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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.

7 Comments

  1. John says:

    [this is from an email from David S.]

    1. VN is not, in any way, suffering from sectarian strife.

    2. Neither would I say that either Thailand or VN is on the verge of
    environmental collapse. Their behavior is affecting the larger global
    environment, but there’s nothing going on in VN right now that will
    powerfully affect the way people live. In comparison to China, where
    the desert is rapidly expanding and the water crisis in the north is
    so severe the PRC is considering adjusting the trajectory of an entire
    river, Vietnam is doing just fine.

    3. Even if you disagree with the last two corrections, the point is
    subjective rather than objective. I assume that you’re arguing that
    that in a perfect Expat Nation global utopia there are no states or
    nations. There are only individuals acting in their own best interest
    unless those interests infringe on the rights of another individual.
    The way your argument is structured, however, it would seem as if
    you’re saying that it is in the best interest of VN and TL to agree to
    the standards of the expat nation. But giving up to those standards
    means eventually sacrificing their national identity and values (I’m
    comfortably assuming this based on our past conversation, by the pool,
    regarding nationalism and the expansion of the global economy).
    Eliminating the rights of the VN or TL people, or their cultural
    representatives, to decide their own destiny is not in the interest of
    the VN or TL people. It may be in the interest of all individuals
    around the world, but in that case you should present your argument
    that way.

    4. Unrelated to the previous three points, I think you should take a
    poll. I’ve never met any of these open minded, utopian expats. I only
    know the ones who want to make a lot of money in a country that has a
    low cost of living OR get a hot asian girlfriend OR both. I can think
    of a lot of major companies who’d be interested in having a state who
    would work in their interest, flexing its muscle to make sure they get
    the best possible deal in every international negotiation. I can also
    tell you that they wouldn’t be very interested in making sure that
    everyone is getting a bigger piece of the pie. They definitely
    wouldn’t be interested in higher wages, shorter hours, improved
    working conditions or health benefits. You know how I know this?
    Because these corporations already have governments that work in their
    interests: The USA, the Commonwealth of Australia and the EU. These
    three states CLAIM that human rights and diginity are of paramount
    importance to their societies, CLAIM to work in the best interests of
    all human beings rather than only their own citizens and CLAIM to be
    the paramounts of free and moral civilization in the history of the
    planet. They’re also places that are made up of people from nations
    and cultures from all over the world and DO, in fact, have a very
    flexible notion of nationality and identity in comparison to their
    contemporaries. Furthermore, all these governments “serve” large
    populations of people who actively debate, protest, vote against and
    occasionally attack advocates of the negative forces of nationalism
    and corporate greed. People, in fact, much like the ones I imagine you
    would hope to recruit for your Expat Nation. Yet all these places are
    letting you down so much so that you feel like you have to start your
    own country. But in the end, what would be the difference between your
    country and the US, Australia and the EU. How would Expat Nation
    succeed in counteracting the forces of financial power and human
    self-interest in a way that these more established nations have not?
    If you ask me, it wouldn’t.

    5. Don’t expect this kind of response on a regular basis. It’s a very
    lazy sunday over here.

  2. John says:

    [My response to David S., his original in brackets:]
    [1. VN is not, in any way, suffering from sectarian strife.]

    I suppose that is true, however I thought there were still tribal groups that were not well integrated or not supportive of Vietnamese government control (Hmong? Khmer?). TL is clearly in the midst of much more severe strife and more typical of the world today.

    [2. Neither would I say that either Thailand or VN is on the verge of
    environmental collapse. Their behavior is affecting the larger global
    environment, but there's nothing going on in VN right now that will
    powerfully affect the way people live. In comparison to China, where
    the desert is rapidly expanding and the water crisis in the north is
    so severe the PRC is considering adjusting the trajectory of an entire
    river, Vietnam is doing just fine. ]

    Yes, Vietnam and Thailand are better off than China, but both suffer from deforestation and the decline of animal habitats, and garbage in the ocean of various forms. Fisheries are also in decline. Hopefully, China is not the standard for sustainability! ;-)

    [3. Even if you disagree with the last two corrections, the point is
    subjective rather than objective. I assume that you're arguing that
    that in a perfect Expat Nation global utopia there are no states or
    nations. ]

    Hardly — I am not a Utopian in any internationalist or other sense.

    [There are only individuals acting in their own best interest
    unless those interests infringe on the rights of another individual.
    The way your argument is structured, however, it would seem as if
    you're saying that it is in the best interest of VN and TL to agree to
    the standards of the expat nation. But giving up to those standards
    means eventually sacrificing their national identity and values (I'm
    comfortably assuming this based on our past conversation, by the pool,
    regarding nationalism and the expansion of the global economy).
    Eliminating the rights of the VN or TL people, or their cultural
    representatives, to decide their own destiny is not in the interest of
    the VN or TL people. It may be in the interest of all individuals
    around the world, but in that case you should present your argument
    that way.]

    I don’t think this is what I am arguing. I am suggesting that having stronger institutions overseeing the global economy (e.g. consumer protection, environmental protection, labor practices/laws, contract enforcement and dispute resolution, trade agreements, intellectual property agreements, work permits and expat personal and corporate taxation, etc.) is in the interests of both expats and VN/TL people. I don’t see how acquiescing or complying with such agreements is a reduction in national identity, any more than complying with the FDA is a loss of identity for Californians, or putting faith in the WHO to control SARS is a loss of control or identity for the VN/TL population. My point is that global problems demand global cooperation/governance in some form.

    [4. Unrelated to the previous three points, I think you should take a
    poll. I've never met any of these open minded, utopian expats. I only
    know the ones who want to make a lot of money in a country that has a
    low cost of living OR get a hot asian girlfriend OR both. I can think
    of a lot of major companies who'd be interested in having a state who
    would work in their interest, flexing its muscle to make sure they get
    the best possible deal in every international negotiation. I can also
    tell you that they wouldn't be very interested in making sure that
    everyone is getting a bigger piece of the pie. They definitely
    wouldn't be interested in higher wages, shorter hours, improved
    working conditions or health benefits. You know how I know this?
    Because these corporations already have governments that work in their
    interests: The USA, the Commonwealth of Australia and the EU. These
    three states CLAIM that human rights and diginity are of paramount
    importance to their societies, CLAIM to work in the best interests of
    all human beings rather than only their own citizens and CLAIM to be
    the paramounts of free and moral civilization in the history of the
    planet. They're also places that are made up of people from nations
    and cultures from all over the world and DO, in fact, have a very
    flexible notion of nationality and identity in comparison to their
    contemporaries. Furthermore, all these governments "serve" large
    populations of people who actively debate, protest, vote against and
    occasionally attack advocates of the negative forces of nationalism
    and corporate greed. People, in fact, much like the ones I imagine you
    would hope to recruit for your Expat Nation. Yet all these places are
    letting you down so much so that you feel like you have to start your
    own country. But in the end, what would be the difference between your
    country and the US, Australia and the EU. How would Expat Nation
    succeed in counteracting the forces of financial power and human
    self-interest in a way that these more established nations have not?
    If you ask me, it wouldn't.]

    Good question; I alluded to that point in the “key question” re why bother since existing institutions may suffice…

    The short answer is that these nations are not primarily representing global interests, for obvious reasons, even if many of their constituents would benefit from stronger global institutions in a similar manner to most VN/TL natives. I will just give one typical example: Nike shoes. In the absence of any global standards for labor, Nike is expected by shareholders to shop around for the lowest cost suppliers. At some point, customers are sufficiently embarrassed by news reports to threaten a boycott, so Nike may take superficial measures to show some level of corporate conscience. But ultimately, if their competition can beat them by going to a cheaper place and exploiting child labor, Nike is constrained from more effective measures. Expat Nation (or the UN or a consortium of multi-national corporations, or chambers of commerce, or any number of NGOs in this area…) could promulgate a more interventionist system of global oversight. They could do the work that needs to be done in terms of cost-benefit analysis; economic analysis of how different policies would change the competitiveness of various locales; identify a hierarchy of interventions from minimal to more involved; determine what kind of enforcement system, market system (analogous to carbon trading), or bully-pulpit and customer awareness will provide sufficient motivation for all shoe manufacturers to participate in and uphold a uniform system of standards. Clearly Nike looks good if they lead such an effort; they also do not lose much in the competition for low-cost shoe production if everyone abides by the same rules. Some countries that compete primarily by exploiting their domestic labor will lose, but even these countries’ people are objectively better off for such regulation.

    So, given such win-win potential for better global governance, why isn’t it happening? This is not something I can answer here, but it has a lot to do with inadequate infrastructure for global institutions of governance. Expat Nation is one possible approach to this problem…

  3. John says:

    [further reply from David S.]

    Here are a few concessions and a rebuttal.

    You’re right about the limited rights of minority peoples in VN.
    Certainly the Khmere have suffered for generations. I still wouldn’t
    call it sectarian strife. Maybe racism and apartheid. I don’t know
    about the Hmong but I’d guess they’re getting screwed too.

    You’re also right that VN is doing stupid and degrading stuff to its
    environment but, again, “environmental collapse” is an awfully strong
    term to use. China isn’t the standard for sustainability, it’s the
    standard for environmental collapse. VN or TL are not as far along as
    the PRC so they’re not in a state of near collapse. Maybe “rapid
    environmental degradation” would be better.

    Regarding global identities and their negative effect on national
    identity I have to point out that your example is flawed. In fact the
    FDA (as one amongst countless federal institutions that intervene in
    State affairs) has had a detrimental impact on Californian identity.
    Certainly up until the civil war and perhaps after, Amerians were apt
    to put the rights and liberties of their State before that of the USA.
    In fact, it was common for Rhode Islanders or Virginians to refer to
    their State as their nation (FN1). We don’t do this anymore
    specifically because of the pervasiveness of the federal government
    into our daily lives, more so than that of the individual State’s.
    Once extremely important foundations of States’ rights, (ie the
    electoral college, the national guard system and education standards)
    are now either heavily subject to the whims of the federal government
    OR viewed as quaint provincial relics of a forgotten era. I’m not
    protesting this dissolution (I’d be more than happy to see the
    electoral college eliminated), I’m just saying that you can’t argue
    that strong federal institutions in the US haven’t had a negative
    impact on the rights and cultures of the individual States.

    In America we have reached the historical point where someone would be
    laughed at for identifying, first and foremost, as a Californian or a
    Montanan. Hawaiians can’t even call themselves Hawaiian unless it
    refers to their ethnic origin and Texans, I’d guess the people in
    America who most strongly identify with their state, are thought of as
    rather silly by the rest of the country (FN2). I can easily see the
    same thing happening in Europe if the EU manages to consolidate and
    secure its role as the primary author of European policy. It may be
    unthinkable to imagine a time when it would seem old fashioned to
    identify as French or German but think again. It’s well within the
    realm of possiblity. AND the same thing would happen to Vietnam and
    Thailand and everywhere else that adjusted to the standards of the
    Expat Nation. Not right away certainly, but that’s the general
    direciton. I believe people and governments are sensitive to that
    shift and the result is anti-global nationalism.

    I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with dissolving nations. I’m
    just saying that the system you’re advocating is strongly anti-nation
    and works first and foremost against the rights of individual states.
    You should admit that and move on. You’re basically saying “you can’t
    do this yourself so let us do it for you” and you’re probably right.
    But why would a country agree to that kind of intervention? And don’t
    tell me about cost-benefit analyses. Time and time again, we have seen
    countries take actions that go completely against their national
    interst (ie Present day Iran, North Korea, Cuba for almost fifty
    years, and the US in the early 19th century). The UN and the
    interventionist policies of the US, Europe and Australia have been
    trying to implement policies like the ones you’re advocating for
    decades. What is the WTO or the IMF if not an international body that
    tries to bring developing nations up to a developed standard for the
    benefit of all? Their inability to foment any kind real change, I
    would argue, is due in large part to (1) self-interest in the
    developed world and (2) the distaste of developing nations for foreign
    intervention. So, again, what would Expat Nation do differently?

    How do you like dem apples?
    -d

    Footnotes
    1: I should point out that there is a distinction between a state
    (lower-case s), a State (capital S) and a nation. A State is one of
    the 50 members of the USA. A state is an organized political entity
    united under one government and a nation is an aggregate of people
    united by a common history, culture or language. I live in New York
    State, I’m not a citizen of the state of Israel but I am a member of
    the Jewish nation.

    2: I’d argue that the economic independence of Texas, thanks to its
    oil-rich economy, is a large part of their unusually strong sense of
    state identity. In general, oil-rich economies tend to get away with a
    lot more than most normal, economically inter-dependant countries.
    Take for example Russia, Venezuela and most of the middle-east.

  4. Russell says:

    In the example of Californians under the FDA not giving up their
    identity, what about their sovreignty? That is, with these stronger
    global institutions, I assume you mean stronger in the sense that they
    are more able to force nations to comply with their rules? Or do I
    misinterpret that? If the FDA says “use this new expensive packaging”
    the californians have to do that. We assume that the FDA is telling
    them to use the new expensive option for some good reason, but suppose
    the Californians think this reason is stupid, or otherwise misguided
    and don’t want to. They can’t decide not to for themselves and remain
    in the good graces of this larger governing body.

    With the emergence of some sort of global governance, doesn’t that
    mean that nations and possibly individuals must relinquish some degree
    of their own power to this higher body?

    What are the compelling reasons for nations or whoever to respect this
    organization, when presumably, while often in their interest to do so,
    it won’t always be?

  5. John says:

    Russell–

    Agreed; opting for a higher level of international federalism implies a lessening of national control and sovereignty. The upside is the benefits of stronger community and governance internationally. This translates into greater adherence to international rules and norms of behavior. Certainly for expats, there is little doubt that stronger and more uniform laws, rules, regulatory oversight, and practices are worth the nominal loss of “independence.

  6. Kris McCombe Winfield Baker says:

    A gallon of $4 gasoline to the fire.*

    Only two questions:
    1) Why would the latest yuan-lionaire not be offended by the international goals of a small group of individualist freemarket theologians currently residing in his country?

    China is not a consumer-driven society.

    2) So, how does The Expat Nation avoid the appearance of cultural superiority?

    *[What, you buy gas by the litre? It’s always been more than a US $4 equivalent?? The horror!]

  7. John says:

    Kris–Thanks for the posts.

    Obviously there are many nationalists in the world today, including China. Expats are generally seen as a boon, to the economy if nothing else. The difference between some “One Worlders” and the typical Western expat is less than the difference between a Russian mafioso and a French multi-national employee. Expat Nation members will probably be seen as fairly harmless, as long as they don’t come across as an anti-China cult.

    If the Expat Nation were quite substantial, it might be noticeable as a culturally distinct group. More likely, at least for a few generations, it will be a hodge podge of cultures. I will still speak English, play tennis, listen to old rock music, and like 30Rock humor. From that perspective, cultural eclecticism and tolerance are likely to be the norm, for some time.

    More to the point, EN will develop antagonists, but probably not on the basis of its cultural hegemony or elitism. The interests that are threatened are the governments that waste billions and trillions of resources on parochial interests. [Yesterday, I heard John McCain use the example of a bridge in Alaska to an island of 50 people, costing mega-millions.] Governments that expect loyalty and taxes based on the accident of birth or residence. . . . Politicians and pundits who get a lot of mileage out of attacking “Chinese goons and thugs” or Iraqi Sunni separatists. . . The idea of putting the global commonwealth ahead of national loyalties and interests is definitely a threatening ideal. But maybe, it is an ideal whose time has come.

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