In an age when twenty million refugees are displaced worldwide, when passports are easily bought and sold, and when whole countries might soon be submerged by rising tides, are national borders truly relevant? Journalist Atossa Araxia Abrahamian '08CC, '11JRN reflects on the meaning of citizenship in the twenty-first century.

by Atossa Araxia Abrahamian ’08CC, ’11JRN Published Winter 2015-16
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It’s pretty obvious that the “quality,” so to speak, of citizenships and visa restrictions falls largely along economic and ethnic lines. The very same countries that reject the poor arriving by sea tend to roll out the red carpet for wealthy investors. They have taken to selling what are known as “access rights” at their door. For those in the market for a second (or third) passport, and the rights and privileges that come with it, the range of options has never been more plentiful. It is possible to become, through completely legal and legitimate means, a citizen of St. Kitts and Nevis, Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, Dominica, Malta, Bulgaria, Cyprus, and Austria. The documents can be bought for as little as one hundred thousand dollars (Dominica) or upwards of a million euros (Austria, Malta). Small, poor, or marginalized countries see selling their nationality to rich foreigners as a viable way to raise money; their endeavors are met with great outside interest.

I prefer to think of myself as a citizen of the world.

The high-net-worth “global citizens” who buy passports from Caribbean tax havens without setting foot in their adopted countries, and the Syrian or Eritrean refugees for whom the promised land is pretty much any place but the one they’re running from, represent two sides of a common phenomenon. Their identities, movements, actions, and transactions challenge any meaningful connection between man and state; national citizenship, while by no means irrelevant on a practical level, is beginning to show its cracks as an institution.

For what does citizenship become when it is a matter of convenience, not community? When it is detached from civic engagement, participatory democracy, wealth redistribution, and political identification? What are the stakes when members of a community no longer feel a particular kinship or loyalty to any particular place? How do we navigate this new world?

Some scholars, such as Joseph Carens, one of the leading ethical thinkers in the field of immigration, have suggested abolishing borders entirely; others, such as the late Samuel Huntington, a conservative political scientist, have argued in favor of encouraging nationalism and patriotism to counter the negative effects of globalization and help people feel more rooted in their communities and countries.

Others focus on the important role that educational institutions — universities like Columbia — can play in building the infrastructure for a global society. In her seminal essay “Patriotism and Cosmopolitanism,” American philosopher Martha Nussbaum poses a fundamental question about education and citizenship. “As students here [in the US] grow up,” she writes, should they be taught that “they are above all citizens of the United States, or should they instead be taught that they are above all citizens of a world of human beings, and that, while they themselves happen to be situated in the United States, they have to share this world of human beings with the citizens of other countries?” Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger believes that the university can play an essential role in laying the groundwork for a global world: “There always have been global issues, but the prevalence of them now, the centrality of them for basic life in any society, is much greater ... Climate change, issues of censorship, everything you look to now has a global character to it. That new world, and the changes that are being wrought by these forces, mean you have to step back and think about the fields and the subjects that you do research in, the classes that you teach, the knowledge that you want to impart to young people. I think everything needs to be reconsidered, rethought, and planned for this world,” he said in a recent interview.

The role of the university — to act ethically at home and abroad, and to teach these global ethics — has never been more important. Because if the concept of national citizenship is, in fact, losing relevance, oughtn’t we all aspire to be more global? Could we revisit the Stoics and take the idea of citizenship back to its utopian roots by acknowledging that we are all citizens of the world and share something fundamental that cannot be defined by wealth or status?

These questions might sound abstract, but they’re playing out before our eyes. When Scotland voted on whether to secede from the UK in 2014, the “yes” camp presented a softer, more inclusive, more progressive vision of what it means to be Scottish. The UK, on the other hand, requires many foreigners to make a minimum salary in order to live within its borders. European Union ministers are, as of this writing, debating a plan to apportion refugees from the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa. It will require some increasingly xenophobic countries to accept migrants against their will.

Over the next few decades, the issues will only become more complex as entire nations are likely submerged by rising tides. The need for binding international cooperation to curb climate change is critical, but on the ground, the question is existential. Where will Maldivians be “from” if they lose the ground beneath their feet? Will those displaced by the deluge end up bidding for a new nationality on the open market? Will they end up stateless? Where will they go?

These are the stakes of citizenship in the twenty-first century. 


 Atossa Araxia Abrahamian ’08CC, ’11JRN is an opinion editor at Al Jazeera America, an editor and contributor at the New Inquiry, and a contributing editor at Dissent. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York magazine, and the London Review of Books. Abrahamian grew up in Geneva and lives in Brooklyn.


Adapted from The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen, published in November by Columbia Global Reports. To learn more about this book and others from this new imprint, visit http://globalreports.columbia.edu
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