Citizens of the World: Crisis and Response


Citizens of the World: Crisis and Response

 10 August 2015

Rene Wadlow – TRANSCEND Media Service


René Wadlow

Whenever the structure among States was too small to deal with the socio-economic and political challenges being faced, persons have worked for larger groupings: the United States rather than the Articles of Confederation, the European Union, the African Union, the United Nations. Today, the challenges concern the whole planet; an increasing number of people are speaking of the need for cosmopolitan thinking, calling themselves “world citizens” or “global citizens.”

In Plato’s Gorgias, Socrates says “We are told on good authority that heaven and earth and their respective inhabitants are held together by the bonds of society and love and order and discipline and righteousness and that is why the universe is called an ordered whole or cosmos and not a state of disorder and license.”

          There was a powerful current of cosmopolitan thought among the Greek Stoics who stressed the unity of humankind and challenged the powerful prejudices of Greek superiority. Likewise, the Roman Stoics at the time when the Roman Republic was failing to meet the socio-economic challenges stressed a cosmopolitan viewpoint and also again when the Roman Empire was under stress. Cicero belongs to the mid-period of the Roman Stoics and Seneca and Marcus Aurelius to the late. As Seneca wrote “The very reason for our magnanimity in not shutting ourselves up within the walls of one city, in going forth into intercourse with the whole earth, and in claiming the world as our country, was that we might have a wider field for our virtue. Is the tribunal closed to you, and are you barred from the rostrum? Look how many broad stretching countries lie open behind you, how many people?”

          We see the revival of cosmopolitan thought in seventeenth and eighteenth-century plans for European Union as the multitude of European States led to wars and a lack of progress. The Polish Comenius (Johannes Komensky), the French Denis Diderot, the Scot David Hume, all used the term “citizen of the world” to describe themselves, and Oliver Goldsmith wrote his then well-known Letters from a Citizen of the World to his Friends in the East.

          The Welsh philosopher Richard Price advocated the virtues of engagement in foreign trade as leading “every man to consider himself more a citizen of the world than of any particular state.” As Olivier d’Argenlieu points out in his book The Amazing Powers of World Citizens(1), today many people are involved in foreign trade. Finance, transportation, media, scientific research have all become trans-national and world wide. People travel for work, study, and pleasure. Some are forced to cross frontiers because of war or ecological mismanagement.

All who travel, trade and cross frontiers do not become “world citizens” but all realize that national frontiers have less and less meaning in reality. It would obviously be easier to cope with salient international problems of all kinds if the earth and its human inhabitants composed a single community in a political as well as an ecological sense.

For some the United Nations system of the UN, the Specialized Agencies, and the World Bank-IMF are adequate if they were used by farsighted persons and adequate leaders. The fundamental problem is not that the United Nations system is inherently unworkable, but that we are failing to use and develop the system with the foresight and courage necessary to come to grips with the major problems of the time. Further institutional development is eminently desirable but can never be a substitute for enlightened policies vigorously pursued.

For others, such as Olivier d’Argenlieu, the UN is fatally flawed due to a lack of democratic legitimacy. Authority needs to be based on the will of the people. The UN General Assembly is not the needed World Parliament. As he writes, there is a need for

a representative body, a Global Assembly acting for all members of the community, who would pass laws and confer authority to the executive power. Experience has taught us that, to be respected and accepted by all, laws must be passed by a representative group of its members. This is the very principle of democracy. Furthermore, to be efficient, the body governing a community and taking public action in its name must do so with a mandate from the people it rules. This again is a democratic principle. Consequently, the next step to be taken in order to provide the world community with the necessary institutions would be to set up a representative body composed of representatives elected by all members of the global community, that is, by all the citizens of the world.”

          Today, we need an interlinked agenda for the twenty-first century, incorporating thinking about global institutions, their democratic oversight, the nature of world citizenship, ecological planetary consciousness, the practice and sense of world community and the moral principles upon which all this should be founded. As the Commission of Global Governance wrote in its report (2) “Global governance, once viewed primarily as concerned with intergovernmental relationships, now involves not only governments and intergovernmental institutions, but also non-governmental organizations (NGOs), citizens’ movements, transnational corporations, academia, and the mass media. The emergence of a global sense of human solidarity reflects a large increase in the capacity and will of people to take control of their own lives.”


  • Olivier d’Argenlieu. The Amazing Power of World Citizens (Paris:, )
  • Commission on Global Governance. Towards the Global Neighbourhood (Oxford University Press, 1995)


René Wadlow, a member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and of its Task Force on the Middle East, is president and U.N. representative (Geneva) of the Association of World Citizens and editor of Transnational Perspectives. He is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment.