Identity and the new ‘global citizen’

As more people identify as ‘global citizens,’ the term needs an anchor in individual identity. 

AP Photo
A 'Leave' supporter – who wants Britain to leave the European Union – holds a banner in London. The country votes June 23 on the 'Brexit' question.

Britain, which votes in June on whether to exit the European Union, is in the throes of a debate about its identity. The “Brexit” debate has created even more of a crisis than the one in 2014 when Scotland voted on independence from the United Kingdom (the “No” side won). All this is perhaps what caused the BBC to conduct a poll this year of more than 20,000 people in 18 countries about their identity. The result: More people than ever are viewing themselves as global citizens rather than national citizens.

The phrase “global citizen” is fraught with vagueness, and used more often in a Model UN conference than in everyday talk. Citizenship has long meant ties and duties to a country, not all of the world’s 7.4 billion humans. Still, the BBC poll shows a global trend in people accepting this broader term for themselves – but mainly in poorer countries. Nigeria is highest at 73 percent. In wealthier countries, the trend is in the opposite direction. Less than a third of Germans, for example, see themselves this way. And when Donald Trump talks about an “America First” foreign policy, he reflects this downward trend in industrialized countries.

The BBC also found fewer people are identifying themselves first and foremost by religion. In the United States, only 15 percent do. In Europe, the number is 5 percent. Pakistan stands out with 43 percent identifying more by religion than nationality.

Global citizens tend to come in two colors: Those who want to help the world, such as in dealing with climate change, and those who easily travel and work outside their “home” country or often connect to others around the planet. (An estimated 232 million people do not live in their country of origin.)

The first type will be heavily represented at the first-ever World Humanitarian Summit, sponsored by the United Nations in late May. The second type is harder to pin down. But Parag Khanna, a Singapore-based geopolitical expert, tries to explain it in a new book, “Connectography: Mapping the Future of Global Civilization.”

More people, he explains, see themselves in “connectivity” terms than by sovereignty. The millions of users of Apple products can easily relate to each other, which explains why Apple’s wealth is bigger than that of almost every country. Internet users discover new identities in “cloud communities.” Facebook is the largest group of netizens, with more than a billion users “liking” each other.

Certain megacities – London, New York, Tokyo  – are now so multicultural and similar that people can easily settle into any of them as “city-zens.” And regional trade alliances such as NAFTA are creating almost borderless commercial zones that transcend nationalities.

The most fundamental attribute of this new global system, Mr. Khanna writes, is a “shift from a state-centric order to a multi-actor arena,” which tends to be “horizontal” in relationships and increasingly digital.

All this requires individuals to be even more certain of their core identity – in the values and ideas they hold – rather than let others define them. Like wearing different hats, people can own various identities. But the primary one is based on each person’s individual integrity and mix of qualities. When that identity is embraced, it is easier to choose one’s community, whether it be national, global, or in the cloud.

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