Whatever Happened to Internationalism?

“The World is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”

– Thomas Paine

The international education profession, especially in the United States, has devoted untold pages, bytes and conference sessions to the red hot, perennial topic of intercultural competence, but very few to nationalism, a cultural superiority complex and exclusionary state of mind that transcends gender, race, social class and political affiliation.

A sponsored post, “What is intercultural competence? And 4 reasons why employers value it”, offers one of the most general and widely accepted definitions of intercultural competence and then proceeds to explain why employers value intercultural competence and list its benefits, including how it “prepares you to work for international companies, it shows you’re proactive” and it is “something to talk about in interviews”, all of which emphasise the utilitarian value of this skill set.

International education, including intercultural competence, is often ‘sold’ on the basis of the extent to which it contributed to US economic growth and national security, both Ameri-centric goals whose pursuit is too often to the exclusion of the interests and aspirations of other peoples. This approach is limiting and antithetical to the true mission of the profession.

What many utterly fail to recognise is that intercultural competence and nationalism are not mutually exclusive. In this sense, they are committing an elephantine and corrosive sin of omission. Why focus on the safe topic du jour and avoid, consciously or subconsciously, the thorny yet indispensable one?

One possible reason could be a variation on the theme of false consciousness that conjures up this famous quote from Rosa Luxemburg (1871-1919): “Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” Colleagues who refuse to acknowledge nationalism as a pivotal issue that demands our attention, scholarly and otherwise, especially in the US, are figurative prisoners who are bound up with intellectual and psychic shackles.

IHE style psychic chains

Last year, the founder of a US global citizenship-oriented non-profit reached out to me in search of a ‘teammate’ in Vietnam. The organisation curates “international resources and opportunities to inform and empower people with global interests” and “helps you discover worldly things relevant to your personal, professional and academic goals”. It also claims to “broaden horizons, enhance growth and potential, and connects dots among people and places”.

I suggested that he post a 2016 essay of mine entitled “US nationalism – The elephant in the room” on the organisation’s website.

His response was that he couldn’t “because it leans a bit into the wrong thinking of Republicans. As a policy, we avoid overt religion and politics”. In other words, just as “those who do not move, do not notice their chains”, there are apparently limits to the extent to which people should be able to connect the dots.

US Americans who identify as Republicans in general and MAGA (Make America Great Again) supporters in particular do not have a monopoly on nationalism. It is a bipartisan disease, with at least a simple majority of all US Americans afflicted who sincerely believe that their country is “the greatest nation on earth”, a solidly nationalistic perspective.

It was the 2016 Democratic presidential candidate who referred to the US in speeches and print as an “exceptional nation”. Every US political leader, at least at the national level, is obliged to utter this sentiment, whether they believe it or not – or else.

Intersection of religion, politics and IHE

Any avoidance of ‘overt religion and politics’, two of the most powerful forces now and throughout history, is problematic, plays into the hands of the nationalists aka neo-conservatives and many red, white and blue evangelical Christians, who are often one and the same, a toxic marriage of nationalism and fundamentalist Protestantism.

In order to properly deal with the ‘elephant in the room’, you can’t be shy or fearful; you must introduce it in no uncertain terms.

To give you an idea of how much fear surrounds this issue in the US, I co-authored a book chapter about nationalism, patriotism, intercultural competence and global citizenship in a comparative Vietnam-US perspective that was mildly censored because my then employer, whose slogan, ironically, was Opening Minds to the World, was afraid that it might anger certain powerful individuals in the government who controlled the organisation’s purse strings.

Restrictions on freedom of speech, much like psychic chains, ensure that minds remain closed, an obstacle to progress.

Skill set vs mindset

Intercultural competence is generally defined as a skill set not a mindset, meaning it’s entirely possible to be an interculturally competent nationalist who places her or his skills in the service of a government or corporation whose interests are at odds with those of much of humanity and the environment.

There are many US nationalists who are interculturally competent, for example, diplomats, intelligence officers, military officers and business executives.

One former US diplomat involved in academic programmes in the Bush/Cheney State Department when I was country director of the Institute of International Education-Vietnam, told a plenary address at the NAFSA 2003 annual conference in Salt Lake City, months after the invasion and occupation of Iraq, in the spirit of ‘love it or leave it’ that one can no longer claim to “hate this government’s policies but love the country”.

On the other hand, it’s impossible for a global citizen to be a nationalist because of the diametrically opposed mindset. However, one could become a global citizen first, and then gradually add the skill set that is intercultural competence.

Last year, Corina (@cdvaughn16) graphically illustrated this point when she tweeted: “‘Agree to disagree’ is reserved for things like ‘I don’t like coffee’. Not racism, homophobia and sexism. Not human rights. Not basic decency. If I unfriend you during this, it IS personal. We do not have a difference of opinion. We have a difference in morality.”

Nationalists have a markedly different morality than global citizens – with or without national affiliation. Theirs embraces and values one country and its interests to the exclusion and often the detriment of all others.

Some definitions

As I outlined in my 2016 article on US nationalism to which this essay is a long-awaited sequel, it’s necessary to define some of these concepts because there are colleagues, including those with a PhD after their names, who confuse patriotism and nationalism. When people are not on the same semantic page, they run the risk of talking past each other. Hence the importance of precise definitions.

Patriotism is defined simply as “love for or devotion to one’s country”. The uber-patriotism that is nationalism takes it to the next level, defined as loyalty and devotion to a nation; especially a sense of national consciousness exalting one nation above all others and placing primary emphasis on promotion of its culture and interests as opposed to those of other nations or supranational groups. It is the italicised part that distinguishes nationalism from its more compassionate and caring semantic cousin, patriotism.

Implicit in the exaltation of one nation over all others is the belief that ‘others’ wish to be like us and, by extension, the desire to mould them in our image, by force, if need be. This is the essence of missionary nationalism, not just rhetoric but action.

Everyone falls into one of five categories of self-identification: 1) passive nationalist; 2) missionary nationalist; 3) patriot; 4) global citizen with national affiliation; and 5) global citizen without national affiliation. (Full disclosure: I’m in the last category, the result of education, formal and informal, and life experience.)

Intercultural competence is generally defined as a means to an end not necessarily rooted in the values system of global citizenship. Here are a few definitions that mention what’s necessary to have ‘effective and appropriate’ communication and interaction with people of other cultures.

“Intercultural competence is the ability to develop targeted knowledge, skills and attitudes that lead to visible behaviour and communication that are both effective and appropriate in intercultural interactions.” (Dr Darla K Deardorff, 2006)

“Intercultural competence is a range of cognitive, affective and behavioural skills that lead to effective and appropriate communication with people of other cultures.” (Wikipedia)

“Intercultural competence is the ability to function effectively across cultures, to think and act appropriately, and to communicate and work with people from different cultural backgrounds – at home or abroad.” (Monash University)

As George Santayana famously observed: “To me it seems a dreadful indignity to have a soul controlled by geography.” Global citizenship is the notion that one’s identity transcends national borders and that national interests must not supersede global interests, especially if the former are damaging to the latter.

While we all carry a national passport out of necessity, “the world is our country”. We are all citizens of Planet Earth and members of humanity, regardless of our nationality. Our well-being forms an unbreakable bond with that of our fellow human beings and the natural world. It is the ultimate expression of inclusion that has many positive implications for peace, justice, environmental protection and economic sustainability.

The way forward

While nationalism is not new, this dangerous ideology has been in the ascendancy in recent years, supported in word and deed by authoritarian leaders and wannabe dictators, and energised by globalisation that has left certain segments of the population behind. The world, but especially those countries in which nationalism holds sway, such as the US, desperately needs more global citizens – with or without national affiliation.

Those of us who have devoted ourselves personally and professionally to international education have an obligation to address nationalism head on in our discussions, writing, presentations and advocacy. To focus on intercultural competence as a skill set and neglect global citizenship as a mindset is to abdicate this collective responsibility to the detriment of us all.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place, including higher education, if more people took Thomas Paine’s noble sentiment to heart?

This essay first appeared on University World News.

Mark A. Ashwill is an international educator who has lived in Vietnam since 2005. He is an associate member of Veterans for Peace Chapter 160. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam and can be reached at markashwill@hotmail.com.