Liberal Cosmopolitanism: An ethically viable form of global governance?

Samuel Glen*

Brisbane, April 17 2015 (Alochonaa): Culture and diversity are complex and contested terms in international relations theory and moral philosophy. This is, in essence, because in a global setting, a deontological cross-cultural perspective will always be fraught with contrasting views as to the ‘right’ way to live in a heterogeneous and diverse world. As enduring features of the human condition, any deontological theory, such as liberal cosmopolitanism, must provide for the conditions of culture and diversity, or risk offering a political position based on incomplete monologic originating from one specific culture or ideology.

As two distinct yet related terms, culture and diversity are co-constitutive with the human experience and, therefore, not independent of the social or political realm. Due to globalisation, and the conditions of the twenty-first century, humanity has been thrust into a global-local nexus, where culture and diversity are more than ever at the forefront of human and political discourse on a global scale. While this has both positive and negative effects for the human race, positive being mutual discourse and negative being a ‘clash of civilisations’, ultimately, globalisation has caused a situation in which all people must learn to co-exist despite their vastly different positions or risk the alternative, cross-cultural conflict.

As a variable that is subject to human fallibility, culture is not produced in a social vacuum acquired by the human agent independently from other social variables, but is, instead, an intersubjective experience with internal and external narratives (Cox 2007, p. 526; Sen 2008, p. 54).

Where cultures may seem determined and fixed when contrasted against another’s, they are better conceived as ‘indeterminate amalgamations of various influences consisting of allegiances, ideas, values and beliefs’ (Brown 2009, p. 131). Essentially, cultures are not ‘singly bounded entities’ but fluid organisms ‘constantly swayed by converging tides of internal and external narratives’.

No two people will ever truly have the exact same experience culturally or politically, or even within the same cultural paradigm, thus, any political theory articulated in universal terms, unless adequately pluralised in cultural terms, is doomed to present a monological view in a heterogeneous and diverse global society and never adequately represent its global constituents. This is the major problem for the liberal-cosmopolitan project.

Any conception that universalises a specific cultural paradigm in a heterogeneous and intersubjective environment in a rigid and fixed way, will be doomed to failure because it will never truly represent its constituents in equal and level terms and will therefore never be truly accepted by those whom it seeks to govern.

If cosmopolitanism does not provide a condition in which diverse others can bring their experience and identity to the cosmopolitan project, then it will never achieve anything beyond a very particularistic and normative idea that has no place in the present global polity.

In essence, the cosmopolitan project must sacrifice the pursuit of the ‘liberal’ over the ‘plural’ if the liberal comes at the expense of the cultural ontology of those whom it seeks to represent. Petito (2009, p. 50) offers a succinct rendition as to why this is a justified requirement of any modern conception of liberal cosmopolitanism:

…if the normative structure of future global coexistence is to be genuinely universal, then it cannot solely be liberal and Western-centric. Genuine universality requires a sharp awareness of the presence of different cultures and civilizations in world affairs…A fundamental void looms when this normative structure reflects the tenets of cosmopolitan liberalism, a political tradition that excludes the centrality of cultural and religious identity in the everyday practices of “really existing communities”.

Without tolerably supporting diversity on a global level, liberal cosmopolitanism will never sufficiently represent its global constituents, because it will never be truly able to forego its universal aspirations derived from a unique and specific culturally derived origin.

However, it should be mentioned that not all liberal aspects are not unconditionally ‘bad’ or not ever likely to be accepted by culturally diverse others. Rather, it means quite the opposite, that liberal cosmopolitanism should be considered alongside its counterparts on equal and level terms, as the law of equality cosmopolitan itself requires.

Healy (2011, p. 302) provides a very clear reason as to why this must be so:

…if we are to be genuinely responsive to difference in a manner conducive to promoting mutual understanding and learning, we need to allow others to articulate their own positions in their own terms and accord them the status of equal partners in the conjoint exploration of a topic, to the extent that we are prepared to allow their views actively to challenge our own ‘settled opinion’, to modify our preconceptions when they are found wanting, and to learn from what they have to tell us rather than simply asserting the superiority of our own viewpoint.

For liberal cosmopolitanism to become a more realistic solution to global political community, it requires a fundamental change to how it is currently conceptualised in only liberal and modern terms.

The only way for it to adequately represent the interests of its constituents is to provide a setting in which a plurality of conceptions of the good may be considered against each other in equal and level terms without one being considered the superior position to them all.

If the cosmopolitan project is pursued in equal and level terms for all players, it then becomes a meaningful form of political and participatory governance that meets its own requirements for equality, and makes it a more ethically viable project of cross-cultural and international governance. But, it is still not without its issues as to how to achieve this ideal in a world full of differing opinions as to how best to ‘live’ and ‘govern’.


Brown, G. (2009) Grounding Cosmopolitanism: From Kant to the Idea of a Cosmopolitan Constitution, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh.

Cox, R. (2007) ‘The International’ in Evolution, Millennium – Journal of International Studies, Vol. 35, pp. 513-527.

Healy, P. (2011) Rethinking deliberative democracy: From deliberative discourse to transformative dialogue, Philosophy and Social Criticism, vol. 37, no. 3, pp. 295-311.

Petito, F. (2009) ‘Dialogue of Civilizations as an Alternative Model for World Order’, in M. Michael & F. Petito (eds.) Civilizational Dialogue and World Order: The Other Politics of Cultures, Religions, and Civilizations in International Relations, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 47-67.

Sen, A. (2008) “Culture and Captivity”, in D. Held, H. Moore & K. Young (eds) Cultural Politics in a Global Age: Uncertainty, Solidarity and Innovation, Oxford, Oneworld Publications, pp. 48-59.

*Samuel Glen is the editor – religion and society for 

*** is not responsible for any factual mistakes (if any) of this analysis. This analysis further is not necessarily representative of’s view. We’re happy to facilitate further evidence-based submissions on Bengal history. Please send us your submission at

Categories: Culture, Globalization

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