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The End of Cosmopolitanism?


If it didn’t have such disastrous consequences for some of the world’s most desperate people, it would be amusing to watch the advocates of economic globalisation suddenly start championing border protection.

Clearly a market-based solution to the problem of refugee processing, preferred for example in the case of private school education, isn’t to the liking of Australian neoliberals such as Des Moore, John Howard and Peter Costello.

So don’t expect to hear references to the market-distorting effects of state intervention when it comes to asylum seekers. Nor anything about the free movement of labour. If nothing else, we can now see the outer limits of market hagiography in Australia.

However, it’s not just the hypocrisy of those who want to cede economic sovereignty to the WTO while calling for greater vigilance of our territorial borders, which is of most concern.

Nor is it the absurd suggestion that our national integrity is imperiled by a handful of wretched ‘boat people’ who can easily be stigmatised for political advantage. Or even that we are on the nose in the region. The greatest loss is our cosmopolitan sentiment.

Self-described ‘realists’ claim that the dangerous and volatile nature of international politics does not allow nation-states to consider ethical and moral issues above their primary national interests. States are said to be too preoccupied with their own physical security to be bothered with global humanitarian concerns such as asylum seekers.

What realists forget is that if they are to have any meaning, world order and regional stability – which they privilege above other goals – should promote the well-being of individuals rather than the territorial integrity of nation-states.

Furthermore, a cosmopolitan ethic demands that on occasions, our national attachments should surrender to the higher ethical conviction that our primary loyalties are to the whole of humanity.

This doesn’t mean a rejection of our domestic concerns, but an acknowledgement that from time to time, outsiders have legitimate interests which take precedence over our narrow ‘national interests’.

In areas such as aid to the developing world, respect for universal human rights, the plight of refugees and protection of the environment, Australia displayed a commitment to what Hedley Bull called “purposes beyond ourselves”, which won us global respect in the late twentieth century.

Some of that admiration has recently been squandered by the behaviour of our major political parties, who regard standing up for cosmopolitan principles as electorally risky and a sign of weakness. In fact, the opposite is true.

Striving to protect individuals from avoidable harm is a basic human virtue which states cannot hide from or disguise with posturings of national sovereignty. The ethical value of our actions should be measured by their anticipated and predictable consequences.

The core issue at stake with asylum seekers is our wider duty to humanity and our complicity in the misery of others. Moral indifference to their suffering, which seems to have bipartisan support, is very cruel. It diminishes all of us.

Instead of subcontracting the problem to our impoverished neighbours, we should be helping to build international agreements which protect individuals everywhere from unnecessary suffering, irrespective of their citizenship or nationality, class, gender, race or ethnicity.

We should also be targeting the source of the problem: repressive governments which persecute their own citizens. In the meantime we can afford to be generous enough to relieve the worst of the symptoms by welcoming more of the planet’s most disadvantaged people.

We have responsibilities and obligations to those beyond our boundaries. These need not conflict with the duties we have to our fellow Australians. By shifting our gaze above the limits of the immediate horizon, by promoting global ethical and moral concerns and by recovering our cosmopolitan duty, we can again realise our potential as a decent society.

– Scott Burchill Lecturer in International Relations School of Australian & International Studies Deakin University 221 Burwood Highway Burwood Victoria 3125 Australia

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