When candidate Donald Trump declared “America First” as his campaign slogan, his intent was clear. It was about privileging nationhood against the world. It was going back to an imagined past when America was not a beacon on a hill, inviting all to be part of a constantly evolving society, but a walled fortress, keeping the world at bay. He encouraged his base to think that nationalism and globalism were mutually exclusive, and that in fact, even to think globally was injurious to the health of the nation.
It is abundantly evident that the very idea of a nation-state and the corresponding notion of nationalism is essentially a nineteenth century concept that sought to develop a more exclusive notion of belonging, supplanting a more multi-layered forms of connections that have been around for centuries. It is precisely because the privileged ideas about nations seem to be threatened after more than a century of flowering that some leaders are desperate to hold on to them.
As president of the United States, Donald Trump is confronted with global crises on a daily basis, reminding him that whether one likes it or not, global and national interests are completely intertwined. Many major challenges facing the world today are global in nature. It is understood that issues ranging from climate change and terrorism to infectious pandemics such as Zika or Ebola, know no national borders. Similarly, all significant twenty-first century trends—speed of communication or development of artificial intelligence—are transnational, even if they affect different countries at varying levels. Movement of people and ideas is evident all around us. According to a 2013 UN study, more than 232 million people lived outside of their country of origin. If they were to form a nation, these nomadic populations would form the fourth largest country in the world! Similarly, many multinational corporations show that more than 50% of their profits come from international sources. No matter what one may wish for, interconnected and interdependent nature of the world is here to stay and move forward.
This is not to say that these globalizing trends have always been positive or that there are many people in both developed and developing societies who have no been left behind. A recent issue of Economist points out that even while the big global populations are on the move, Americans are now less mobile than a decade ago, leading to a sense of disconnect from bigger transnational trends. Given the likelihood that globalization of ideas, goods, work, and communication forms, it is crucial that as education leaders we work hard to make sure that living with a sense of multiple connections and respect for differences are skill sets available to all. Young people, no matter where they live and work, will need to live in the world of multiple belongings. They will need to navigate a flexible sense of identity that can allow them to be part of a family, a small community, a nation, and the world. Navigating these layers will require competence in negotiating cultural differences across ethnic, religious and national borders.
How to create and nurture the cultural competence that will allow our young people to flourish in the world that is lurching toward a stronger cheek-by-jowl existence of human beings of different backgrounds? First, it is important to point out that this is an evolutionary process; one has to develop a sense of self that goes from being ego-driven to being oriented toward the community of the world. Of course, this does not mean that one relinquishes the sense of individual self or a national identity. Rather, it is about adding new layers to one’s life experiences and expand one’s sense of belonging. Mahatma Gandhi said it best: “The purpose of Life is…to know oneself. We can not do so unless we learn to identify ourselves with all that lives.”
The journey toward this evolution of global consciousness begins in exploring and investigating the unfamiliar and going beyond one’s comfort zone. This means going beyond accessing the world on one’s cell phone and actually experiencing being in a place that is truly different from what one is used to. It also means developing a sense of empathy for people who are truly different without any a priori judgment. I know how hard this can be from personal experience. Fifty years ago, I left my home town in India and went to the US as a sixteen year old exchange student on AFS Intercultural program scholarship. In my first week, I encountered strange customs—eating my first lobster after being a vegetarian all my life, seeing young couples kissing passionately and embracing intimately on a public beach for the first time when in India at the time, even holding hands in public would be frowned upon—and learnt quickly that it was important to understand and appreciate cultural differences without jumping to any conclusion. It is a lesson that has served me well throughout my life.
Five decades ago, when I began my cross cultural journey, it seemed like a very special privilege, available to very few. Today, in the context of global realities, fraught as they may be, there is a real urgency to provide the opportunities to all young people to engage with the unfamiliar, appreciate and respect differences, and use the knowledge gained from understanding cultural differences to find and act on solutions for the problems in the world. This is not a luxury but a necessity. The peaceful survival of the world depends on it.