American Earthquake

January 21, 1994|By BEN WATTENBERG

Washington -- The headlines from President Clinton's trip to Europe focused on Games Diplomats Play. Would NATO take members from Eastern Europe? Would America continue to lead the NATO alliance? Would somebody, please, do something about Bosnia? Would Ukrainian nuclear weapons be returned to Russians?

And, of course: Was America in an isolationist yawn? After all, Whitewater, not NATO, led the evening news here.

Meanwhile, in post-Cold War Russia, they were watching ''Twin Peaks'' across 11 time zones. The populace was ''intrigued,'' according to the New York Times. And last month, the government of France almost wrecked the world's biggest trade deal (GATT), in order to tax American-made movies, with the revenues going to subsidize French ones. (Guaranteeing that French flicks will get even more highbrow, driving more Frenchmen to American movies.)

At the same time, billions of American dollars were being gathered for the ''information superhighway,'' which is a) global, b) ''interactive'' and c) unfathomable. ''Internet,'' a public on-line service already on the highway, has close to 15 million (!) communicants. The common language on Internet is American English.

Are the journo-diplo-geo-politicians missing something as they play in their sandbox with old and rusty Cold War toys?

Start with the idea that America is turning isolationist. It's wrong. Isolationism means dwelling on ''domestic'' issues when ''foreign'' issues are most important, as when first fascism and -- then communism threatened to overrun the world. But it is not isolationist to hold domestic problems as most important when they really are, like now, for many reasons, including international ones. (Patience -- I will explain.)

Nothing today is threatening to overrun the world other than the American way of life, for good or for ill, possibly for both. That's the real American earthquake, economically, scientifically, ideologically and culturally.

What's going on is a contest for the soul of the world. At issue is what kind of world our children will live in.

There was an earlier contest forthe soul. It was between the Old World and the New World, between American and European ways of life. Our New World was (ideally) open, upwardly mobile, individualist, market-driven, meritocratic and, of course, democratic. The Old World was, in some places, democratic. But the openness, meritocracy, pluralism and the I'm-as-good-as-anyone-else idea was absent and has been very slow in coming.

So Americans have something to offer the world, and want to. That's not isolationism. Americans may be bored by the dance of the diplomats, unwilling to put troops in Bosnia, and unfocused on NATO, but they are globally involved.

In the Northwest, businesses are beaming in on Asia. In the Southwest, it's Mexico and Latin America on the scope. South Carolina brags on its new Mercedes plant. We're the world's biggest exporter and importer. American universities are going global. So are religious organizations, women's groups, environmentalists and the media. Immigrants are the global gossips, and we have them from everywhere, spreading the word.

Most of this happens without government. But Penn Kemble, deputy director of the United States Information Agency, says we ought to consider ''a people's foreign policy,'' with government serving as a non-bossy clearinghouse for those who want to follow our lead, be they human-rights groups, economic reformers, non-governmental organizations, local governments, intellectuals or artists.

It was fashionable to pooh-pooh President Eisenhower's idea of ''people-to-people diplomacy.'' But, when all was said and done, it was ideas, spreading from person to person, on an earlier information highway, that won the Cold War.

As the leading democracy we can help shape the post-Cold War peace to our advantage, by offering what we have. But only if we also reform. It's good that our economy is humming again. But America is going to be a hard sell if we can't deal with the haunting domestic social problems of crime, welfare, quotas and multiculturalism.

If we can't handle that, it will be said, with some merit, that democracy is a blind alley.

Ben Wattenberg is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.

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