A warning to remember your country – of heritage or residence – even if your life has made you a citizen of the world

Last October, British Prime Minister Theresa May shocked many when she disparaged the idea of global citizenship. “If you believe you’re a citizen of the world,” she said, “you’re a citizen of nowhere.”

Her statement was met with derision and alarm among liberal commentators. “The most useful form of citizenship these days,” New York Times columnist Roger Cohen lectured her, “is one dedicated not only to the wellbeing of a Berkshire parish, say, but to the planet.” The Economist called it an “illiberal” turn. Jeremy Adler of Kings College, London, accused her of repudiating Enlightenment values and warned of “echoes of 1933.”

I know what a “global citizen” looks like: I see one every morning in the mirror. I grew up in one country, live in another, and carry the passports of both. I write on global economics, and my work takes me to far-flung places. I devour international news, while my local paper remains unopened most weeks.

And yet May’s statement strikes a chord, and says much about how we  – the world’s financial, political, and technocratic elite – have distanced ourselves from our compatriots and lost their trust.

Start first with the actual meaning of the word “citizen.” The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a legally recognized subject or national of a state or commonwealth.” Hence citizenship presumes an established polity – “a state or commonwealth” – of which one is a member. Countries have such polities; the world does not.

Proponents of global citizenship quickly concede that they are thinking figuratively. Technology and economic globalization have brought countries together, they argue. The world has shrunk, and we must act bearing the global implications in mind. And besides, we all carry multiple, overlapping identities. Global citizenship does not – and need not – crowd out parochial or national responsibilities.

All well and good. But what do global citizens really do?

Real citizenship entails interacting and deliberating with other citizens in a shared political community. It means holding decision-makers to account and participating in politics to shape the policy outcomes. In the process, my ideas about desirable ends and means are confronted with and tested against those of my fellow citizens.

Global citizens do not have similar rights or responsibilities. No one is accountable to them, and there is no one to whom they must justify themselves. At best, they form communities with like-minded individuals from other countries. Their counterparts are not citizens everywhere but self-designated “global citizens” in  other countries.

Of course, global citizens have access to their domestic political systems. But national governments are meant to look out for national interests. This does not exclude enlightened self-interest. But what happens when the welfare of local residents comes into conflict with the wellbeing of foreigners? Isn’t disregard of their compatriots precisely what gives so-called cosmopolitan elites their bad name?

Global citizens worry that the interests of the global commons may be harmed when each government pursues its own narrow interests. But in most economic areas – taxes, trade policy, financial stability, fiscal and monetary management – what makes sense from a global perspective also makes sense domestically. Economics teaches that countries should maintain open economic borders, sound prudential regulation and full-employment policies because they serve to enlarge the domestic economic pie.

Of course, policy failures – like protectionism – do occur. But these reflect poor domestic governance, not a lack of cosmopolitanism, from an inability to convince domestic constituencies or an unwillingness to make adjustments to ensure that everyone does indeed benefit.

Few have expounded on the tension between our various identities – local, national, global – as insightfully as the philosopher Kwame Anthony ­Appiah. In this age of “planetary challenges and interconnection between countries,” he wrote in response to May’s statement, “the need has never been greater for a sense of a shared human fate.”

Yet cosmopolitans often come across like the character from Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov who discovers that the more he loves humanity, the less he loves anyone in particular. Global citizens should be wary that their lofty goals do not turn into an excuse for shirking their duties toward their compatriots.

With all its political divisions, we have to live in the world we have.