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Reconciling an Ethical Immigration Policy with the Nation-state Myth

What is the right moral system to inform policies?

By Devin T. Stewart | January 20, 2010

Origins of "The Right to Move" Conference

The idea of this conference at Sophia University, Tokyo, was the product of several hours of James Farrer and me brainstorming over several pots of coffee at his lovely home in Tokyo. To christen a new partnership between Sophia University and the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs, we wanted to address a significant moral issue of our time. Tokyo is an incredibly cosmopolitan city (it just surpassed Paris in terms of Michelin stars) and we both had a cosmopolitan inclination we hoped to advance—partly because of our connections with Tokyo. Japan, a trailblazer of the global migration debate—could it happen?

The idea's intellectual basis came from a simple acknowledgment that people for thousands of years have moved to improve their welfare and realize their potential. Moreover, don't we, as collective owners and stewards of the Earth, have a basic right to move? Indeed, the right to move is necessary to realize basic human rights such as the right to life, food, and work.

It also came from a reoccurring question I have heard in my research over the years. When I propose that Japan become a moral leader in the world, I am often asked, "OK, but what about Japan's migration policies? If Japan is to be a moral leader it needs to reexamine these policies." Somewhat humorously but not to my surprise, when I later told experts that we were holding a conference in Tokyo on the ethics of migration, I was met with, "Are you crazy?" One of my mentors in Japan studies warned me such an endeavor would make the organizers persona non grata.

But on August 30, 2009, events intervened. Despite the Japanese public's low expectations, they removed the long-governing LDP, giving the country the chance to look anew at its assumptions. As one executive told me, the Japanese can finally ask themselves What do we want? Prime Minister Hatoyama has moved quickly to challenge publicly some of his country's basic assumptions, and in November he said of the "sensitive" immigration issue, "I think Japan should also make itself a country attractive to people so that more and more people, including tourists, hope to visit Japan, hope to live and work in Japan." With this fresh thinking, Japan can realize its dream of serving as a "bridge" between civilizations and promoting an ethic of fraternity, as Hatoyama has proposed.

In line with that spirit, this conference can serve to challenge some of the basic notions of what is possible at a time when transnational issues such as migration and climate change make such a rethink more urgent than ever. Migration has been a sensitive issue in Japan but that does not need to be the case. On the contrary, Japan can help break barriers about identity and humanism in Asia. I don't agree with Kishore Mahbubani's persistent thesis that Asian prosperity will augur a "retreat of the West." His argument is too binary. Instead, I predict that the rise of Asia will foster a pluralistic convergence of ideas and ethics. In fact, the time I spent in Japan gave me the inspiration to develop an argument, which I published in 2008 and will present today.

The Myth of the Nation-State

Movement has been a consistent theme in human development. The first hominids appeared about 2.5 million years ago. While the first homo sapiens appeared about 195,000 years ago, settlements did not appear until just 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent with the advent of farming, bread, and beer—urban life began a few thousand years later. Most agree that the nation-state emerged in Europe in the 1800s, about one hundred years before the Treaty of Rome established the European Economic Community in 1957 and set the stage for the European Union, a post-national body that coordinates labor, fiscal, monetary, and migration policies. Relative to the span of 200,000 years of human history, an entity that only recently got a footing for one hundred years in nationalistic Europe before being usurped seems like a flash in the pan.

Given this perspective, what is the right moral system on which to base migration policy?

As a student of international relations, I was taught that the fundamental actor and moral agent in international affairs is the nation-state. In the parlance of Realism, the nation-state is the "billiard ball" of international affairs, knocking against other nation-states on a global pool table. Some balls were bigger, some smaller, but what was inside the balls was irrelevant. In recent decades, the emergence of new agents in international affairs has challenged this premise—global NGO networks, multinational corporations with incomes larger than governments, and "super-empowered" individuals such as terrorists. Despite the utility of the state as an organizing tool, the need for a more universal approach to problems is amplified by the global nature of contemporary threats: financial crisis, nuclear proliferation, and climate change.

In addition to these practical concerns, there is a moral problem with the nation-state. Since its origin, it has been a myth used for a variety of ends. The nation-state conflates two ideas, one that is concrete, the state, and one that is fuzzy, the nation. But it is difficult to imagine a nation that is confined to one state or a state that contains one nation. Some argue that Japan is an example of a nation-state. In countless heated discussions, I have reminded friends that the Japanese people actually comprise Ainu, Koreans, Chinese, Filipinos, Ryuku, and others. Their response is always: "Yes, but we want to believe that there is a Japanese people."

Like religion, the nation-state myth requires a leap of faith. Japanese scholar Yoshihisa Hagiwara argues that since it is not grounded in fact, the nation-state myth is bound to dissolve, giving way to an understanding that we are merely individuals who are part of a global community. He laments that the Japanese are especially fond of the idea of "Japaneseness," making it possible that Japan may become the "last hero" of a dying ethos. There is even a field, Nihonjinron, devoted to studying what it means to be Japanese.

The origin of the nation-state idea is unclear. Most agree that it offered a way to consolidate and legitimize a state's rule over a group of people, whether defined by a common language, culture, or ethnicity. The problem is that the contours of a cultural community rarely coincide with a political entity. Nor does the ideal of national unity account for internal diversity and conflict.

Moreover identity is mutable, while nationality is arbitrary. In conversations I have had in Europe, a person might identify as European, French, Frank, Breton, or Gaul depending on the context. To be sure, an individual may connect with these "imagined communities" as part of a multilayered, complex identity, but their impermanence suggests a weak foundation for moral reasoning. I can be an American and of European descent just as I can be an investor and an employee of a single company. But given the expansiveness and unity of the human family tree, instead of latching onto what one imagines, why not start with the logically robust statement, "I am a human with obligations to others." In any case, the nation-state in which one is born is the result of randomness.

The record of the nation-state is mixed at best. As Canadian politician and philosopher Michael Ignatieff has noted, "idolatry" of the nation-state can cause individuals "to forget the higher law commanding them to disobey unjust orders," which can lead to catastrophes such as Nazi and Stalinist oppression. "It is the individualism of human rights that makes it a valuable bulwark against even the well-intentioned tyranny of linguistic or national groups," he concludes.

The nation-state in its current form is not necessarily a permanent fixture in the international system. Some European states that we think of as ancient or old, such as Italy or Germany, only unified in the 1800s and have existed in their current incarnation for less than 100 years. And they are already giving up power to a supranational authority, something that would have been considered a pipe dream just decades ago. This is not to say that everyone will become "citizens of the world" tomorrow, nor is it a case for complete open borders.

The nation-state is useful in that it can organize people, direct resources, and most importantly activate civic pride toward widening the concentric circles of moral obligation. Philosopher Anthony Appiah in his book Cosmopolitanism has argued convincingly for "rooted cosmopolitans" who love their own community and in doing so understand the love others feel for their own communities. As Carnegie Council President Joel Rosenthal writes, "The great paradox of patriotic sentiment, it seems to me, is that it is so personal and particular and also so common and universal. It seems to me quite possible to find one's way to an embrace of all humanity through one's love of his or her homeland. After all, the most common experiences we have are our attachments to family, to friends, to place, to region and to country. By committing to our own, we can recognize and appreciate the similar commitments of others."

Climate Change as an Aggravating Factor

Not only does industrialization, still powered mostly by fossil fuels, remain antithetical to climate change mitigation, the impacts of these two processes are paradoxical. The central moral problem surrounding climate change is that the countries least responsible for the problem will suffer the greatest. According to the United Nations Environment Program, as many as 250 million Africans will face water shortages as a consequence of climate change. The African Union convened ten member states in November 2009 to issue a revised demand for compensation at the Copenhagen climate conference. The previous compensation demanded by these countries stood at $67 billion by 2020. Although poor countries have pleaded for rich countries to curb their emissions, little progress has been made.

Despite the Kyoto Protocol, emissions actually rose by 29 percent between 2000 and 2008; they even rose during 2008 despite the economic crisis, though the recession caused a decline in 2009. No new binding agreement emerged at Copenhagen and instead a political agreement with funding for developing countries may take another year to finalize.

The nonetheless ambitious goal of the Copenhagen Accord has been to stabilize the concentration of greenhouse gases and limit the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. Yet Australian scientist Graeme Pearman has predicted that a 2 degree Celsius rise in temperature would put 100 million people at risk from coastal flooding by 2100. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the consensus voice on the topic, predicts 150 million environmental refugees by 2050. Already, as many as 300,000 deaths per year are attributed to climate change, according to Global Humanitarian Forum. At the world food summit in Rome last year, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon linked hunger with climate change, saying "There cannot be food security without climate security." NGOs such as Christian Aid have estimated that as many as 1 billion people will lose their homes by 2050 as a result of climate change.

Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell, who sees climate change perhaps becoming the "single greatest risk to our national security," in a recent book has outlined a severe scenario of a rise in global temperature by 2.6 degrees Celsius by 2040. In this scenario, his analysis foresees: pandemic disease, loss of cohesion among nations, flooding of coastal communities, armed conflict over water resources, and possibly even nuclear war. But many scientists believe a 4 to 5 degree Celsius increase is likely by the end of the century. So for the "catastrophic scenario" of a 5.6 degree Celsius rise in temperatures, hundreds of millions of refugees would flee seeking water, a planet in which "sheer survival is the only goal."

Where will these "environmentally induced refugees" or "climate refugees" go? What will their status be in their new home countries? How will the international system prepare? Will they be recognized as refugees under the Geneva Convention? Last year, experts from the UN University Institute for Environment and Human Security and others established the Climate Change, Environment and Migration Alliance to "mainstream" the concern of environmental migration. Meanwhile, the UK NGO Environmental Justice Foundation has been campaigning for a legally binding agreement, for example as part of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), to identify, protect, resettle, and integrate climate refugees.

Updating Our Moral Framework

The Kyoto Protocol has established an ethical framework for climate change that may be applied more broadly. It advocates global cooperation, common but differentiated responsibilities, and states' obligations. Philosopher Darrel Moellendorf in the fall 2009 issue of Ethics & International Affairs included among the UNFCCC norms equity, differentiated responsibilities and capabilities, and the right to development.

Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed at the Climate Vulnerable Forum in November said of climate change negotiations: "At the moment every country arrives at the negotiations seeking to keep their own emissions as high as possible. They never make commitments, unless someone else does first. This is the logic of the madhouse, a recipe for collective suicide. We don't want a global suicide pact. And we will not sign a global suicide pact, in Copenhagen or anywhere."

A central element of any ethic for global problems must come to grips with a tension between the nature of the world's problems (transnational) and the organization of people and governments (national). As President Nasheed suggests, carbon dioxide knows no boundaries and therefore necessitates global cooperation. I have updated the Cold War concept of mutual assured destruction (MAD) to describe the present state in which we find ourselves. In the past, the idea was that threat of massive retaliation would deter attack and therefore keep the peace. Similarly, the current international system faces noncooperation as the new MAD. The imperative of the global commons is such that if we fail to cooperate, our destruction is mutually assured. While peace had been found through deterrence and nonaggression, now it will only be achieved through cooperation and action.

Beyond cooperation, there is a question of liability. Who owes whom what? Philosopher David Rodin recently gave a talk at Carnegie Council on "How Rights Move," which provided a robust framework to help elaborate our "Right to Move" today. Rodin starts by arguing that negative rights, such as the right to not be killed, harmed, or tortured, establish the moral minimums for a civilized society. But these rights are contingent on reciprocity and some of them can be forfeited. Rights imply obligations. In other words rights are conditional; he argues in another context that some prohibitions, such as the prohibition on torture, are absolute. Rodin attempts to measure the proportionality of appropriate defensive harm to threatened harm between the aggressor and defender by taking into account several factors, such as the magnitude, probability, and proximity of the threatened harm and defensive harm, the responsibility for the harm, the intention of the aggressor and defender, and the aggressor's and defender's duty of care for the victim. Whether the harm was inflicted by doing or allowing (commission or omission) must be taken into account as well.

Applying Rodin's framework to the climate change debate produces a strong case for developing countries' claims against developed countries. Climate change is a responsibility of commission and ignorance faded as a defense several decades ago. Individuals in developed societies can become collectively liable to pay compensation to those harmed or, alternatively, they can allow more victims to migrate. While emissions from the United States may not represent intended harm, the harms from emissions have been foreseeable for some time now and the magnitude is great—that of the very destruction of some countries. American citizens may have contributed a small amount as individuals but as a country they have contributed the most in greenhouse gases. Moreover, I would argue U.S. emissions are the result of a democratically informed policy environment, which benefits Americans.

I would like to conclude by returning to Prime Minister Hatoyama's ideal of fraternity—another way of saying we have obligations to others. Hatoyama's grandfather Ichiro is said to have stumbled upon the idea in a book he discovered while pining in isolation, forced out of politics by the U.S. occupation forces in the early 1950s. The book was Richard Coudenhove-Kalergi's Totalitarian State against Man (1935). Coudenhove, the originator of pan-Europe and product of one of Japan's first recognized international marriages, argued that fraternity was the key to building a peaceful society and to striking a balance between freedom and equality. He explains in his book: "Freedom without fraternity leads to anarchy. Equality without fraternity leads to tyranny." Ichiro Hatoyama in 1953 began promoting this idea to post-war Japan, a nation in which bureaucratic politics tightened its grip and Marxism, by contrast, was growing increasingly popular. He believed fraternity could inspire a Japanese society in disarray.

Perhaps not by coincidence, the UN Global Compact recently issued a call for a "global economic ethic" in response to the financial crisis. At the New York launch of this idea, the speakers, including American economist Jeffrey Sachs and Swiss theologian Hans Kung, argued that while freedom and equality have had appeal as domestic goals for national governments, the time has come for the more difficult and grown-up ideal of fraternity. If we are to solve the world's problems, they said, states need to adopt a sense of shared responsibility.

As Jeffrey Sachs anticipated in a 2007 article titled "Climate Change Refugees" in Scientific American: "Until now, the climate debate has focused on the basic science and the costs and benefits of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That stage is now ending, with a resounding consensus on the risk of climate change and the need for action. Attention will now increasingly turn to the urgent challenge of adapting to the changes and helping those who are most affected." The most immediate task will be in establishing domestic and international legal frameworks that will compensate climate refugees, realize our obligations, and protect the right to move.

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Read More: Culture, Democracy, Environment, Ethics, Globalization, Human Rights, Migration, Security, France, Japan, United States, Americas, Asia, Europe, Global

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