One of the questions that we posed for the forum on intellectuals and their America in this issue has preoccupied me for many years, and I will seize this occasion to respond (other editors may also join the conversation on the Web): “Do you consider yourself a patriot, a world citizen, or do you have some other allegiance that helps shape your political opinions?”
I consider myself a left internationalist, but definitely not a world citizen. The difference is important. Internationalism connects me to leftists in other countries, who are or should be working for the well-being of the poorest and most vulnerable of their fellow citizens. I am engaged with them in what I think of as a characteristically leftist way: I support their politics, but I also criticize some (and sometimes many) of the things they do. What they do matters to me; I want them to get things right.
But I am not a world citizen because there is no organized “world,” no global state, in which citizenship is possible—certainly not democratic citizenship. The people who run the world, insofar as it is run, don’t regard me as one of their fellows, and, in turn, I don’t regard them that way either. The UN sometimes pretends to be a kind of world government, but it isn’t that, and the pretense is dangerous because it suggests that things are being taken care of when we all know that they are not.
The only political agency that can “take care of things,” that can provide security, welfare, and education, is the state. The least well-off people in the world today, the most desperately needy people, are those who live in failed or failing states, who are the prey of warlords, predatory gangs, ruthless entrepreneurs and speculators—all of them uncontrolled by any political authority. So those of us who have effective and decent states ought to be patriots, at least in this sense: that we should be committed to the common political work of sustaining and improving the states that we live in.
As a Jewish American, I have an additional reason for patriotism—for the United States is surely the best diaspora home that the Jews have ever found. That fact makes me a strong defender of American pluralism. I want this country to be as open and welcoming to other immigrant groups as it has been to the Jews (that is indeed a condition of its continuing to be a good place for the Jews).
We should also be committed to making our states agents of betterment in the world. Foreign aid, non-exploitative trade policies, cooperation with agencies like the World Health Organization, a readiness to enforce environmental regulations, humanitarian intervention to stop mass murder—all this is state-work, even though much of it requires the help of other states. I look for people in other states who share these commitments: they are my comrades, and our politics is, again, internationalist. But they are not my fellow citizens. The immediate space for political work is the space of our own states—it is, indeed, the landscape in which we can not only change our lives but help others, in other countries, change theirs.