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Key Questions

Despite the resounding silence that has met this blog, I am still confident that there is something important here. My family just returned from a short trip to Vietnam and Thailand, where we visited two somewhat similar nations in the midst of finding a satisfactory path to development and sound government. Both – given the recent coup in Thailand – are autocratic in some sense, but still attentive to public opinion and public welfare. Despite very different ideological labels, they both face very similar problems in terms of economic competitiveness, living in the shadow of China, rapid population explosion with a large proportion of young people, sectarian strife of various forms, environmental collapse despite relatively rich and fertile land, but with strong economic growth and rising expectations.

So what does this have to do with Expat Nation, you may ask? The connection and interdependence these nations have in a global economy is quite obvious. Vietnam only a few decades ago was perceived as firmly “Communist”. Now, like China, there are few indications that ideology matters at all to governance, although there is scant support for democracy. Finding a satisfactory relationship to global institutions of trade, finance, health oversight, and environmental protection seem to be very much on the minds of government leaders. The question is – where are the global institutions? Behind the curtains, all anyone can find is a bumbling Wizard of Oz.

Which brings me to some of the key premises of Expat Nation. Globalization of the economy has not been followed by globalization of governance. While the UN shows occasional promise as a means to develop such institutional frameworks, it is sadly much too slow and wedded to nationalist interests and constraints. Somehow, before the earth devolves into an overheated planet governed by “cowboy” states like the US, China, and Russia, we need much stronger institutions to serve our needs.

Whose needs? This is where Expat Nation diverges from more conventional Cosmopolitan and Internationalist thought. Realism requires that such institutions emerge from a coherent set of grassroots interests. Who benefits most from strong international institutions? Who is rich enough to have a long-term horizon, with genuine concern for preserving the global environment and commonwealth? Who is engaged in daily interaction with the nationalist interests of countries like Vietnam and Thailand, but dependent on win-win resolutions? Who is developing a new culture of tolerance, secularism, diversity, human rights, and equal opportunity?

Obviously there are many non-expats with these priorities; there are also millions of expats with strong nationalist beliefs and interests. But the underlying conjecture of Expat Nation is that there is a growing cohort of expats and like-minded individuals around the world who would opt-in to a stronger association if one existed. The mission of Expat Nation is to define such an association, to chart a path from here to there.

Along the way, Expat Nation will have to answer several key questions. First, who are we? Who can join; what will membership entail; what obligations and responsibilities will be inherent in participation? In the beginning, a place where flaky idealists and college students debate global governance may be enough. Ultimately, however, power will only accrue if the organization has money, influence, and a track record of progress on the problems of “nter-nation building.” These will require a commitment and responsibility that will rival the identity of nation state citizens. Second, why Expat Nation instead of existing channels for global cooperation and organization? The best way to answer this question will be through the success (or failure) of Expat Nation. Third, how will Expat Nation succeed beyond the gadfly stage, when it becomes the focus of counter-efforts from nationalists, governments, and Realists who don’t believe that any restraints or collaboration among global interests will be helpful in the long run? More important, how will Expat Nation survive subversion and hostile intentions, from well-funded constituencies that benefit from the status quo laissez faire environment?

I certainly do not know the answer to these and further questions. Right now it feels like whistling in the wind. I will be happy if a year from now real people are engaged in meaningful debate about Expat Nation, what it should stand for, and how to build a new identity that is something to be proud of in today’s world.

What Do I Get Out of It?

Every day, the American leadership asks Sunnis and Shiites: isn’t it time to forego your petty loyalties and forge a new and powerful Iraqi nation? The benefits seem clear enough: personal safety and security; the possibility of economic reconstruction; an independent nation without meddling from Iran and Saudi Arabia, much less the US. In many regions of the world, the emergence of nationalism and meaningful governance are one and the same.

Now, step-it-up one level, and ask the same question of Germans, French, and Greeks: Doesn’t it make sense to invest the European Union with more power, not less? The Euro has been a great success; why not ask for the same result in a unified code for legal systems and contracts, the regulation of monopolies like Microsoft, and trade negotiations with China? Does it really make sense to balkanize food and drug regulation, passports and immigration, anti-terrorism police work, or government oversight of financial markets?

Historically, we have seen many nations that were sustainable on a higher level of federation – e.g., the US after the Civil War – and many that were only sustainable on a lower level – e.g., the Czech Republic or Bosnia. There has been a great deal of political science devoted to understanding the difference. At some level, it comes down to millions of people deciding that “they will get more out of it” by affiliating at a higher level.

Globalism is really just the next level of aggregation. It makes sense because globalization is already well underway; what lags is governance. Not UN-style bureaucratic sluggishness, but governance in the same sense that we support national governments for domestic issues. Imagine if political disputes between two [United] States were resolved in the same manner that Britain and Argentina resolved the Falklands dispute. Or, that the FDA was a state-level function, and required drug approval in all 50 states before a drug could come to market. We have no trouble supporting government within a nation that has sufficient coherence, power, and authority to govern effectively. With globalization a fait accompli, we need more than a Wild West form of governance to achieve a civil world.

The question is, what should citizens do? You could send a check to Doctors Without Borders, or UNICEF, or Amnesty International. You could join one of the many interest groups with a global perspective on human rights, the environment, or worker safety. These are all worthwhile causes; eventually the global commons could metamorphose into something more civilized. However, I wouldn’t hold your breath.

Expat Nation is potentially a novel and viral way for non-governmental forms of benign authority to emerge. First and foremost, it is not the UN, which as a descendent of nation-state politics is constrained to a very limited sphere of activity. Expat Nation is based on a different organizing principle: people with common needs and values voluntarily adopting a new, super-national allegiance. It is grassroots and self-selected; you don’t have to be born into it but you do have to choose to “immigrate.” As guests in host countries, expats have a unique position in the commerce of nations – if we don’t add more value than we cost, nations simply boot us out. As itinerant, unrepresented residents in host countries, we need more than our embassies and Chambers of Commerce to lobby for our interests.

What are our interests?

  • No taxation without representation
    • Focus tax revenues from expats on protecting the global commonwealth
  • The free movement of labor and capital, backed by . . .
  • Global institutions of law
    • Adoption of simplified means of conflict resolution that are scaled to the size of the problem, but backed by Expat Nation members
  • Uniform practices and policies to:
    • mitigate exploitation of the unprotected
    • rein in corruption
    • counter terrorism, the drug trade, and multi-national mafias
  • Encourage transparency in governance through the free flow of information
  • Give up anonymity (in tax reporting, [secure] internet usage, and most public roles) in exchange for accountability, security, and the protection of individual human rights
  • Enhance systems of trust and reputation to enable cooperation among unrelated parties
  • Democratic, but constrained by constitutional agreements to maintain a . . .
  • Globalist perspective over nationalist interests

The devil is in the details. As a work in progress, most of the details are still up for discussion. After all, this grassroots movement needs democracy and participation! There is no question that these general principles are rife with potential conflicts and internal inconsistencies. Where does legitimate national interest end and the global commonwealth begin? When is personal privacy protected and where does public accountability become more important? These questions are not easy to resolve with Expat Nation any more than they were without it.

I am optimistic that Expat Nation members can resolve these issues and move forward to establish more powerful and effective means of governance. We have a greater stake in successful globalization than most of our national brethren. Because we will aggregate based on shared interests and values instead of birth location, we can overcome the greatest barriers to collective action.

Equally important, globalism has been around the world of big ideas for quite some time, and it does not have a lot to show for it. We need to reconnoiter, learn from history, and start fresh. Today, I have no trouble identifying dozens of policies that could be adopted by Expat Nation “members” that would directly benefit me. Would others benefit the same way? Would these be enough to push potential members over the tipping point, from pure-nationalists to Expat Nation dual citizens? Without critical mass, Expat Nation will surely die.

Expat Nation is compelling precisely because there is “something in it for you.” It is not purely philanthropic; it is potentially a win-win for expats and host nations. To paraphrase Alfred Sloan (former president of General Motors), “what’s good for expats is good for the world.” Or, a little less arrogantly, expats are uniquely positioned to create and adopt civic governance that will benefit globalization and host countries alike. The challenge ahead is to build “Governance 2.0” from scratch; gathering a critical mass of participants to be powerful, while staying true to the principles that make it effective.

To borrow from Robert Frost:

He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down!”

[from Mending Wall]

Response to Comment

What do I get out of it?

Collin’s comment and question:

What motive or benefit do I have for going “expat” instead of, say American? Does something have to shift in my psyche to adopt the expat stance or can I be both? I often feel more patriotic when abroad, and now you’re suggesting I feel less. Fair enough, but what benefit do I get out of it?

The short answer is: you can be both expat and American, in the same way that you may be a Californian and an American. We all have circles of widening affiliation, from family at the center to nation at the frontier. Globalism is, first, a call to extend your frontier to the global commonwealth. The real question is where you identify yourself: which circles would you die for; which would you go to court in, to settle a dispute; which you are willing to pay taxes; and which are thankfully forgotten. Historically, allegiances along this spectrum have been very dynamic. Expat Nation is, to begin with, a forum to reexamine these priorities and affiliations in the context of globalization.

There are both selfish and magnanimous reasons to cast a new circle, dismantle some old boundaries, and maybe build a few new ones. Since Expat Nation as a blog is dedicated to exploring and debating these issues, I won’t try to list all of the reasons now; instead, consider this prediction on http://www.longbets.org/:

Colin R. Glassey predicts: “By 2100 a world government will be in place and in control of: business law, environmental law, and weapons of mass destruction.

Glassey goes on to explain his prediction as follows:

“Why? The logic seems self-evident to me. All humans face global problems of the greatest importance. Such as: global warming, global pollution of the air and seas, the degradation of the world’s oceans, global corporations which play one country off against another, and global criminal groups that seek to better themselves at the expense of just about everyone else. Global problems can only be solved by global solutions. The way to get global solutions is through a global government. Obviously many powerful entities exist which will try to prevent this from occurring. I predict that the United States will be one of the last hold-outs to a global government, even though the U.S. is well on its way to becoming the “de facto” world government as of 2002. Still, I’m hopeful. The same sort of logic that propelled the 13 colonies to join together in a Federal system of government back in 1789 is at play today, but on a worldwide scale. What it will take is a recognition of problems as being larger than any one country, and recognition of all human’s common bond with each other. Intellectually I would like to acknowledge my debts to: Robert Wright, Kim Stanly Robinson, E. O. Wilson, and David Brin. One-worlders unite!”

The interesting thing about this prediction is that nearly 2/3 of readers predict he is wrong. And while I understand their skepticism, I don’t think they considered all the possible pathways to the realization of such globalist institutions. Federalism from nation states acting collectively is only one path, and a very difficult one indeed. The fundamental premise of Expat Nation is that there are other paths that are grassroots in origin, voluntary in participation, and viral in propagation that will result in Glassey’s prediction coming true.

An Imagined Community?

In Steven Spielberg’s movie Munich, there is a scene where Avner, the Mossad agent and Ali, a Palestinian terrorist, discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in surprisingly candid and personal terms. Avner asks [and I paraphrase]: “Are the olive trees and the parched land really worth anything, after generations of wandering? You Palestinians can go anywhere. . .” Ali replies: “We can wait 100 years if we need to, but we will always come back. . .”

Palestine is the cultural opposite of Expat Nation – a place to call home for an ethnically and politically homogeneous nation. Even with all the mythmaking about the ties to land, this vision of nationalism rings hollow to me. In fact, I think it rings hollow for most people, diasporas and nationals alike.

The sense of belonging somewhere called home is based on much more than olive trees or the rich smell of earth. America is testimony to the rapid sense of belonging that emerges after less than a generation. The ebbs and flows of population today are driven by opportunity more than philosophy or ethnic affinity. Even within nations or the EU, people move for jobs and a comfortable lifestyle with newfound colleagues, friends and neighbors.

The ties that form at each stage of life are much more powerful than the ties of nation or tradition. Clearly family ties are in a class all alone, for most of us. When we look to do business or rely on someone who needs to be totally trustworthy, we start with family. The next round of community can form in a second grade class, a baseball team, a college dorm, or with new parents at a birthing class. These ties are personal; we form them for many reasons and some of them last a lifetime.

The next round is the one that concerns loyalties and ties to people we don’t know – Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities. As Anderson describes, these ties are based on a shared experience of culture, usually transmitted by books and newspapers in the last few centuries, and now movies, music, and the internet. Spielberg’s Munich has replaced the local gazette.

It is in this realm that our national loyalties are shaped and bounded. Anderson is very convincing about the role of the popular press in building the national consciousness. Historically, this phenomenon is quite new. Only since widespread literacy has the press been able to influence the majority of people. Nationalism, independent of ethno-centrism and tribalism at various levels, is only several hundred years old. And in that short time we have had how many wars to codify the division of land and hegemony among nation states?

Regardless, the battles for “Imagined Community” loyalty are the defining conflicts of our era. Whether it be Islamic Jihad vs. Western pluralism, Red vs. Blue states in the US, urban capitalist vs. rural farmer in China, these factions or affinities are the basis for identity and community. What is new is the extent to which these loyalties are selected by choice instead of birth. For an increasingly large group, we choose our affiliations. For Expat Nation, we have chosen to subordinate nationalist identity and community to something else; today that “something” is not well defined.

For most, it seems, our only common bond is “we can never go home again.” This alienation from homeland varies, but everyone sees his or her homeland differently after a long period overseas. Since my expatriation has roughly coincided with the post 9/11 era, I have witnessed a steady decline in the status of the US in the world, and a steady rise in many other countries’ reputation and power. Certainly the US’ self-imposed isolation and decline through two wars and the “War on Terrorism” have contributed to my alienation. But it has not been matched by a newfound loyalty to anywhere else. If anything, proximity to China has made me more jaded to all the machinations of government.

I think that expats from many nations, and many Chinese who have lived overseas, share my alienation. But this is only one dimension of our affinity. The effect of globalization on this stratum of the population has been to forge a community with much more in common than shared sources of news and information. And, if shared perceptions of the world are enough to forge nationalism, then we certainly have enough to begin the discussion about more collaboration.

Extrapolating Switzerland

If you have made it this far, you are probably wondering what hare-brained idea is behind this notion of “expats uniting.” After all, expats are a pretty fractious group, on the face of it. Maybe we can share a beer in Sanlitun, admire the locals, or show up for a World Cup broadcast, but that about sums up our “ties that bind.”

So, consider Exhibit One: Switzerland.

Culturally and linguistically, Switzerland should have been carved up into three provinces of France, Germany, and Italy. It is difficult logistically to cross from one section to another, more so than simply crossing the border for trade or commerce. And yet, somehow, this nation emerged centuries ago, forming an internal alliance with a strong military, an independent polity, a currency that has survived the Euro, and a unique economic niche that has thrived despite limited natural resources and no ocean ports.

What, historically, drove this unlikely union? Benedict Anderson (Imagined Communities; Verso, 1991) explains the anomalous nationalism of Switzerland in classic neo-liberal terms: the disparate cantons [Swiss towns or municipalities] found more independence in a loose affiliation within Switzerland than they could have had under their neighbors’ rule. And luckily, their neighbors saw them as ornery rubes and poor people — nobody and no resources worth fighting for. At least partially, Switzerland was an accident of history. But today, it seems more like a model for the European Union – rich, united, non-interventionist, multi-cultural, and a valuable service-provider to the nation states around the world.

Expats today are a lot like the Swiss, although sometime in the distant past. They are living in a remote canton, with limited representation or advocacy from their homeland nations. And, quite frankly, they prefer it that way – globalization rewards the unfettered pursuit of capitalism and trade. We are guests in the other nations of the world, the same way the Swiss have emerged as a desired trading partner without any history of colonialism or coercive policy. And gradually, we start to look and act more and more like each other; we may still speak German, French, or Italian, but our loyalties are elsewhere.

Ultimately, the reasons the Swiss united will have little resemblance to today’s expats; the analogy can only go so far because today’s globalization is fundamentally different from medieval Europe. But it probably began in simple ways — local habits for commerce and payments, resolving disputes, funding schools, and dealing with ethnic or religious conflict.

Which is beginning to look a lot like today’s expat world. We need health care, education for our kids, banking services, legal frameworks for contract enforcement, and advocacy in dealing with our host countries on scores of issues, to name just a few. Who is really taking care of these problems? More generally, expats see first hand the consequences of environmental degradation, lowest-common-denominator labor protections, and nationalist diversions from important policies like the Kyoto accords. Do you really think that Washington [or Moscow or Seoul or wherever. . .] is representing your interests?

The defining moment for me, as an American, came last year when “Dubya” came to visit Beijing. Huge issues demanded attention, from intellectual property to trade policy to currency valuation. W made no progress on any of these, however he did find time to visit a church and make a long-winded speech about freedom of religion in China. And for this, I get to pay hundreds of thousands in taxes . . .

Obviously I am not ready to renounce my US citizenship, however I do want better services and representation. My needs are similar to many other expats in China – it would be nice to have an international Chamber of Commerce, a Chinese-recognized contract arbitration system, an easy-to-get international driver’s license, a consumer-oriented oversight body for schools, hospitals, and insurance. . . These simple things are what is needed today.

Tomorrow, who knows?

Expat Nation – The Blog

If you are already an expat, you know what it feels like to be on the front lines of the globalization transformation. Even if you have managed to live your entire life without leaving your homeland, you might have noticed that things are different – there are a lot more “foreigners”? around, for one. Different languages spoken on the street, different groceries available at the corner market, different ways to offend people with comics, or spitting, or asking for the check…There is something major going on in every city of the world – but what, exactly, is it?

Globalization in the West usually refers to textile workers losing their jobs because everyone is shopping at Walmart. In the developing world it means CNN on TV and schoolkids dressed like gangbangers from LA. In fact, it is a transformation that is re-defining economics, culture, education, and politics everywhere in the world. And for those of us who are choosing to live, work, and travel further from our homeland, globalization means we are the bleeding edge.

Expat Nation is the site to explore what this trend is all about. City Weekend – the leading magazine and web-site for expats in China – is sponsoring this blog to raise everyone’s awareness. But Expat Nation is intended to go one step further than the political scientists and pundits who are heralding a new era: Expat Nation is a forum to discuss where these trends could and should go. The days of “…it happens”? are over; it is time to be more than a passenger to destinations unknown. Expats, because of their unique role as ambassadors and avatars in this brave new world, can make a difference.

Expat Nation marks the end of an era, when we identified ourselves as Koreans or Germans or Aussies. As time goes on, expats are developing a new identity, complete with multiple languages, a new culture, and inter-marriage across all ethnic barriers. This millennium will see the emergence of expats – and their sympathizers around the world! – as a new identity. It is time to consciously shape that identity into something we – and the rest of the world – can be proud of.

Expats of the World Unite!

Or, at least: discuss, debate, align, identify, and coalesce into more than the sum of ourselves. We hope you will join us. – JAS, Shifu