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The 'Cosmopolites,' the Passport Market, and the Dawn of the Global Citizen

A meticulous new book examines the growing market for passports—and what that means for the way we think about citizenship and belonging.
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The Cosmopolites: The Coming of the Global Citizen. (Photo: Columbia Global Reports)

On May 25, 1948, Garry Davis became a man without a home. The 26-year-old American, a World War II veteran who had flown bombing missions across Germany, seemed an odd candidate for homelessness: The son of a popular bandleader, he’d grown up in relative luxury among the New York beau monde, studying to be an actor and mingling with high-society types prior to his draft. With the help of veteran-re-integration programs like the GI Bill, Davis seemed destined for a comfortable life upon his return home in 1944.

But Davis didn’t end up homeless, but stateless—and of his own volition. Haunted by the B-17 missions he’d flown over German cities like Brandenberg and alarmed by the endless cycle of nationalism and violence that had engulfed the world for nearly 50 years, Davis abandoned his burgeoning acting career and traveled to the United States embassy in Paris, where he renounced his American citizenship and “declared himself a citizen of the world.” Davis wasn’t defecting or committing treason; he was opting out of the Westphalian system that had come to define modern geopolitics. “I’m still me,” Davis said at the time. “The only thing that changed is that I was one passport lighter. I slept quite illegally that night.”

The subsequent decades for Davis—bouncing from home to temporary home, even staking out a United Nations restaurant in New York when the General Assembly was in session to advocate for a shift toward "world citizenship"—make a bizarre tale, one of the millions of stateless people who, lacking the right papers, float for years in a state of perpetual non-residency. Davis’ story is just one in a tapestry of interconnected anecdotes that comprise the Cosmopolites, a fascinating examination of global citizenship by Al Jazeera America editor Atossa Araxia Abrahamian. For Abrahamian, there are few more significant developments in modernity than the passport, the universal symbol of belonging and arguably the most important document on the face of the planet. The birth certificate may prove your existence, but the passport shows where exactly you belong in the world, the place you can call home. This centuries-old system, however, is under siege in the turbulent post-9/11 era—and that has serious repercussions for how we think about identity and belonging. “Citizenship in the twenty-first century is changing, changeable, interchangeable,” Abrahamian writes. “New crises explode the old mythologies of national power, and take personal allegiances with them.”

For Abrahamian, there are few more significant developments in modernity than the passport, the universal symbol of belonging and arguably the most important document on the face of the planet.

The passport is heir to a certain an old mythology in the geopolitical order. Ancient Persian king Artaxerxes sent letters to the rulers of neighboring states requesting safe passage through their lands as early 450 B.C.E. In the Pauline epistles in the New Testament indicate that, during the rapid expansion of the Roman Empire around the historical birth of Jesus Christ, Roman citizens like Paul the Apostle could travel the known world unmolested with their own unique set of documents. It’s the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia that established the nation-state as the atomic unit of the international order and enshrined the passport as the foremost symbol of political identity. The influence of nation-state—the strange fraternity that “makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings,” in the dour words of sociologist Benedict Anderson—is at the apex of its influence not through soldiers and money, but through the ubiquity and power of its passport.

To Davis, this concept is weirdly laughable now. The technological forces of globalization, the Internet and its ancillary gadgets, have made the world so small and so deeply complex that the “imagined communities” of nation-states seem almost old-fashioned. “What has happened in terms of technology and electronics is we’ve eliminated time and distance between people,” Davis told Abrahamian during a 2012 meeting in midtown New York, where he'd set up camp in the corner of a hotel lobby. “We’re all there. We’re all there! So that’s a fact. For us to be governed by an 18th-century institution called a 'nation' is obviously insane.” It’s this belief that drove him to advocate the idea of world citizenship, establishing the World Passport (inspired by the “Nansen” passport for Russian refugees in 1917) and deriving legal power from the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Who needs a nation, anyway?

As a result, the passport as the foremost symbol of those insane institutions has become disentangled from its role as a sign of belonging, a badge of personal identity. Abrahamian, herself a citizen of Canada, Switzerland, and Iran who grew up among the children of jet-setting world citizens in Geneva, brilliantly reveals the complicated story of modern citizenship through the lens of the growing “passport bubble,” the market for citizenship that puts national identity (thanks to the essentialism of Westphalia, something we think of as very much not up for sale) on the counter for those with the resources and the connections. Business is very good: Investor-citizens spent $2 billion buying passports in 2014, according to Bloomberg Markets, and nations from cash-strapped islands like Malta and St. Kitts to, yes, even the U.S., increasingly offer lucrative opportunities for you to establish residency and expedite your swift transformation from visitor to citizen.

Abrahamian’s meticulous and intricate examination excels, and not just in its focus on the capitalist middlemen—for example, Swiss Christian Kalin of “global leader in residence and citizenship planning” firm Henley & Partners—who are driving the new citizenship market. Instead, her story, like most modern tales of the global economy in the age of income inequality, vacillates between the haves and the have-nots, the “one percent” and everyone else. On one side are those who share her unusual national allegiances: mainly, the millionaires and billionaires seeking their next passport and the strange group of international middlemen, like Kalin, cropping up to sell them citizenship to countries like St. Kitts and Antigua. These island nations have become especially strapped for cash after the 2008 global financial crisis: St. Kitt’s, with Kalin’s help, will furnish “citizen-investors” with a home away from home for between $200,000 and $400,000. That’s a huge boon for the tiny Caribbean nation. “Passport money,” Abrahamian explains, exploded from one percent to 25 percent of the country’s GDP between 2006 and 2014, making passports the nation’s number-one export.

Outside of pure business opportunities, those new global elites have long been trending away from national allegiances for years. The rise of the new global plutocracy has yielded “a transglobal community of peers who have more in common with one another than with their countrymen back home,” wrote Canadian MP and former Reuters editor Chrystia Freeland in 2001. “Whether they maintain primary residences in New York or Hong Kong, Moscow or Mumbai, today’s super-rich are increasingly a nation unto themselves.” Entrepreneurs like those at Henley aren’t undermining national identity, but are simply ahead of the curve: They’ve identified “a cultural sea change in the way countries and citizens conceive of the social contract, arguing that traditional ways of allocating citizenship to individuals—by birth or through blood—are fundamentally arbitrary,” Abrahamian writes. “After all, you don’t choose where you’re born or who your parents are. Since we live in a globalized world, he said, birthplace and blood no longer hold the same significance as they used to.”

The passport hijinks of the super-rich are deeply fascinating but also deeply depressing. Consider those on the other end of the spectrum from multi-visa’d über-citizens—the stateless, the refugees, nomads, and outcasts, people with nowhere they can legally call home. “Citizen of the world” Garry Davis is one, but Abrahamian is more interested (with good reason) in examining the peculiar case of Ahmad Abdul Khaleq, a bidoon blogger born in the United Arab Emirates. The bidoon are an often-nomadic ethnic minority of stateless people in the Middle East living without official documentation and considered illegal immigrants by the U.A.E. and Kuwaiti officials, and Khaleq recently found himself in prison for railing against the government treatment of his kin. Where plutocrats take on a kind of transcendent statelessness with multiple passports, Khaleq and other bidoon are tragically stateless, legally considered strangers in their own home.

Where Davis found himself without a home in 1948, Khaleq eventually found himself a member of one he’d never visited: the Comoro Islands, the small archipelago of some 800,000 in the Indian Ocean. The U.A.E. and Kuwait, like many of Gulf neighbors already attempting to reconcile ethnic and cultural divisions with the artificial borders carved out by the West during the 20th century, really had no idea what to do with the historically tribal and nomadic paupers roaming through the region. The U.A.E. came up with a novel solution: Rather than offering the bidoon Emirati citizenship—which comes with its own political baggage—government officials shelled out cash to make Khaleq and his family “reluctant cosmopolites,” as Abrahamian writes.

Like Davis, the Comoran gambit is a bizarre case—and a cruel twist of the knife for Khaleq, who couldn’t be deported as a bidoon but was getting thrown out of the country as a Comoran. (He “had gotten his wish—he was no longer stateless,” Abrahamian writes. “He now had a passport. But it felt more like a curse rather than a blessing.”) The U.A.E.’s bidoon problem aside, the legal gymnastics further undermine the sociopolitical essentialism of the passport. For the U.A.E. and Kuwait, the latter of which dispatched Syrian-French businessman and citizenship middleman Bashar Kiwan to facilitate the deal with the Comoran government, this was little more than a solution to an internal political problem. For the Comorans, one of the world’s poorest countries, it’s an easy transaction to bring in much-needed revenue. For Khaleq, however, this was a nightmare. “We are bidoon," he told Abrahamian, “we have rights, we are born here, our father was born here, and our grandfather was born here.... All I know about the Comoros was from books about the of Arab explorers. I never expected that one day I would be a citizen of this country.”

Kalin and Khaleq’s experiences with the citizenship market are both rare, but the lessons Abrahamian uses them to illustrate in the Cosmopolities—that, somehow, statelessness now has a market solution—is oddly relevant today. Consider the rising tide of refugees spilling out of war-torn Syria, the three million who’ve fled into the country’s Middle Eastern neighbors and the 150,000 who have sought asylum in the European Union. The journey is physically fraught, certainly, but as Nicholas Schmidle’s remarkable New Yorker report reminds us, it’s also a challenge for citizenship: The Dublin Regulation, which requires asylum seekers to be “registered, and fingerprinted, in the first E.U. state they entered,” captures the inherent flexibility of citizenship. Unlike Khaleq, the stateless Syrian refugee Ghaith, whose exodus Schmidle traces over 10 borders, is more than delighted to call somewhere else home. “Once his wife arrived, they would have children and he would raise them as Swedes,” writes Schmidle of Ghaith's newfound residency in the Nordic playground. “He didn’t care if his kids spoke Arabic. He added, in broken English, ‘I worship Sweden.’”

The commodification of national identity certainly won't go as smoothly as some may like; after all, we're talking about putting a dollar value on an identity as deeply important to us as family or religion, even if that's only become the case for the last few centuries. “These programs, critics argue, undermine the sense of community that ties a country’s people together,” Abrahamian explains. “They’re also unfair because they give the rich opportunities and rights unavailable to everyone else.” But despite the current ecosystem of plutocrats, jet-setters, capitalists, and businessmen who shape the focus and use of the passport market, there’s a glimmer of hope that, in time, the benefits of ancillary citizenship could serve as a shield, a tool to protect the stateless and disenfranchised like Syrian refugee Ghaith. It’s this impulse that was at the heart of Davis’ voluntary statelessness in 1948 and animated his efforts to move the international community from artificial divisions and toward world citizenship.

In the long run, the passport market may become one of the most useful tools for governments and intergovernmental organizations to help stateless populations, from the unwanted bidoon to the wretched refugees just searching for a better life. For now, though, cosmopolitanism belongs to those who can afford it.