Europe, Foreign Policy, History, Hypothesis

The Poverty of Cosmopolitan Historicism

When the Soviet Union fell, Marxist utopianism came to an end. In the decades since, a new breed of utopianism has gripped the collective imagination. Cosmopolitanism dreams of a borderless world united in peace and understanding, and it is underpinned by a powerful narrative of historical progress that has much in common with its Marxist cousin. Its name is cosmopolitan historicism.

In The Open Society and its Enemies, Karl Popper wrote that “we may become the makers of our fate when we have ceased to pose as its prophets”. In Popper’s view, historicism was defined by its simplistic understanding of history, viewed as an unfolding of inexorable iron laws. Based on what they saw as their unique insight into these presumed laws, historicists issued wild prophecies about the future of human society. For this they were mercilessly critiqued by Popper. In his eyes, dogmatic attachment to a utopian blueprint provided by what was understood as history’s ultimate destination caused historicist zealots to doggedly push ahead toward the end of history while ignoring signs that their policies caused large-scale disasters.

Today, fascism and communism, the historicist ideologies of Popper’s day, are defeated. But historicism is not: since the end of the Cold War another breed of historicism has gained traction among Western intellectuals and politicians. Cosmopolitan historicism’s key assumption is that world history follows a cosmopolitan trajectory, toward ever-greater cultural and political uniformity. It dreams of a cosmopolitan end of history, a utopian borderless world where goods, ideas, and people move effortlessly past what used to be national borders, and where we’re all supposed to be primarily citizens of the world rather than of particular countries. While it has enjoyed a recent spike in popularity, cosmopolitan historicism is far from a novelty, but has formed an important part of both the liberal and the socialist branches of the Western Enlightenment tradition.

Immanuel Kant, exemplifying liberal cosmopolitanism, more than 200 years ago asserted that the realization of a “universal cosmopolitan condition” was Nature’s “ultimate purpose”. Some 50 years later, Kant’s cosmopolitan prophecy was seconded by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, who when they surveyed the international landscape of the mid-nineteenth century concluded that “‘national differences and antagonism between peoples are daily more and more vanishing”. While they agreed upon history’s cosmopolitan direction, the main point of disagreement between Kant and the Marxists was political: Kant envisioned the universal cosmopolitan condition as liberal-capitalist, whereas for Marx and Engels it was communist.

The reason why cosmopolitan historicism over the past quarter century has experienced a new golden age is simple. In 1945, the defeat of fascism laid the groundwork for the liberal international order, an order that had much in common with Kant’s cosmopolitan vision. From the 1970s a process of increased cross-border interconnectedness known as globalization added a further spark to the cosmopolitan-historicist imagination. Then, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, many thought this implied the final triumph of liberalism and democracy across the globe, leading commentators to engage in another wild round of cosmopolitan prophesizing. Francis Fukuyama famously concluded that the end of the cold war also meant the End of History, by which he meant the realization of the sort of universal cosmopolitan condition envisioned by Kant. The late Ulrich Beck, a hugely influential German sociologist, asserted that the existence of global “risks”—climate change, terrorism, financial crises—had cosmopolitan implications, arguing that “world risk society sets free a ‘cosmopolitan moment’.”

Cosmopolitanism hasn’t been confined to the academic ivory tower, however, but has exercised considerable influence in key policymaking circles as well. A year after the Berlin Wall fell, George H.W. Bush declared to the United Nations that he envisioned “a world of open borders, open trade and, most importantly, open minds”. His successor Bill Clinton was in thrall to similar ideas, arguing that globalization “is the economic equivalent of a force of nature”. George W. Bush went on to celebrate this force of nature as a “triumph of human liberty stretching across national borders”, and Barack Obama later solemnly declared that “given our interdependence, any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.” Then came Donald Trump, who proclaimed himself elected to “represent the citizens of Pittsburgh, not Paris”, and whose election dealt a mortal blow to the idea that our epoch is a cosmopolitan end of history.

Trump’s electoral success also reversed the policies of cosmopolitanization pursued by his predecessors. Belief that our epoch is uniquely cosmopolitan led policymaking elites to cast themselves as “history’s midwives”: instead of seeking to halt the process of cosmopolitanization (which, according to historicist dogma, would be impossible), they sought to speed up the coming of the post-historical age—the universal cosmopolitan condition envisioned by Kant. Cosmopolitan historicism’s political agenda has consisted of three pillars, three policies of cosmopolitanization. Although the causal link between cosmopolitan historicism and these policies is difficult to prove empirically, there are strong logical grounds to believe that they are connected. The first policy is political and economic integration through international clubs such as the European Union and the World Trade Organization. The second is mass immigration, beginning to replace the nations of old with a global hybrid culture. The third is Westernization of non-Western countries. Whereas mass immigration made the West more like the Rest, liberal-democratic nation-building aimed to make the Rest more like the West.

While cosmopolitan historicism by no means has been the only factor driving these developments—international migration, for instance, cannot be explained without reference to war and poverty—it is arguable that historicist beliefs have pushed policy in a cosmopolitan direction. Taken together, the policies of cosmopolitanization can be understood as an instance of what Popper termed utopian social engineering, now according to a cosmopolitan blueprint. In the effort to remake the world according to this blueprint, global integration became viewed as an end in itself, rather than as a pragmatic way to deal with global issues such as climate change and terrorism. Mass immigration was promoted by parties across the political spectrum, and evidence of its unpopularity was ignored. And, when Westerners mistook their own culture particular culture for a universal culture, Westernization became a twenty-first century equivalent of the eleventh-century Crusades, as political elites went about exporting Western institutions to places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ideas have consequences. Bad ideas have negative consequences, and utopian ideas are bad ideas. As Popper would have predicted, utopian cosmopolitan engineering has led to consequences that are negative if judged by cosmopolitanism’s own standards, just as Marxist historicism failed to create an egalitarian stateless utopia. Fervent belief that their epoch was a cosmopolitan end of history led policymakers to ignore evidence that contradicted their simplistic faith. Instead they continued pushing ahead toward the utopia of which they dreamt, convinced that all setbacks were temporary snags.

Today, wherever one’s eyes are turned, the results are visible: the West is engulfed by a populist revolt, and the Rest, instead of emulating the Western experience, are increasingly pursuing indigenous paths to modernity. While this would certainly have happened even in the absence of cosmopolitan historicism, the latter for a generation blinded Westerners to the strength and resilience of non-Western cultures. As for the populist revolt in the West, there are good reasons to view it, at least in part, as a predictable outcome of the historicist approach to political change. A utopian form of liberal cosmopolitanism has fed an illiberal and anti-cosmopolitan reaction, and discontent with cosmopolitanism now threatens to metastasize into an assault on the liberal order as such.

Ideas should be judged by their observable consequences, not by how good or radical they sound. Popper contrasted utopian engineering to what he termed piecemeal social engineering. Utopian ideas by definition sound much better than those of the piecemeal approach but they tend to produce results that are much worse. Piecemeal engineering rejects the ideology-driven, root-and-branch transformations that are characteristic of the utopian approach, instead aiming for small-scale, evidence-based change.

Today a piecemeal approach to globalization would recognize that cosmopolitan historicism’s current anti-cosmopolitan consequences reflect the persistence of organic, slow-changing cultural realities that are unlikely to disappear any time soon. Mass immigration is unpopular around the world, and if elites continue ignoring this it is likely to lead to further populist-nationalist backlashes, not cosmopolitan harmony. Westernization is likely to be resisted by non-Western leaders and populations proud of their heritage, and if Western policymakers ignore this, the outcome will not be Kantian Perpetual Peace but a conflict-ridden international environment. Overall, forced cosmopolitanization has created not a Fukuyaman utopia but rather what is beginning to look like the clash-of-civilizations scenario for which Samuel Huntington is known. This is extremely worrying, and it calls for a critical reconsideration of the cosmopolitan ideas that drove the hyperglobalization of recent decades.

Crucially, it is not cosmopolitanism as such that should be discarded, merely its extreme historicist manifestation. The main tenets of cosmopolitan thought are sound, and immigration and globalization have in many cases been success stories. Globalization has lifted millions out of poverty and significantly reduced global inequality. International collaboration through organizations like the United Nations is necessary to manage global threats such as climate change and nuclear-weapons proliferation. Elementary human decency dictates that rich countries have a moral obligation to help refugees and other people in need. However, the point to make is that these objectives may not be best met by historicist cosmopolitanism, but instead by a more moderate cosmopolitan vision that stops short of eliminating cultural and political particularity altogether.

Extreme cosmopolitanism is incompatible with all forms of nationalism, and extreme nationalism is incompatible with all forms of cosmopolitanism. However, great minds have long understood that moderate cosmopolitanism and moderate nationalism are not mutually exclusive. Ludwig von Mises held that “nationalism does not clash with cosmopolitanism, for the unified nation does not want discord with neighboring peoples, but peace and friendship”. Martha Nussbaum, one of the key figures of the cosmopolitan renaissance of the early 1990s, in no unclear terms stated that “[t]o give one’s own sphere special care is justifiable in universalist terms”. In the eyes of Nussbaum, “[p]olitics, like child care, will be poorly done if each thinks herself equally responsible for all, rather than giving the immediate surroundings special attention and care”.

Nussbaum’s formulation makes clear that moral universalism need not imply cultural and political universalism: it is a fallacy to think that the fate of humanity as a whole necessarily is best served by the dismantlement of all cultural and political boundaries. This is a fallacy, the unfortunate consequences of which we are now witnessing, that cosmopolitan historicism has been guilty of. It has led not to cosmopolitan utopia, but instead to populist dystopia: a demagogue occupies the White House, the project of European integration has gone into reverse, the Middle East is engulfed in sectarian conflict, and we are witnessing ominous signs of renewed great-power rivalry. It is beyond the scope of this essay to offer solutions to these problems, but discarding cosmopolitan historicism, with its simplistic and utopian understanding of politics, looks like a promising start.


Carl Ritter is a PhD researcher from Stockholm University. This article summarises a conference paper titled ”Liberalism, Populism, and the Poverty of Cosmopolitan Historicism” that was recently presented to the Mont Pelerin Society at their populism-themed special meeting.


  1. Bill Haywood says

    Please provides some examples of cosmopolitan utopianists. What specific policy, pushed by what group, qualifies as such? Fukuyama is an example of failed prognostication, not a historicist trend.

    Calling for open borders and free flow of ideas is not the same as advocating uniformity, it can also be the objective of multicultural tolerance.

    Calling for globalism is also not necessarily historicist. One can advocate globalization for whatever reasons without believing that history has purpose and direction. Evolution has repeatedly created eyes, but sight is not a goal of history.

    Yes, historicism is an error, but is anyone of note actually making it?

    • Uri Harris says

      He mentioned Marx. As a rule though, people rarely argue based on inevitability. It’s probably more like an underlying belief.

    • Frank says

      Isabelle Stengers has stated that a cosmos detached from politics is irrelevant. The cosmopolitical proposal is ‘idiotic’ in so far as it addresses those who reject the consensual, without presenting an alternative. Where as advocates for ‘a good common world’ take cosmopolitanism as a vehicle of tolerance, Stengers referes to cosmopolitics as the cure for what she calls ‘the malady of tolerance’

    • Raoul says

      How else do you explain:
      1. The lack of any planning for post-invasion push-back in Iraq on the part of Bush II and his cabinet?
      2. The enlargement of the EU from 6 states in 1957 to 28 states today, apparently on the self-evident truth that all ‘European’ democracies that respect human rights and the rule of law and are based on a market economy should be increasingly integrated?
      3. Uncontrolled immigration into the EU?

      Incompetence perhaps. Wishful thinking maybe. It seems to me though, that believing you’re on the ‘right side of history’ makes sloppy planning, wishful thinking and policies that ‘accept the inevitable’ more likely.

  2. Robert Paulson says

    “Elementary human decency dictates that rich countries have a moral obligation to help refugees and other people in need.”

    Um, no. This is exactly the kind of moral preaching that is leading to “populist revolts” against political elites across the West. People are tired of being told what their moral obligations are by the likes of Mr. Ritter. If people such as himself want to personally host refugees in their homes, by all means go for it, but don’t tell the rest what we need to do in order to be “decent” as defined by our technocratic master class.

    Oh, and we have plenty of poor people in our own countries that could use our help. I know homelessness isn’t as trendy as Syrian refugees, but I for one believe our moral obligations start locally, not half-way around the world.

    • Frank says

      A quick look at the historical record shows that conflict between different groups has been common throughout human history. Tribalism seems to be the default mode of human political organization. It can be highly effective: The world’s largest land empire, that of the Mongols, was a tribal organization. But tribalism is hard to abandon, again suggesting that an evolutionary change may be required. Cooperative defense by tribal peoples is universal and ancient and it is bound to have boosted the genetic fitness of those who acted to further the interests of their group. Under such circumstances it would be odd indeed if natural selection did not mold the human mind to be predisposed to ethnocentrism.

      In the distant past, progressive politics was rooted in the notion that every human being was capable of deploying his or her practical reason or moral sense to live an authentic live as an individual. It was a belief that helped anchor in the modern world the idea of moral autonomy. The politics of identity has appropriated the language of authenticity to describe ways of living that are true to the supposed characteristics of distinct social groups. This in turn has led to the demand that one must respect different beliefs and cultures as authentic ways of being for different people. It is a demand that turns on its head notions of respect and autonomy.

      In its traditional (Kantian) sense, respect requires us to treat every human being equally as a moral, autonomous being. Every individual possesses the capacity to express political and moral views and to act upon them. And every individual is responsible for their views and actions and is capable of being judged by them. Freedom of expression is an expression of individual moral autonomy, of the capacity of people to engage in a robust debate about their beliefs and their actions, and to bear the consequences.

      This is the bizarre world of identity politics that the progressive movement wanted. The demand from identity politics is that we should respect not just the person qua person but also his or her beliefs. It’s a demand that undermines individual autonomy, both by constraining the right of people to criticize others’ beliefs and by insisting that individuals who hold those beliefs are too weak or vulnerable to stand up to criticism, satire or abuse. Far from according them respect, the politics of identity treats people less as autonomous beings than as vulnerable victims needing special protection.

      The real value of free speech, in other words, is not to those who possess power, but to those who want to challenge them. And the real value of censorship is to those who do not wish their authority to be challenged. The right to subject each others fundamental beliefs to criticism’ is the bedrock of an open, intellectually diverse society. Once we give up such a right in the name of ‘tolerance’ or ‘respect’, we constrain our ability to challenge those in power, and therefore to challenge injustice.

    • All true. I attach no moral standing to the preening charity types that – in the name of Christian churches, with massive federal subsidies, and with $350,000 salaries for themselves – decided for themselves that Minnesota would be colonized by Somalia because things were tough there in the 90s.

      Now these lovely and charitable people – ensconced in the type of country homes $350,000 a year will buy – cant figure out why we have all the knife play at local malls and express outrage at James Woods’ racist tweets.

      Any doubts about importing a hostile, insular culture and footing the bill for the whole thing is ignorance and rascism, straight up. Immigration fraud exists only on the imagination of xenophobes. Any worries about the wisdom of cultivating a welfare dependant, ungrateful sub culture… well, shut up, you racist.

      Questions about who gave Lutheran Social Services or Catholic Charities the authority to remake our society, permanently burden the tax payer, and introduce a previously unthinkable terrorist threat have never really been asked, let alone answered.

      Now, here we are. The present is tense and the future points to B-O-O-M at M-O-A. Thanks for our new cosmopolitan reality, elite charity people. Enjoy our money.

  3. Carl Sageman says

    Thinking from another perspective: why must one country help another without a treaty? It’s a genuine question about responsibility. Are there countries that are incapable of looking after themselves? If so, why? This seems to be a glaring omission in this article. The links between black crime/poverty vs welfare are fairly well documented. Who do you help and why and how? Helping can hurt more than doing nothing.
    Re: xenophobia and fears of white supremacy.
    I saw a funny quote recently that hit the mark. There are people in the west who strongly dislike western culture and democracy. There are people in 3rd world countries who want to come to a first world western country to embrace the values. The conclusion was that we should send “anti-western westerners” to 3rd world countries and bring in foreigners who love democracy and western culture. How does that fit in with racist theory? The comment was well received. This comment better reflects where the mindset of supposed “racists” is today.
    When I interpret this lighthearted comment, I don’t see this directed at westerners who question people who break the law. I see it directed at people like an Australian politician who compared Australia Day to the Holocaust in a bid to undermine Australia’s cultural identity. Some people believe the only way to make a country “equal” is to discriminate against the locals because discrimination based on a person’s sex or skin colour is good. They ultimately end up becoming hostile to western culture, racist and sexist instead of any reasonable interpretation of “equal”.
    It strikes me as odd that articles like this pretend that many people dislike foreigners. I have not found that to be the case. If anything, I find that the west points many fingers at itself for supposed racism over the smallest of issues. The recent attacks on statues of Jefferson, Lincoln and even Robert E Lee were an example of racism against America by Americans and an attack on western culture. It’s all divisive politics to divide the people for political gain.
    I’m not convinced that any country has an obligation to any other country, except by treaty. I’m also unconvinced that treating orther countries has helpless victims is unhelpful.

    • Robert Paulson says

      “The conclusion was that we should send “anti-western westerners” to 3rd world countries and bring in foreigners who love democracy and western culture. ”

      I was in Africa several years ago and I met some young black guys that said they wanted to come to America. If the “anti-racist” types are correct, these are not aspiring young men looking for a better place to build their lives, but masochists looking to be oppressed by racism.

  4. Steve Sailer says

    Invade the World, Invite the World.

    What could possibly go wrong?

  5. Iain Alexander says

    Good essay. I’ve thought a lot along similar lines. (Incidentally, Jan Assmann talks about these issues in his book Religio Duplex.)

    Historicist cosmopolitanism is the ideology of ‘The Globalists’, right? Rooted in the Enlightenment Idea of Progress.

    Its problems:

    -(in line with Taleb) increasing centralisation of power (more fragile, makes collapse more dangerous and wide-ranging), unable to anticipate breaking points due to a belief in the invincibility of Progress.

    -elimination of cultural and individual differences.

    Possible solutions:

    -resistance to centralisation and pushing for further decentralisation – focus on solving problems at a local level (starting with yourself, in line with Peterson and with Nussbaum as quoted in the essay).

    -Find universal principles through dialogue and exchange, but allowing, encouraging and enjoying regional and individual differences. A spirit of translating a cultural element of foreign origin into local (or individual) style or preference (as the Japanese are famous for).

    -Allowing for natural cross pollination at the borders, physical and cultural (not eliminating borders altogether), without actively or aggressively promoting it (a cultural free market).

    The course of action for the non-historicist will be the same regardless of whether theirs is the dominant worldview. A ‘sorted-out’ individual and local community will better navigate the world as it is, better adapt if historicist-globalism collapses, or otherwise set the world on a better, more sustainable course. Indifferent to utopianism.

  6. Finally! There is a great way how you can work from your home using your computer and earn in the same time…Very Easy work Only basic internet knowledge needed and fast internet connection… Earn as much as $3489 a week… >> PlanrHino.CoM

  7. Pingback: Kjære Bård Larsen: Det liberale demokratiet dør ikke helt enda - Minerva

  8. Pingback: Kjære Bård Larsen: Det liberale demokratiet dør ikke helt ennå - Minerva

Comments are closed.