What are the differences between cosmopolitan and communitarian approaches to global politics?
When looking at normative theories of politics, the main distinction is between cosmopolitanism and communitarianismA. In this essay the term community shall refer to political communities, or more specifically, states. It is important to note that these political communities have been defined territorially, and not necessarily by culture, although this is taken for granted to an extent by communitarianism. Communitarians say that each community is different, and therefore should act accordingly with each other. In other words, state autonomy should be absolute and law and moral standards should be self-determined by the community itself alone. Furthermore, communities should have no obligations to other political communities or any sort of international law. Contrastingly, Cosmopolitans say that there should be an overriding universal moral standard to which all states (or communities) should adhere. If a state is infringing on the rights of the individual or humanity, then intervention is appropriate and just.Order now
Communitarianism says that communities themselves define what rightful conduct is, and therefore should not be obliged to follow any universal moral code. Morality arises from the culture that makes up the community, and therefore determines what is right for that community, whether it is or not for anyone else. Communitarians say that there cannot be a universal moral standard because where would these standards come from? Who would decide what is right and wrong? However, the argument communitarianism can be turned against it if these communities are nation-states. It is only the predominant culture that will determine what the moral standards of the community are. Cosmopolitans argue that there should be a universal moral standard to which every community must abide. They allow for state autonomy, but only to an extent. States must not be able to be completely self-determined and free from moral obligations to the rest of the international community. But this raises significant questions. Can a universal moral standard exist? And how can it apply to all states? While cosmopolitanism allows for some state autonomy, the moral standard would mean that some states would be favoured in terms of how much they have to conform. For example, in western countries stoning someone to death is barbaric, but while in other more traditional or religious states this is part of their culture. The Sharia Law of Iran actually “specifies that the stones thrown should not be so large that the victim dies after a few strikes”A yet be big enough to “cause serious injury”. It is communitarianism that allows this to be law, while cosmopolitanism often seeks to intervene in cases such as this. Who is to decide which course of action is more correct?
Cosmopolitanism is most commonly identified with human rights because of this doctrine of a universal moral standard. It is in favour of humanitarian intervention, whereas communitarianism frowns upon intervention of any kind. State autonomy and self-determinism rate above all else. Both of these approaches have their flaws, however on the surface it does seem that a cosmopolitan system favours individual rights. But then, who is to say this is what is most important? Cosmopolitanism seems more sophisticated in that it allows for the fact that states have basically been determined by territorial boundaries. Indeed, liberal democracy presupposed that “national communities… were based on the presupposition that political communities could … control their destinies and citizens … might act together with a view of … the common good”A. Following from this, one cannot deny that because of the impact of globalisation, the “collective fortunes of human communities have become intertwined”A. Therefore it does appear that cosmopolitanism is the more versatile theory in that it can allow for change and the adaptability of international relations.
Communitarians stress the importance of culture and the difference between states, whereas cosmopolitanism leads to the homogenisation of communities. The main critique of cosmopolitanism in the communitarian view is that it does not allow for cultural differences. Cosmopolitanism quite obviously also has its own problems with communitarianism. For example, the problem of self-determination is, as Geoffrey Robertson puts it, that is “gives power to majorities and not minorities”A. This is unavoidable in communitarianism, for it is not possible for each facet of a community to be represented and the moral standards cannot arise from every culture in a community. The self-determinism is based on geography, which allows for distinctions to be made between domestic and international politicsA. However because there is no way of telling whether or not this is the best way of defining communities, the theory of communitarianism appears fundamentally flawed.
The clearest distinction between cosmopolitanism and communitarianism is that the former says normative theories of world politics should “focus on either humanity as a whole or on individuals”A, whereas the latter says their “appropriate focus is the political community (the state)”A. We can see hear clearly that significant debates cannot help but arise around these two “intellectual movements”A. The core debates that do arise centre around three main issues: (as Chris Brown states) state autonomy, international justice and the “ethics of the use of force”A. The cosmopolitan view is that states should only have a right to autonomy if it does not behave in a way that “conflicts with the moral right of either humanity as a whole or of individuals”A. In contrast, the communitarian line is that state autonomy cannot be restricted by anything but the community (state) itself. As one might assume, it follows from these differing standpoints that the way each theory view intervention, etc., will be in opposition.
Cosmopolitanism and communitarianism differ vastly in the way they, as intellectual concepts, deal with international relations. Cosmopolitanism holds the view that the rights of humanity and the individual should override those of the state (or political community), whereas communitarianism is the opposite. It states that the rights of the community are more important than those of the state. It is because of these fundamental differences that they deal with international relations in significantly different ways. However, both theories have their flaws and it seems that we can have neither a fully cosmopolitan or communitarian world political system.