris, France by issuing statements that they would not allow Syrian refugees to settle in their states (Fantz and Brumfield 2015).1 Current Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump has gone further to contend that the U.S. should bar all Muslims from entering the country (Healy and Barbaro 2015). Similarly strident calls to limit cross-border movement and immigration of Muslims have been common in recent months in Europe as well (Park 2015).

Such responses take the alleged “security” of the nation as their top priority, while the human needs of those fleeing conflict are subordinated or ignored all together. In the face of on-going violence in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria and the resultant continuing mass migration from those countries, those calling for border closings choose to ignore the fact that the actions of one state have consequences for others and that “opening and closing of gates affects flows in the stream as a whole, and particularly the pressure on other gates” (Zolberg 2012, 1213).

As nationalist responses attempt to block entry to North America or Europe, many of those fleeing from violence in these three countries have found their way to states with less capacity to deal with a large influx of newcomers. Lebanon, for example, a small nation with relatively weak institutions, has taken in nearly 1.5 million refugees since conflict began in Syria in 2011 (UNHCR Country Operations Profile, 2015). This situation highlights another failure of nationalist responses: when a state responsible for a crisis fails to address it, the burden is shifted to countries that were not necessarily included in the original decision and that then are unable to choose whether to respond.

Finally, and crucially, those who choose the nationalist path fail to understand and accept responsibility for the root causes of the migration(s) to which they are responding. The 2001 and 2003 U.S. and European invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq displaced millions of people in those countries directly and indirectly and displacement-related crises continue to the present day as a result (IOM: Latest Data, 2015). Although the Syrian government and forces challenging it bear primary responsibility for the conflict causing mass migration from that country, the long term effects of the U.S. occupation of Iraq, including the rise of groups such as ISIS, clandestine American efforts to destabilize the Syrian government since at least 2006 (Roebuck 2013) and later direct military involvement (Weaver and Borger 2015) have all contributed to the social, political and economic instability that has caused many Syrians to seek refuge abroad.


The great numbers of people affected by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq and interventions in Syria were not included, nor possibly even seriously considered, when decisions to carry out those actions were made in Washington D.C., London and other European capitals. When considered now, claims of securing the United States and the European Union from external threats have predominated as justifications in many instances. Yet continued adherence to a nationalist attitude, particularly by those in positions to affect the lives of others greatly, is simply insufficient to confront the consequences arising from that decision calculus.

An alternative is to build a cosmopolitan attitude among citizens and their leaders that first considers the effects decisions will have on everyone affected, regardless of their nationality and ultimately seeks to bring all affected into relevant decision-making processes. The former is an arguably easier standard to meet than the latter, although both imply great challenges if they are to be realized. However, these difficulties notwithstanding, such standards constitute normative goals toward which to strive in a world in which actions taken in Washington D.C. or London so often have repercussions for those in Baghdad, Damascus, Kabul and beyond.


[1]U.S. state governors do not have the legal authority to set such policies. This rhetoric therefore appears intended to garner support amongst a base of voters to which such a ban might appeal.


“2015 UNHCR Country Operations Profile – Lebanon.” 2015. UNHCR. http://www.unhcr.org/pages/49e486676.html.

Anderson, Benedict. 2006. Imagined Communities. New York: Verso.

Audi, Robert. 2009. “Nationalism, Patriotism, and Cosmopolitanism in an Age of Globalization” 13 (4): 365–381.

Benhabib, Seyla. 2006. Another Cosmopolitanism. New York: Oxford University Press.

Fantz, Ashley, and Ben Brumfield. 2015. “More than Half the Nation’s Governors Say Syrian Refugees Not Welcome.” CNN. http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/16/world/paris-attacks-syrian-refugees-backlash/.

Greiff, Pablo de. 2002. “Habermas on Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism.” Ratio Juris 15 (4): 418–438. doi:10.1111/1467-9337.00217.

Habermas, Jürgen. 1996. Between Facts and Norms: Contributions to a Discourse Theory of Law and Democracy. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Healy, Patrick, and Michael Barbaro. 2015. “Donald Trump Calls for Barring Muslims From Entering U.S.” The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/politics/first-draft/2015/12/07/donald-trump-calls-for-banning-muslims-from-entering-u-s/?_r=0.

Held, David. 2009. “Restructuring Global Governance: Cosmopolitanism, Democracy and the Global Order.” Millennium: Journal of International Studies 37 (3): 535–547. doi:10.1177/0305829809103231.

“IOM: Latest Data on Europe Migrant Emergency.” 2015. International Organization for Migration. https://www.iom.int/news/iom-latest-data-europe-migrant-emergency.

Park, Jeanne. 2015. “Europe’s Migration Crisis.” Council on Foreign Relations. http://www.cfr.org/migration/europes-migration-crisis/p32874.

Roebuck, William. 2013. “Influencing the SARG in the End of 2006.” Wikileaks. https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06DAMASCUS5399_a.html.

UNHCR. 2015. “UNHCR Mid-Year Trends 2015.”

Weaver, Matthew, and Julian Borger. 2015. “Syria Airstrikes: Everything You Need to Know.” The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/dec/01/syria-airstrikes-everything-you-need-to-know.

Zolberg, a. R. 2012. “Why Not the Whole World? Ethical Dilemmas of Immigration Policy.” American Behavioral Scientist 56 (9): 1204–1222. doi:10.1177/0002764212443821.


Jake Keyel - PhotoJake Keyel is a first year doctoral student in the Planning, Governance, and Globalization program in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia Tech. His research interests include critical migration studies, nationalism and cosmopolitanism and building democratic practices beyond electoral politics. Prior to enrolling at Virginia Tech he worked for five years in the non-profit sector focused on integration of new immigrants, particularly from the Middle East and North Africa. He holds a Bachelor’s degree from Nazareth College in Sociology and a Master’s degree in International Relations with a concentration in Middle Eastern Affairs from Syracuse University.


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