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The Case For Humanity (Part I)

“We needn’t regard internationalism as a failed or misguided project, which the 20th century demonstrated was destined for the ash heap of history. Rather we should regard it as our first, clumsy, and tentative steps towards establishing a more complete global union.”


“…a nation is not an idea only of local extent, and individual momentary aggregation; but it is an idea of continuity, which extends in time as well as in numbers and in space. And this is a choice not only of one day, or one set of people, not a tumultuary and giddy choice; it is a deliberate election of ages and of generations; it is a constitution made by what is ten thousand times better than choice, it is made by the peculiar circumstances, occasions, tempers, dispositions, and moral, civil, and social habitudes of the people, which disclose themselves only in a long space of time. It is a vestment, which accommodates itself to the body. Nor is prescription of government formed upon blind, unmeaning prejudices—for man is a most unwise and a most wise being. The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish, when they act without deliberation; but the species is wise, and, when time is given to it, as a species it always acts right.”

Edmund Burke

The period immediately following the Second World War was characterized by the emergence of a huge number of international institutions. The League of Nations gave way to the United Nations and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The European Economic Community formed in 1957, which eventually evolved into the European Union in 1993. These institutions birthed a number of important international institutions and rules, from the European Court of Human Rights to the Schengen area. This inspired the formation of other international unions, such as the African Union in 2001. The Nuremberg and Tokyo trials spurred the imagination of many human rights advocates, who imagined that they could create a world where even the most powerful heads of state could be held accountable for the their crimes. The fruits of their efforts produced the various international tribunals in the former Yugoslavia, Cambodia, Rwanda, and finally the International Criminal Court in 2002.

More significantly still, the 1944 Bretton Woods agreement gave rise to the serious argument that the international economy itself could be moderated and directed to the benefit of all. The consequence of this was the rise of international financial and economic institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. These institutions were never free of controversy. But despite various slips and slides, many believed that they were a sign of things to come. In an increasingly interconnected and globalizing environment, internationalism was the only way forward. Concurrent with these developments was a growing belief in the universal rights of all human beings: that regardless of the state one belonged too, all individuals were entitled to a certain level of treatment by states and private officials. This moral universalism, some might say “utopianism,” quickly became the subject of both great hope and tremendous scorn.   

But in recent years, this utopianism has come under significant pressure. Many are now heralding its final downfall and a return to nationalist, Westphalian sovereignty. The rise of nationalism and various forms of post-modern conservatism has challenged the internationalist project of erecting a legal order which would enforce human rights, redistribute power and—if needed—resources, and hold accountable those who committed mass crimes. Critics like Yoram Hazony, drawing inspiration from nationalist populists such as Trump and the Brexit referendum, see this as a positive development. They will point out that the international legal system posed a threat to the sovereignty of free nations, occasionally even overruling the policies of democratically-elected governments. Critics will also point to deeper arguments, such as the virtues to be found in the diverse cultural practices and traditions of the various nation-states. They believe these cultural practices and traditions should not be trampled on by imperialistic internationalists who invariably believe that they know best. As put by Yoram Hazony in his book The Virtue of Nationalism:

For centuries, the politics of Western nations have been characterized by a struggle between two antithetical visions of world order: an order of free and independent nations, each pursuing the political good in accordance with its own traditions and understanding, and an order or people united under a single regime of law, promulgated and maintained by a single supranational authority.”

The Limitations of the International Order

There is something to these criticisms.  In the paragraphs below I will address three of the major takeaways.

Firstly, many of the international institutions developed in the aftermath of the Second World War suffer from a continuous deficit of democratic legitimacy. Perhaps the worst offender here is the European Union. While the EU does have a parliament, turnout for elections has been consistently low. Despite overall high support for the EU, most Europeans still seem to affiliate more closely with their national and local governments. The same is true of other international institutions, notably the World Bank and the WTO, which have come under harsh scrutiny for the imposition of neoliberal fiscal policies on developing states, often against the wishes of the native populations. Startlingly, in 2015 these readjustment programs made an appearance in Europe itself when the newly elected Syriza government of Greece was forced to accept harsh austerity measures to reassure creditors. These developments may have done something to reassure the fiscal sector about the stability of the world economic stem, but they caused immense damage to both the enforcing institutions and the international project in general. It should have been clear that international institutions couldn’t continue to operate indefinitely without a greater swathe of popular support, let alone without taking steps to democratize and increase representation.

“During my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians and so on…; but as for man, I have never come across him anywhere; if he exists he is completely unknown to me.”

Secondly, international institutions have long been criticized for demonstrating both positive and negative biases towards certain countries. The United Nations has long been the subject of withering criticism for these reasons. Critics on the right contend that the UN has demonstrated a clear bias against Israel and towards curtailing American power. They also point out the hypocrisy of allowing countries with gross human rights abuses the power to lecture other countries on the abnegation of their moral responsibilities. Not to be outdone, critics on the Left accuse the Security Council of being little more than an instrument to further the agenda of the great-mostly Western-powers. They will also observe that the United Nations has done a far better job of looking after the civil and political rights of individuals, while largely ignoring obligations to respect their economic and social rights as guaranteed in the documents such as the ICESCR. Finally, legal instruments like the International Criminal Court have been criticized for focusing on the crimes of leaders in Sub-Saharan Africa, while ignoring those committed by Westerners; for instance the Americans in Iraq. Of course, accusations of hypocrisy, bias, and favoritism are a dime a dozen these days, so such examples could be multiplied indefinitely.

Thirdly, critics make a deeper philosophical argument against the emergence of international institutions. They believe that they reflect an aberration of human nature. These critics will argue that the idea of a universal “humanity” which can be the subject of global law is illusory. In the words of the 18th century opponent of the Enlightenment Joseph de Maistre, these critics will contend:

“During my life, I have seen Frenchmen, Italians, Russians and so on…; but as for man, I have never come across him anywhere; if he exists he is completely unknown to me.”

For these critics, nationalism is a more natural way of organizing the world because it reflects the irreducible differences between different groups of people. This has moral implications for these critics because they will argue it shall always be easier and even necessary to privilege those proximate to us over strangers. This is because both in terms of distance and, more metaphorically, in terms of behavior and values, proximity makes a difference. We feel a greater sense of obligation to our own children over the child of a stranger (or even the child of a friend). Similarly, we also feel a greater sense of obligation towards those who reside next to us and who share our behaviors and values.

International institutions that attempt to efface this through making us think globally are doomed to fail, and worse, distort our sense of immediate moral obligation to those close to us. Moreover, they fail to recognize the virtue of this moral outlook. Believing we have special moral obligations to those who share our behaviors and values enables us to establish communities which experiment with differing visions of the good life. Hindus will come together over their values and reflect part of the global mosaic of human life in their nation, Jews another, and so on. This diversity, built upon the sense of our special moral obligations towards those close to us, is a great human good, which international institutions threaten with their totalizing universalism.

As I shall make clear later in this piece, I strongly disagree with this sentiment. I feel that our differences are both less staunch than claimed, and that they should not give rise to such a dramatic variance in our sense of moral responsibility. But there is a reason I included this criticism in a section on the worthwhile arguments against internationalism. What I think this claim is getting at is that people require a sense of meaning to their lives, which transcends mere legal and moral obligations—let alone the one-dimensional pursuit of immense material affluence. As I discussed in an earlier article, leftists and liberals alike have always struggled with understanding and catering to this desire for meaning in life. Unless we are able to do so, many will always seek solace for life’s troubles in concepts such as the “nation” or the “faith tradition” (as opposed to individualist faith of the Kierkegaardian vein).


However, this does not mean we need to concede all ground to nationalist and conservative critics.  The “nation,” despite what proponents argue, is as much a conceptual postulate as “humanity” or a “faith tradition.” The sense of immediacy critics associate with it is due to historical and spatial contingencies which are largely incidental or historical anomalies which are gradually being overcome. And I think there are many good reasons to be happy about this development. In this series of articles, I will present a sequence of arguments for the internationalist project and its belief in a universal humanity. Some of these will be philosophical and moral, others historical and empirical. But my end goal is to demonstrate that arguing for the internationalist project and universal humanity can be a meaningful and inspiring project. We needn’t regard internationalism as a failed or misguided project, which the 20th century demonstrated was destined for the ash heap of history. Rather we should regard it as our first, clumsy, and tentative steps towards establishing a more complete global union.

There will be some who say that this is a utopian aspiration. But I would retort, following Zizek, that the only utopianism is continuing to believe that things can continue indefinitely as they were. Indeed, the nationalist demand is not so much for a continuation of the same as for a reactionary return to an earlier age whose conditions have faded away. As I shall demonstrate in these articles, I think this is misguided and even dangerous. The human race, for better or worse, has decided to toy with powers far greater than anyone in human history could have ever dreamed of. We destroy atoms, build artificial intelligences in our own image, and transform the very climate of the planet through our continuing drive to develop and transform the conditions of our existence. If we continue to wield these powers as separate peoples, each with their own beliefs and agendas, it is quite possible they will overcome and destroy us. It is wrong to believe that the human experiment is immune to the tremendous forces we have unleashed, let alone to allow the narcissism of small differences to distract from the fact that we all share the same very vulnerable world. We need internationalism now more than ever.

Matt McManus is currently Professor of Politics and International Relations at TEC De Monterrey. His book Making Human Dignity Central to International Human Rights Law is forthcoming with the University of Wales Press. His books, The Rise of Post-modern Conservatism and What is Post-Modern Conservatism, will be published with Palgrave MacMillan and Zero Books, respectively. Matt can be reached at or added on Twitter via Matt McManus@MattPolProf

One thought on “The Case For Humanity (Part I)

  1. I agree that some degree of internationalism is necessary but to describe nationalism as “reactionary return to an earlier age whose conditions have faded away” is mostly wishful thinking. The author is making a logical case for internationalism but new levels of association do not arise merely out of logic.

    It seems to me that new associations, especially enduring associations, arise out of percieved necessity. In 1930 Ortega y Gasset observed that Europe was outgrowing its nationalism but was incapable of making the next step to a unified Europe because it lacked a common vision of what that union might be. It turns out that Europe still lacks a common vision born of a common experience of necessity. The wishful or even logical thinking alone of bankers, bureaucracts. and intellectuals will never be what ultimately determines the fate of nations.

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