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Cosmopolis or Bust?

In order to function, a cosmopolis must embrace both toleration and the rule of law.

· 10 min read
Cosmopolis or Bust?
New York, NY, USA. Photo by Miikka A. on Unsplash

Three decades ago, author Steve Toulmin published a book in which he argued that the cosmopolis constitutes the true “agenda of modernity.” Driven by increased trade and movement of peoples, it would create a universal order that “binds all things together” on the basis of Enlightenment ideals.

But perhaps no longer. Across the planet, the cosmopolitan ideal is under attack from both the nationalist Right and the intersectional Left. It is rejected not only by Western academics but also by authoritarian regimes in Moscow, Beijing, and Tehran. After decades of growth, cosmopolitanism’s driving force of global trade is in decline, and support for the free migration of people and ideas across borders is being challenged almost everywhere. 

This pushback reflects more than just irrational nativism. Although most migrants are motivated by economic aspirations, they also include more dangerous groups, including criminal gangs and terrorist sympathizers, while the cost of housing and caring for poor refugees is squeezing cities. New York, like the UK, is now desperately looking for ways to send them elsewhere. 

The Importance of Cosmopolitan Ideas

But despite the crosswinds, cosmopolitan attitudes about open trade and societies have not lost their relevance. Throughout history, societies that balance their national self-interest with a spirit of openness and cultural self-confidence have won out over those hostile to products, cultures, ideas, and people from beyond their national borders. In the future, it’s hard to imagine that Western societies like the US and those in Europe, with their plunging birthrates and flagging educational advantages, can maintain their prosperity without millions of newcomers. After all, emigrants from developing countries not only provide labor in service industries, they also constitute roughly three-quarters of Silicon Valley’s tech workforce.

The roots of the cosmopolitan ideal lie in the classical world. “Consider the world as your country, with laws common to all and where the best will govern irrespective of tribe,” wrote Alexander the Great. “I do not distinguish among men, as the narrow-minded do, both among Greeks and Barbarians. I am not interested in the descendance of the citizens or their racial origins. I classify them using one criterion: their virtue.”

Largely discarded after Alexander’s death, this notion was later embraced by his imperial successor, Rome. Far more than Greek states like Athens, Rome in its evolution became ever more “polyglot and cosmopolitan,” observed British historian J.P.V.D. Balsdon in his 1980 book Romans and Aliens. One could come from north of the Danube, or even Britain, but ambitious citizens learned Greek or Latin, participated in Roman culture, and gave obeisance to the emperor. Over the centuries, Rome gradually expanded its citizenship, and in 212 CE, it was extended to all free-born residents of the Empire. “The grandsons of Gauls,” wrote Edward Gibbon in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, even those who had battled Julius Caesar, “commanded legions, governed provinces and were admitted to the Senate.”

Towards the end of the Western Empire, ties between outsiders and Romans began to fray. Rancor between Rome and its German neighbors helped to seal its demise, leading to the end of Empire and its replacement by “barbarian” regimes. In contrast to Rome’s successor regime, Byzantium, which was intolerant even of dissenting Christians, the emergent Islamic regimes in the Middle East and Spain embraced a more cosmopolitan idea. The caliphs may not have accepted non-Muslims as equals, but they tolerated different forms of Christianity as well as Jews far more than their European rivals. 

After the imposition of the Inquisition, for example, Spain expelled the country’s globally connected, highly educated and skilled Jewish population, many of whom fled to Turkish provinces. “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!” the Ottoman ruler Bayezid II marveled as he welcomed the Jews “with open arms.” Within Europe, meanwhile, those places that accommodated diverse populations, such as the Netherlands and the Venetian Republic, flourished. They did so in part by tapping outsiders’ networks to dominate medieval and early modern commerce. “The miracle of toleration,” historian Fernand Braudel observed, “was to be found wherever the community of trade convened.”

Western success in modern times, noted American economic historians Nathan Rosenberg and L.E. Birdzell Jr. in How the West Grew, lay in three factors: autonomy, experiment, and diversity. Autonomy focused on the rights of individuals; experimentalism followed the scientific method; and diversity implied the embrace of other cultures. These ideals paved the rise of Britain in the 17th century, as the island nation embraced vibrant communities like French Huguenots and Jews. During this time, London attracted newcomers from Europe, Ireland, Eastern Europe, and in time, the non-white colonies. The capital, wrote Ford Maddox Ford in Soul of London three decades ago, served as “the meeting place of East and West,” including people from the European periphery as well from the colonies. Much the same impact from cosmopolitan mixing animated, all too briefly, the cultural and scientific efflorescence of Vienna in the last decade of the Hapsburg Empire.

Gradually, the British Empire created new cosmopolitan communities, notably in East Asian ports, such as Singapore and Hong Kong. Similarly, the mega colonies of Oceania and North America, once bastions of Anglo-Saxon exclusivity, thrived by welcoming an ever-more diverse migrant population, initially from Northern Europe, then from Italy, Russia, and other European countries, and more recently from East Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.

Undermining Cosmopolis from the Left

Today, cosmopolitan values are increasingly under assault from the political Left. Progressives may be passionate about racial diversity but they often have little regard for the civilization that has made migration successful. The identitarian Left, notes Glenn Loury, implicitly rejects the Enlightenment, which is the basis for modern cosmopolitanism. Many leftists today embrace the notion that settlement abroad constitutes a “genocide” against non-whites, while they encourage the influx of newcomers to the West as a means of transforming Western societies.

In many cases, progressives mix their passion for mass migration with a desire to create societies in which group identity markers like race and gender serve as the primary organizing principle. Groups that advocate for BIPOC (black, indigenous, and people of color) tend to believe that minorities are naturally seeking “allyship and solidarity” against “white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism.” In some cases they oppose the very idea of citizenship. As one New York Times writer put it recently, there are ”no moral grounds” to give rights to longtime residents that are denied to people coming into the country illegally.

These notions reflect, in part, the cultural preeminence of late intellectuals like Frantz Fanon, Herbert Marcuse, and Michel Foucault. These attitudes have been ascendant in all Western societies for the past half-century, particularly in academia. In Canada, a growing school of thought essentially denies the legitimacy of the “so-called” country, citing both the suppression of the First Peoples and a lengthy history of religious and ethnic discrimination. In the United Kingdom, British history is increasingly portrayed as a litany of unmatched cruelty and evil, something to be ashamed of and rejected.

Oddly enough, these same societies remain the primary recipients of immigrants from around the world. The millions of Africans, Middle Easterners, and Latin Americans who come to London, Sydney, Toronto, New York, Houston, or Miami still prefer places that are built around the principles of individual rights, tolerance, and the market economy. Most people now sneaking into America from Venezuela, or into Italy from Africa, are clearly not opting to recreate the glories of their mostly despotic and desperately poor homelands.


Islamism poses the second and perhaps more lethal threat to cosmopolitanism. Islamists’ social and cultural outlook may be radically different from those of progressive radicals, but the two groups seem to be united in opposing the West’s “universal ideals” and embracing “a logic of victimization.” Of course, political radicalism among immigrants is not a new phenomenon. In London, particularly in the old East End, impoverished Scots, Irish, Italians, Jews, Indians, and Jamaicans all played important roles in both the Labour Party and the far-Left. But only a relative handful abandoned basic ideas of a pluralistic democracy; after all, neither fascists nor communists gained a foothold there.

Europe’s Virtues Will Be Its Undoing
Ever since, all of Europe—the East as well as the West—has carried the burden of Nazi guilt, as others would have us bear the guilt of North American slavery and Jim Crow.

Islamism, on the other hand, is the dominant political philosophy among Muslim activists. Islamists do not seek integration into Western societies, they want to compel their host countries to adopt Islamic notions of law, morality, and politics. For years, prominent clerics like Adil Charkaoui in Montreal and UK Islamist preacher Anjem Choudary have openly called for violent attacks on “Zionist aggressors,” while some Muslim groups in the United States appear to have been funneling money to terrorist groups like Hamas. 

Many Muslims contribute mightily to society, but they have been reluctant to denounce their radical leaders. Meanwhile, Islamists in the UK have stabbed a Labour MP, killed a Conservative MP and launched a car-and-knife attack on the Houses of Parliament, killing five people. This is in addition to the murder of 52 people during the London terror attack in 2005, the murder of 22 during the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017, and the killing of Lee Rigby in Woolwich in 2013. Over the past decade, the rise of terrorist and criminal gangs has turned some European cities into regularly occurring riot zones. The growing number of assaults against Jews is not the only phenomenon here; in France, Muslim rioters have also targeted symbols of the Republic itself like police stations and libraries.

This situation worsened after October 7. In city after city, Islamists have repeatedly sought to breach the bounds of civility and tolerance critical to cosmopolitan societies. Pro-Palestine demonstrators have made life increasingly difficult for pro-Israel politicians in the UK. Harassment recently led a non-Jewish Conservative MP representing a heavily Jewish London district to leave Parliament in fear for his life. Even in the United States, which has a diverse and largely middle-class Muslim population, a majority of Muslims consider the Hamas attack on Israel to have been justified. In Dearborn, Michigan, home to the most heavily Muslim community in the US, private schools, charities, and local imams openly embrace Hamas. After October 7, one preacher called on his Twitter followers to “purify the land from the aggression of the apes, swines and hypocrites.”

Increasingly, what Le Figaro calls “la menace islamiste” has fostered an atmosphere of intimidation, intolerance, and violence that is all too common in the Middle East. Donald Tusk, Poland’s new liberal prime minister, has stated that mass uncontrolled migration raises the “question of the survival of our Western civilization.” France’s interior minister recently called for the expulsion of non-citizens who commit antisemitic acts, and an imam who denounced the French tricolor as “Satanic” has been deported unceremoniously back to North Africa. Germany’s interior minister has suggested doing the same to Hamas supporters and Britain is considering revoking their visas.

Sadly, extremist behavior often makes life difficult for others—not just for peaceable Muslims, but also for Hindu immigrants, Mexicans, and African Christians, who all seem to be integrating more easily into mainstream society. As Goubert Pierre’s book La Mosaique France points out, over the past century, the French Republic was doing extraordinarily well in integrating immigrants—Jews, Spanish, Vietnamese, Armenians—particularly since the Second World War. That is, until the massive Muslim migration that followed the French defeat in Algeria in the early 1960s. 

Reaction on the Right

Unsurprisingly, these developments have incited a radical reaction on the political Right in many host countries. Conservatives fret about the political effects of a growing non-white population, and worry that a more diverse population may undermine key institutions and hand progressives a permanent majority.

Already, most Americans and UK subjects oppose increased immigration, and many want legal levels reduced as well. Across the West, rising political leaders oppose uncontrolled immigration. These include moderates like Denmark’s Inger Stojberg, as well as populist firebrands like Geert Wilders, who favors a Muslim ban in the traditionally liberal Netherlands. In America, where immigration has emerged as the leading political issue, the southern border dispute plays straight into Donald Trump’s re-election drive, boosting his popularity even among legal immigrants.

Some of the opposition to immigration, notably in Germany, echoes 20th-century racism. But anti-immigrant sentiment also reflects legitimate concerns about the importation of people fundamentally hostile to Western civilization. In Germany, upwards of 60 percent of the population—three times the support for the Alternative for Deutschland (AFD)—supports a Muslim Ban, and that number has been increasing for a decade. 

There has also been a disturbing revival of an identitarianism on the Right that oddly parallels the racialism of the progressive Left. In America, in particular, this takes the form of “Christian nationalism.” Although often overhyped, this movement’s growing media presence threatens to alienate many non-Christians—from atheists, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Hindus—coming to the West. It is, as Andrew Sullivan has observed, something of “a reactionary cult” that seeks to turn back the clock to an earlier, less heterodox time.

Recovering the Cosmopolitan Spirit

Together, these three forces—the identitarian Left, Islamists, and the neo-nationalist Right—threaten the future of cosmopolitan societies. The Left’s open borders agenda, embraced by some on the libertarian Right, seeks to impose enormous burdens on host societies. The effects are increasingly evident in American cities like New York and Chicago, as well as in the UK and Europe.

In order to function, a cosmopolis must embrace both toleration and the rule of law. Societies should not allow ethnic nationalists to control their streets or schools, but nor do they need draconian policies like President Trump’s Muslim ban. We live in an era where technology and skill no longer move primarily from west to east, or north to south. The enormous accomplishments of East Asia and the success of immigrants from once “backward” countries suggest that the West will continue to need foreign influences in order to remain competitive as their own native birth rates decline.

But a cosmopolis is only possible if newcomers embrace the liberal ethos and governments gain control of their borders, keeping out those who pose a burden to society, as well as people with terrorist sympathies. To succeed in the future, the West cannot be either nativist or identitarian. Instead, it must rediscover the cosmopolitan vision that has driven its progress for millennia.

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