Global Civics: Responsibilities and Rights in an Interdependent World

Hakan Altinay, Editor
Brookings Institution Press
ISBN: 978-0-8157-2141-3
A Review by Susan Froetschel

As global problems encroach into daily life, education must play catch up. As global citizens, students of all ages could do more to explore connections, debate citizen values and duties, and understand structures of global organizations.

While problems mount, nations negotiate complex social compacts often not completely understood by their citizens. Schools and nations that want to prepare for problems of global scale must offer civics lessons of equal scale, suggests Hakan Altinay, Brookings fellow and editor of Global Civics: Responsibilities and Rights in an Interdependent World. “In an increasingly interdependent world, people need a corresponding global framework to put their minds at relative ease,” he explains.

Altinay’s call for lessons in global civics might unnerve corporate and government leaders who evade responsibility for cross-border crises – proliferation of nuclear weapons, emissions that change the climate, genocide and economic disparities. The goal of civics is to inspire students to become active, responsible citizens. The logical step after global civics classes would be greater attention on global governance.

Too often global issues are political footballs, difficult to grapple, and they’re kicked to the bottom of national agendas. National leaders gripe about global criticism or unfairness, while eluding dialogue and compromises. All but the most adept politicians underestimate citizens’ willingness to explore new topics and form independent opinions in agreement with strangers on distant continents. But concerted education programs, moral outrage at evil and public embrace of complex issues have upended traditions. Slavery, suppression of women’s rights and colonialism are examples. The internet, social media and the public’s willingness to engage with strangers on specific causes allows the reports and moral outrage to spread more quickly.

As editor, Altinay gamely addresses the challenges of global civics. His readers will undoubtedly think of many more. Cynics consistently view others as unreasonable. Altinay addresses diversity among nations, but a bigger challenge might be polarization within nations. People quickly fall in line behind good ideas with immediately recognizable benefits, but shrug off abstract ideas that may take decades to produce benefits. He anticipates readers to be overwhelmed by potential crises and empathy for nearly 7 billion people, but even hope and optimism can contribute to ignoring problems and delays in forming social contracts.

Around the globe, many find it easier to wait until crisis strikes, and denial and delays make it easy for one individual, let alone nation, to challenge global consensus. Starting programs, global or not, is easier than designing mechanisms that adapt to shifting power or trends. As Trevor Manuel, minister of national planning for South Africa and Edgar Pieterse, University of Cape Town professor, write: “the most important obstacle to a fairer world, one open to new forms of negotiated solidarity and mutuality, is the lack of institutional transformation of global governance systems.”

The many challenges are not an argument for discarding Altinay’s proposal to develop lessons for examining global issues. “It may just be that we can never reach a timeless consensus on the exact extent and form of our responsibilities toward each other,” Altinay admits. “Even so, the process of inquiry and debate is bound to be highly beneficial, enlightening, and empowering.”

A lesson plan for global civics may be idealistic or limited, yet the proposal is targeted and sound. Too often, a few nations or special-interest groups take advantage of citizen apathy on global affairs, rejecting global standards or spouting concerns about loss of sovereignty or influence. Citizens can only strengthen their communities by understanding their nation’s role in global institutions and problems. “Global civics is an essential building block to the sustainability and well-being of the planet,” contend Tara Hopkins and Tosun Terzioğlu of Sabanci University in Istanbul.

Lessons in global civics naturally lead to comparisons and opinions about which processes work best for which issues and which nations promote global good. The perfect system is yet unknown. Citizens may regard global governance as threat or promise, depending on the issue and their own responsibilities. Nations accustomed to republican systems must adjust to parliamentary style and vice versa, while non-democratic powers like China must reconcile the notion of democracy on a global scale while resisting such tenets at home. Consensus democracy, requiring agreement by all as practiced by the World Trade Organization, avoids tyranny of the majority, but can be time-consuming for crises that demand immediate response. More participants and styles of governance may complicate negotiations, but the results can be sustainable.    

Students of global civics already have numerous institutions to evaluate. Drastic changes may not be needed, and Nabil Fahmy of the University of Cairo suggests that assessments or adjustments can center on “a balance of interests” rather than “balance of power.” Such a new emphasis, he notes, requires courage and principled statesmanship. As predictions transform into crisis, the status quo offers less certainty. Delay adds complications, and leaders must issue the call for sacrifice. 

The idea is bigger and better than one book, and deserves development by educators. Without fail, the book’s tone is earnest and reasonable. A future edition should scrap repetitive interviews, substituting instead an analytical, cohesive essay. Curricula outlined in Altinay’s book are heavily weighted toward readings and films from the West, but those can be adjusted to include more diverse voices on empathy, democracy, negotiation, stability and the innovative forces of society. Any civics course should include readings on negotiating terms and psychological framing, as described by George Lakoff and other linguists. A shared understanding of terms is essential for cross-border negotiations on curriculum or governance.

To be relevant, every discipline should prepare their own global civics lessons and discover potential connections.

Should global civics programs emerge quickly, then reasonable and coordinated policies could soon follow. Or else, another generation of young proponents seeking global improvements – the biologists who document the decline in biodiversity in the face of political inaction on climate change or the human-rights activists who deplore the weapons trade that assists genocide – could lose their motivation and give up. The young seek a more responsive world.

The book’s writers remind that civics is a balancing act of rights and responsibilities. All earthlings should expect best practices and intentions from one another.

As global citizens, students of all ages could do more to explore connections, debate citizen values and duties, and understand structures of global organizations.
Copyright © 2011 Yale Center for the Study of Globalization