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The radical implications of ‘internationalising our minds’

04 March 2014

Jonathan Glennie - What Does it Mean to be an Internationalist Today?

There has never been such an urgency for adopting an international perspective in relation to the world's most pressing issues, but we are still far away from creating a truly global political platform that can challenge the power of the 0.001%. Hence the implications of internationalising our minds are all-inclusive and profound. 

What does it mean to be an internationalist today? This was the topic of a panel discussion and symposium held in October last year by the New Internationalist (NI) magazine to commemorate their 40th birthday. In a series of 5-minute opening talks, the 7 panellists each gave a perspective on how development and social change has evolved since the 1970s, and pointed the way forward for the global justice and environmental movements in the critical years ahead. All of the views expressed and the ensuing discussion was informative and persuasive, as can now be viewed on NI’s YouTube channel, but one submission had a particular resonance for us at STWR – that of Jonathan Glennie from the Overseas Development Institute who gave a pre-recorded video message from Colombia.

For this reason we’ve transcribed his short address below, which can also be watched above, because it’s not often that you hear a down-to-earth and cogently articulated viewpoint about the radical political implications of thinking in truly international terms. As Glennie essentially says, in the growing calls around the world for a fairer distribution of wealth, power and resources, we usually hear these demands couched in national terms with respect to the “99% vs the 1%” within our own countries, or else within the context of the world’s wealthiest nations. Despite the internationalist rhetoric from committed activists and experienced civil society organisations, we are still far from realising “a truly international political platform [that] can come close to challenging the power of the 0.001% in this world of global capital.”

Glennie has written elsewhere that the slogan “We are the 99%” applies mainly to income inequality in the United States, but not to global levels of inequality which are even more extreme, complex and challenging. From STWR’s common-sense perspective, the upshot is that unless world public opinion begins to prioritise the urgent needs and human rights of the very poorest people in all countries, there is no chance that decision-makers are going to do so given (in Glennie’s words) the “increasing nation-centrism that has always been at the heart of realist international relations”. And there is even less chance that governments will commit to the kind of structural reforms and redistributive policies necessary on a global level to spread wealth and income more evenly between countries. Yet in a resource-limited world with a rapidly growing population it is inevitable that, sooner or later, we are going to have to share global resources more justly and sustainably if we want to bequeath a habitable planet to future generations.

Hence the implications of “internationalising our minds” really are profound and all-inclusive, and it’s arguably the most important conversation that can be had in this era of converging global crises. See how Glennie deftly puts it in the transcript below, the premise of which demands much further consideration by everyone who is motivated by a vision of a better world: what would it mean if concern for inequality across borders indeed became the basis of 21st century political ethics?

What is internationalism?

That's a very difficult question, and I only have five minutes within which to answer it, so I’m just going to focus on one very simple but I think very radical point. An internationalist perspective, an internationalist ethics, an internationalist politics is one that is equally concerned about the lives of people in all parts of the world. I'm not yet saying what the policies are that should be associated with such a perspective, let alone whether they are left wing or right wing; I am making an ideological assertion, a normative statement as the academics would say, a value-laden statement. I can't prove it, and you might say it’s so common nowadays that everyone agrees with it, so why am I wasting my five minutes on it? But I think if we were to really act upon this perspective we would see a radical transformation in our politics, both national and international. We should be equally concerned about people wherever they are on the planet, and our politics and our decision making should reflect that.

Progress in the 20th century

The 20th century saw great strides in the cause of internationalism; the existence of the United Nations is testament to that. Colonialism came to an end far faster than the colonists expected, and a communications revolution has made real the concept of a global village. Perhaps most important of all, racism - so long an integral part of domestic and foreign policy, is unacceptable in almost all fora nowadays, even if it remains common in practice.

But what about now, in 2013…

This is real human progress, so don't let the naysayers tell you that everything is going wrong. Nevertheless, today in 2013 there's the danger that rather than cementing an international perspective in our collective psyche, we might begin to see it erode. The wealthy nations of the last century are caught up in their own economic problems, probably for the long term, and poorer countries - previously treated with an element of largess and generosity, at least in rhetoric - are now subject to competition for jobs and investment. Powerful voices are calling on us to turn inwards; not the pernicious nationalism of yesterday, although that might be the case in some European countries, but a kind of increasing nation-centrism that has always been at the heart of realist international relations. So I ask you this; how internationalist are we really - not in words but in deeds, and in policies?

Internationalism is considered absurd

Almost all political discussion in almost all countries is framed in terms of the national interest first, with possibly an internationalist perspective being added on later. It is considered absurd and embarrassing to suggest that things should be otherwise, that we should consider the wellbeing of non-citizens as much as our own fellow citizens. And while this is quite understandable given the constituencies to which politicians have to refer for their votes, it is nevertheless the biggest barrier to the decisions being made in the interests of all human beings.

Take the great furore in the UK over the mega bonuses being paid to bankers in the face of continued economic turmoil, or the ubiquitous info-graphics demonstrating the tremendous inequality in the United States. I'm worried that the implication is that were things more equal in the UK or the United States, we could all relax again; back in the 60s and 70s it was all ok. But intra-national inequality is irrelevant, surely, for an internationalist.

Or take another bugbear of mine; should we legalise drugs - a favourite in common debate in drug using countries, but very seldom in relation to the thousands of deaths every year in Mexico; or the way cocoa wars are destroying the lives of Colombian farmers, almost always framed in terms of health and crime in Western countries.

My criticism is not of conservatives; at least conservatives are coherent - they explicitly state that family and country are their priorities, and then build policies to defend an unjust status quo which they believe to be the way of the world. No, my criticism is of the so-called progressives who profess to believe that humans everywhere are as valuable as humans at home, but whose policies imply something quite different.

The challenges the world now faces are without doubt of a scale never seen before. In a resource-limited world, we need fairer distribution if we are going to reach anything approaching similar standards of living globally.

The apparent irony - although not actually an irony - is that only an internationalist perspective can really stand up for the interests of the majority, the 99% in the wealthier countries. The call of one campaign group to globalise resistance was always an exceptionally sensible one; only a truly international political platform can come close to challenging the power of the 0.001% in this world of global capital. And yet we are miles away from a popular public, political discourse which coherently marries the struggles of the marginalised in the wealthier countries with those in much poorer countries, let alone a discourse which publicly acknowledges the need to sacrifice material living standards in wealthy countries for the sake of people many miles away.

The cause of internationalism is beset on all sides by a so-called 'realism' in international relations and a set of incentives which draws decision-makers to a nationally-limited understanding, however much they want to engage in a coherent internationalist point of view. Internationalist perspectives are considered radical, or unrealistic, or even un-patriotic, when they are in fact the only sound basis for a 21st century politics and ethics; the only rational response to the world as we now experience it; and in fact the only way to avoid global catastrophe - let alone live up to the principles that we profess.

[Filmed on location in Bogotá, Colombia]

Further resources:

The Internationalists, a blog series edited by Jonathan Glennie and New Internationalist co-editor Hazel Healy, October 2013

VIDEO SERIES: What does it mean to be an internationalist today? by Hazel Healy, New Internationalist blog

Internationalism in 2013: Speech at the New Internationalist debate, by Jonathan Glennie, youtube.com

As the cuts bite, why bother with the global South? by Jonathan Glennie, October 17, 2013, New Internationalist blog

Global inequality: tackling the elite 1% problem, by Jonathan Glennie, 28th November 2011, The Guardian Poverty Matters blog

A dialogue on protest, sharing and justice, by Mohammed Mesbahi, STWR, December 2011

When will ordinary people rise up? by Adam Parsons, STWR, June 2012