US foreign policy seems to go from one disaster to another but meanwhile its soft power is more successful and ever-growing, and relies on an army of globalized elite that fit the description of “citizens of the world” — people who come from everywhere or, to put it another way, from nowhere in particular.
The concept of “people from nowhere” famously found itself at the center of the Brexit debate in the UK, when Theresa May, the prime minister at the time, said during a Conservative Party conference: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere; you don’t understand what citizenship means.”
This statement embodies the clash between cosmopolitanism and globalization on the one hand versus nationalism and populism on the other. It is also a factor in the recent rise of populist politicians such as Prime Ministers Viktor Orban in Hungary and Narendra Modi in India, and former Presidents Jair Bolsanaro and Donald Trump in Brazil and the US respectively.
If the US can be considered an empire at all, it is more of a corporate one, and the most common signs of a territory it has conquered are branches of McDonald’s or KFC rather than American tanks. On the military front, its imperial adventures after the Second World War essentially have been disastrous, including Vietnam and more recent examples such as Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
In the old days, actual empires recruited armies from the places in which they established colonial control, such as the Gurkhas in Nepal, who still form a brigade within the British Army. Similarly, the French had brigades of Senegalese troops, and British adventurer and writer Lady Hester Stanhope, the niece of Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger, traveled the Levant accompanied by her own Albanian troops.
The Ottomans also employed Albanian forces, including the troops commanded by Mohammed Ali Pasha who were sent to Egypt and forged a dynasty that ruled the country for about 150 years, outlasting the Ottomans.
The Ottomans also had the Janissaries, who were recruited as children, initially from the Balkans but later from across the empire, and formed a Turkish elite standing army that served as the sultan’s household troops. Some were originally prisoners of war or slaves but families also sometimes gave up their children willingly, to give them a chance of rising through the ranks in a meritocracy.
In this way, a historical Turkish empire turned people of differing origins into Turks — and the US does a similar thing today. It has the ability, effectively, to turn peoples of different nationalities into corporate Americans.
A “successful” empire absorbs other peoples and compels them to identify with it. The British and the French used to be able to do that, too, and, of course, the Romans excelled at it, so much so that there was even a female-led Syrian Imperial dynasty in Rome.
The modern American corporate empire is composed of people that are, in their own, non-military, present-day ways, similar to the Janissaries. They come from all over the world and are recruited at a young age by big US banks and corporations. The typical recruit has a master’s degree in business administration and then serves a few years in a consulting firm such as McKinsey, Bain or Deloitte, before embarking on a global career in corporate America with the likes of Citicorp or Johnson and Johnson. In this way, they become part of the US soft power apparatus.
American universities now have campuses all over the world. In addition, institutions such as INSEAD, the European Institute of Business Administration in Fontainebleau, is like a Janissary training camp, but for corporate America rather than soldiers. About 250,000 people graduate with an MBA each year, about 60 percent of them in the US.
Corporate recruits have many similarities and sometimes it can be difficult to place their origins at first. You can often tell where people are from when you first meet them, as their names, appearance and accents will give some indication, but sometimes the signs can be confusing. In our region, for example, they might be from anywhere between Morocco and Bangladesh, and the situation is similar in Latin America or parts of Asia.
The thing that they have in common is that they have all gone through a process of homogenization and been “formatted” to look, sound and sometimes even think the same. They certainly have a language all of their own. I have been to parties in London and New York where I have met people just like that, who talk the same, dress the same — and seem to live on sushi.
There is also a phenomenon that has evolved more recently, also with its roots in the US, which is fueling the global digital economy through US tech giants such as Facebook, Apple, Intel or Amazon. This sector also has a language all of its own, with keywords such as entrepreneurship, startup, innovation, ecosystem, incubator, angel investor and scaling up.
This new culture is populated by “hipsters” who are tuned in to the latest trends and fads. Once again, you can find them almost anywhere in the world. I once asked my daughter and her friends how they would define what qualifies as “hip.” Their answer was that as soon as someone like me becomes aware of it, it is no longer hip.
Hipsters meet in cafes or coworking spaces in places such as Lagos, Dubai or Singapore and, through a global filtering process, the creme de la creme end up in the US in Silicon Valley or other centers of innovation, such as Boston. They become a part of globalized US soft power, with a subculture and fashions of their own.
The majority of people working in Silicon Valley are foreign-born. According to one report, in 2014, 74 percent of people between the ages of 25 and 44 working there in jobs related to computing and mathematics were born in other countries, and so were many top executives. It is safe to say, therefore, that the leaders of American corporations are a cosmopolitan elite that “come from everywhere.”
The world is certainly going through a clear phase in which nationalism and populism, as well as identity politics, are on the rise. But the polarity implied by Theresa May’s statement about the Brexit debate represents a false dichotomy.
A person can, in fact, be both a citizen of the world who cares about global problems such as the environment and climate change, while at the same time embracing a firmly rooted sense of national identity. They can also be cosmopolitan while maintaining their cultural heritage. In fact, those who do both are much more valuable as mediators and interlocutors, as they have shown that they are capable of maintaining a connection with their roots while also engaging with the wider “Americanized” global culture.
Turkish writer Elif Shafak quotes 13th-century poet Jalal Al-Din Rumi in comparing identity to the geometrical tool known as a compass: It has one leg that is firmly positioned and fixed in one place, while the other can move in a perfect circle, maintaining the same distance throughout. In other words, one person can be many things at the same time and there is no such thing as a homogenous identity. There never was — Rumi himself had multiple identities. This might be the best definition of global American culture.
Given the fiascos of recent American military interventions and the successes of its global soft power, it seems everyone in the world wants to come to America but not many want America to come to them.