This comment on Martha Nussbaum’s interesting article is being written just after President Clinton’s news conference announcing the change in our Cuban refugee policy. Cuban refugees have for 30 years been favored, and this favoritism, as against Haitian refugees, for example, has been criticized recently as racist. (Previously it was criticized — as were elements of our refugee policies affecting Nicaraguans, Salvadorans, etc. — as politically biased, rejecting a universal and uniform standard in favor of refugees from Communist regimes.) I wonder what one can make of this change of policy in the light of the standard Martha Nussbaum would have replace the common understanding, which she considerately calls “patriotism” rather than “nationalism” or “chauvinism.” In this prevailing standard, the highest political loyalty is to one’s country. Certainly it was the interests of the United States President Clinton had in mind in making this change. Were he truly a world citizen, what would this imply about refugee policies?

I use the term “political” as in “highest political loyalty” because I acknowledge that no loyalty should be higher than loyalty to one’s religion or to basic human values. But as I read Martha Nussbaum she is not only arguing against the principle “my country, right or wrong.” We would all, patriots and cosmopolitans, allow that there comes a time when our country’s policies must be resisted (which policies, and how resisted, would of course raise further difficult questions). She clearly has something more than this in mind, as one sees when she presents as questionable the sentiment, “I am an Indian first, a citizen of the world second.” This suggests that something like world citizenship should replace American citizenship.

I have practical objections to this, but also, I believe, principled objections. The practical objections are immediately raised by the example of the Cuban refugees, and they are numerous. Is our government to treat the fleeing Cubans the way it would, for example, American citizens, permanent residents, immigrants who have gone through the proper procedures, refugees who have established their bona fides as escaping from persecution, etc. . . ? If so, then what distinctions should it make among those who wish to settle in this country? Should it make none? Is this what the status of “world citizenship” suggests or calls for?

Any immigrant or refugee policy presupposes a state, with rules that differentiate among those who are allowed entry, in what status, and with what rights. This presupposition does not mean that those outside the boundaries of the state are without human claims, indeed rights, rights which have been in large measure specified and defined by international protocols. We will join in feeding the Rwandan refugees, perhaps join in protecting them, will not give them rights to enter the United States, etc. All these commitments to others’ claims and rights involve costs, in money and lives, and these costs are not assessed against the world, but against the citizens and soldiers of a specific country, the only entity which can lay taxes and require soldiers to obey orders. It is perhaps this reality which also gives them the ethical right to make distinctions. It is hard to see, practically, how to move beyond a situation in which the primary power to grant and sustain rights rests with constituted sovereign states. I suspect that one reason why cosmopolitanism could make sense to the philosophers Martha Nussbaum has studied is that they were citizens of a “cosmopolis” — a near universal state and civilization — whose uniformity in rights and obligations was mirrored by a uniformity in city layouts and architecture. (Even their cosmopolitanism, however, may have been stretched when they thought about the barbarians and the Parthians.) But our situation is radically different.

The issue is more than practical. It is a problem of how far bonds of obligation and loyalty can stretch. In some respects, as I’ve indicated, they can encompass all men and women. Do we not sense, though, whatever the inadequacy of our principled ethical arguments, that we owe more to our family members than to others? The greater closeness of bonds to one’s country and countrymen need not mean denigration and disrespect for others. Certainly there can be no argument with the position that we should know more about other countries, that we learn more about ourselves in studying them, that knowing more may help in dealing with international problems, that there are moral obligations to the rest of the world. But there is a meaning to boundaries, in personal life and in political life, as well as a practical utility. Most people around the world seem to want their governments to be smaller and closer than they are now. Consider how in this century empires have been reduced to a host of squabbling countries — the Ottoman, the Austro-Hungarian, the Russian, with perhaps the Chinese next. Cosmopolitan values have made great headway (resistance to them, we should recognize, is rather greater in most of the world than in the United States). But cosmopolitan political loyalty is another matter and I don’t see how it can be practically implemented or that the world would be better if it were.