What, US Worry? | Politics | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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What, US Worry? 

Why we should care about foreign affairs

Published March 15, 2006 at 5:00 a.m.

This should not have been particularly surprising. During the seven years I lived in Cairo, trips home inevitably prompted at least one question about how well I spoke Egyptian. Years ago, in a Washington, D.C., post office, the guy behind the counter asked which Austria my letter was bound for. Apparently, without the word "Europe" written in big letters across the bottom of the envelope, there was a good chance it would end up in Australia. More recently, a college professor I know told her students to write a paper on the "developing country" of their choice. One turned in an essay on Switzerland.

Are we really this dumb? Apparently, yes. In a survey conducted in 2002 by Roper and the National Geographic Society, only 17 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds in the United States could find Afghanistan on a map, despite our having fought a war there only a few months earlier. In the same survey, 29 percent of the Americans polled could not find the Pacific Ocean, 58 percent could not locate Japan, and 69 percent didn't know where the United Kingdom is. Stunningly, 11 percent couldn't even find the United States.

The comfortable, smug insularity many Americans enjoy leads to embarrassments like the National Geographic Survey, but also to effects far more serious than low test scores. Today's United States is no longer a superpower, but rather human history's first "hyperpower." Coined by a French foreign minister, the term refers to a state whose political, military, economic and cultural strength overwhelms any possible adversary or group of adversaries.

Being a hyperpower means that our government's opinion regarding almost everything counts. Transcripts of State Department news briefings are a fascinating catalogue of official reaction to statements most Americans have never heard, and clarifications of policy positions few know our government has taken.

For a hyperpower, however, this is only the beginning. The global omnipresence of companies like Coca-Cola (sold in more than 200 countries), McDonald's (70 restaurants in Chile alone) and Starbucks (25 stores in Dubai) is well known. Add to that Oprah's status as a huge star in the Arab world; the European editions of MTV that let teens from London to Tehran watch "Date My Mom"; that the Oscars are allegedly viewed by around one billion people each year; and that this year's host Jon Stewart already had an international audience because CNN feeds outside the U.S. include a "global edition" of "The Daily Show." Clearly, the rest of the world devotes an amazing amount of time and effort to trying to understand us. We might at least try to return the compliment.


How did this mass ignorance come about? How did we as a society reach a point where the rest of the world seems not to matter, especially at a moment when it so screamingly, obviously does? A lot of the blame rests with a media culture that has spent two generations telling Americans our local affairs are the only ones worth paying attention to. And when television decrees something, the power of the medium is such that it has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Hollywood has known this for a long time. In the 1976 movie Network, a television executive asks anchorman Howard Beale, played by Peter Finch, to use his airtime to promote a perfect corporate future in which the world is "one vast and ecumenical holding company." When Beale asks why America would deign to hear such a message from him, the executive replies: "Because you're on television, dummy."

Network, which turns 30 this year, presciently captured the news industry's reverse evolution into entertainment. That process was well underway when the film came out, and only accelerated in the decades that followed.

During this period, management stopped seeing news divisions as a public trust. Instead, they became just another profit center within increasingly large corporations. As money grew in importance, so did ratings and circulation figures. Hence the dual pressures to pander: giving readers and viewers what they want in place of, rather than in addition to, what they need. And, equally important, doing so as cheaply as possible.

Thus began a decades-long trend toward cutting and consolidating foreign coverage, in no small part because it is notoriously expensive. CNN estimated a decade ago that its smallest overseas operations -- bureaus consisting of only three or four people, all but the reporter locally hired -- each cost around $1 million per year to run. In war zones, insurance costs alone can be astronomical -- $600 or more per person, per day.

Recent months have seen no abatement in the less-from-overseas trend. A recent spate of layoffs at Time magazine included the bureau chiefs in Beijing, Seoul, Jerusalem and Moscow. The Boston Globe has closed its Baghdad bureau. CBS keeps only a skeleton staff in the Iraqi capital. (This trend is not confined to the United States. While the BBC has a large operation in Baghdad, neither of its two main competitors -- Sky News and ITN -- has a permanent Baghdad office).

The issue, however, is not merely one of quantity. Quality, too, has suffered. American media coverage of the wider world too often confines itself to accounts of natural disasters, our military's deployments and human-interest stories. The emphasis is increasingly on soft and fuzzy features rather than political and social coverage that might add context to the human suffering and military operations in which the media do remain interested. There is nothing wrong, of course, with empathetic human stories. But when these take the place of serious political coverage, it becomes hard for those of us here at home to understand why these foreigners deserve empathy in the first place.

The corporate world of which that executive in Network speaks so effusively has noticed this, too. Unlike many ordinary Americans, corporations seem aware of the need to understand the outside world. They pay consultants and analysts handsomely to tell them about it in reports, in speeches and at seminars and conferences. Sometimes this takes the form of advice related to a specific business ("What's the best way to crack the widget market in Kazakhstan?"). More often, however, it is general. Analysts are asked to identify political and economic trends that might not be obvious to a non-specialist, explaining, for example, why we are headed toward a nuclear confrontation with Iran and what form it is likely to take.

In addition to college professors and former government officials, current and former media people are among the most in-demand sources of this sort of information. In the field, reporters are often under pressure to play down political analysis and coverage in favor of human stories with which the audience can supposedly empathize. More than a few have turned to consulting out of frustration over their ability to get serious analytical work into print or on the air. The audience may be smaller, but at least someone out there is interested in the expertise a reporter may have spent years developing.

This situation is seen in its most extreme form when a subject touches on the military. Once soldiers are in the field, editors and producers here at home often seem interested mainly in celebrating "our brave men and women" rather than at looking at how they wound up involved in a particular conflict. Reports from Iraq about military operations in the Euphrates Valley find a far readier audience in American newsrooms than pieces explaining how the region got to be a nest of insurgents in the first place.

This is particularly worrying because being a hyperpower means our military is called on more and more often. Since the end of the Cold War, the U.S. military has been deployed in Panama, Kuwait, Iraq, Bosnia, Kosovo, Haiti and Somalia, to name only the most obvious destinations. This is not going to change anytime soon, regardless of who sits in the White House.

Does America's overwhelming power "make us the policemen of the world?" -- as former Secretary of State Colin Powell once put it. "No," he answered himself, "but guess where most of the world screams for when they want a cop or need a cop? They come to us."

This, more than anything else, is why foreign affairs matter: because we and the wider world depend on each other. Because globalization is a real, and growing, phenomenon, whether we like it or not.

This is not just a reference to Arab companies managing our ports or the sale of Big Macs in France. Consider the fact that we here in Vermont get one-third of our electricity from Canada; that there is a Ben & Jerry's scoop shop on London's Leicester Square, about two blocks from Piccadilly Circus; and, even stranger, that there is a cafe-bookshop in Amman, Jordan, that caffeinates its customers exclusively with Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.

Foreign affairs matter because, as the tagline for Syriana says, "Everything is connected." And in a world where everything is connected, we citizens cannot hope to influence either the government or the corporate world if we remain ignorant of the larger stage on which they both play.

Foreign affairs matter because corporations shape other people's opinions of us as a society, and because our government, like it or not, speaks in our name.

Foreign affairs matter because what we say and do here at home is watched more closely than we imagine in the rest of the world, and how the world reacts often determines what problems and challenges American society will face next.

And finally, foreign affairs matter because knowing something about the outside world makes our version of "The Daily Show" even funnier.

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Gordon Robison


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