Global citizenship is about more than intercultural skills

Here’s my latest essay for University World News. It’s a long-awaited follow-up to a 2016 article about US nationalism. Below is the unedited version.

Shalom (שלום), MAA

Intercultural Competence and Global Citizenship: Expanding the Debate

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 US, has devoted untold pages, bytes, and conference sessions to the red hot, perennial topic of intercultural competence (IC), 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 IC and then proceeds to explain why employers value IC and list its benefits, including how it “prepares you to work for international companies, it shows you’re pro-active” and it is “something to talk about in interviews,” all of which emphasizes the utilitarian value of this skill set.

In a previous incarnation in US academia, I was well aware that international educational, including IC, was often “sold” on the basis of the extent to which it contributed to US economic growth and national security, both Americentric 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 colleagues utterly fail to recognize 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.

Psychic Chains, International Education-Style

Last year, the founder of US global citizenship-oriented nonprofit reached out to me in search of a “teammate” in Vietnam. The organizations curates “international resources and opportunities to inform and empower people with 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 organization’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 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 who are afflicted and 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.

While it strains credulity, there are even some US international educators who identify as nationalists. For them, international education is either just a job or they are placing whatever IC skills they have in the service of their institution and country, which they believe to be superior to all others.

The Intersection of Religion, Politics, and International Education

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.

So much of life is about politics, which means it doesn’t make sense not to talk about it. It’s somehow very US American to avoid “politics and religion.” I understand the cultural rationale for this but also see that this is changing, as it must. There are many topics and issues that US Americans are now discussing, some controversial, some sensitive, in order to move forward as a society. Nationalism is inherently political but broadly defined and not related to party politics. It’s about one’s world view and the values in which it is firmly anchored.

Pushing a political or religious agenda is qualitatively different from discussing politics and religion as they relate to global education and citizenship. One without the other does not make for a very informed or fruitful discussion, nor does it help us find solutions to this vexing and destructive problem, a supreme challenge and the root of many evils, past and present, domestic and foreign, especially in the US.

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 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 organization’s purse strings.

Restrictions on freedom of speech, much like psychic chains, ensure that minds remain closed, an obstacle to progress. (I discuss this textbook example of “do as we say, not as we do” in this 2019 essay, Whose Bread I Eat, His Song I Sing: An International Education Nonprofit and a Devil’s Bargain.)

Skill Set vs. Mindset

IC is generally defined as a skill set not a mindset, meaning it’s entirely possible to be an interculturally competent nationalist who places her/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.

Here’s a textbook example of someone who is interculturally competent and a committed US nationalist. I interacted with this man on occasion when I was country director of Institute of International Education (IIE)-Vietnam from 2005-09. He was deputy assistant secretary for academic programs in the Bush/Cheney State Department at the time and had previously served as IIE vice president for exchanges. Before that, he was a US diplomat who was stationed in Iran, Canada and Washington, D.C. While a graduate student, this individual was a Fulbright Fellow to Pakistan and also worked as a Peace Corps volunteer in India.

This was the same man who made the chilling pronouncement in 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.

Nationalism, Patriotism, IC, and GC: Some Definitions

As I outlined in a 2016 article about 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 Ph.D. 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 few 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. (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 energized by globalization 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 Tom Paine’s noble sentiment to heart?

Dr Mark A Ashwill is managing director and co-founder of Capstone Vietnam, a full-service educational consulting company with offices in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City that works exclusively with regionally accredited colleges and universities in the United States and officially accredited institutions in other countries. He served as country director of the Institute of International Education-Vietnam from 2005-09. Ashwill blogs at An International Educator in Viet Nam. A list of selected English and Vietnamese language essays can be accessed from his blog.

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s