Citizens of the world

Why we are all both local and global.

What kind of citizen are you?

Political debates across the globe right now might make you think you have two options. Either you are a privileged global elite, a “citizen of the world” accountable only to your own self-interest; or you are an ordinary citizen in a local community, left behind and trying to survive.

It’s not that simple.

Recently I have thought a lot about what ‘citizenship’ means. Two weeks ago I became a U.S. citizen. I took the Oath of Allegiance together with nearly 1,300 people from one hundred different countries. We all swore to give up loyalty to any other country, and to stand ready to serve and defend the U.S.

But at the same time, the ceremony celebrated our countries of origin, calling them out one by one. It recognized that we have roots, families and friends in a hundred other countries, and that while we pledged loyalty to the U.S., we will not stop caring about them. It highlighted the richness that this diversity brings.

What does it mean to be global? And to be local? This question is at the core of GE’s identity: we are an iconic American company, but also as global as a company can be, with presence in nearly every country and a multinational workforce. Localization is a key part of our strategy. For my company, forging connections across borders and actively, accountably participating and investing in our local communities are not mutually exclusive ideas. In fact, it’s the only way we can succeed.

If GE can be both global and local, what does that mean for its employees? For us as human beings?

A purely global view of the world is unrealistic. Humans care more about our immediate family than about strangers in a faraway country. It’s in our nature. In a thoughtful piece, Princeton’s Angus Deaton notes that ”citizenship comes with a set of rights and responsibilities that we do not share with those in other countries.” We have a stronger implicit contract with the people carrying our same passport — and Deaton argues that our approaches to international development aid should account for that fact.

I think of myself as a citizen of the world. But I spent the weekend talking and texting with my best friend: he still lives in the small town in central Italy where we went to high school, and works in the non-tradable service sector. We are on the opposite sides of this supposed global-local divide. He is in the inner circle of people I care about the most.

I have lived and worked in different countries. But even if I had stayed in my hometown, the world has become interconnected in ways that are too profound and beneficial to be wished away. If you are a local citizen in any country around the world, chances are you watch foreign movies and TV shows, listen to foreign music, and are plugged into the global network of social media. You do it by choice, because it enriches your life.

Maybe you work for a global company, or a domestic company that thrives on making things that people in other countries want to buy. If you do not, one of your friends or neighbors probably does. Your house is full of products and gadgets at least partly manufactured abroad.

The global economy has become intertwined by global supply chains and trade and financial flows. This has created new risks, but also made the global economy more balanced and resilient. Without the strong performance of China and other emerging markets, the 2009 recession would have been a lot worse. Trade builds relationships around the world that aren’t just based on defense and security, but on shared economic prosperity. And there are challenges that transcend national borders that we can only solve together: climate change is the best example.

We hear more and more often that the world is a zero-sum game, global vs. local, us vs. them. It is not. We are all both local and global. We all need to try and strike the right balance, and at every local level, we need to create better opportunities.

Last week Nitin Bhate and I published a new analysis outlining how India can create more jobs today and in the future. GE is investing in training, skills building and skills transfers in countries around the world. We do it because our success is tied to the long-term success of the countries we are in — including the United States.

David Brooks wrote last week that to be a citizen is to be part of a “web of giving and getting.” As individuals, we should take seriously our responsibility to the communities we are part of. Some are local; some stretch across countries and continents, bound by shared interests, experiences and principles. Sometimes the priorities will be in conflict … but less often than you would think.

What do you think? I would love to discuss this with you in the responses below or on LinkedIn or Twitter.