Clueless about the world

Isolation: We need to rekindle our interest in far-off people and places.

November 04, 2001|By Sanford J. Ungar | Sanford J. Ungar,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

A crisis, like the one the United States has experienced since Sept. 11, can become an occasion for self-examination, for a new understanding of our place in the world. Yet the roots of today's dramatic circumstances have long been visible.

More than 15 years ago, as a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, I assembled a collection of essays on America's place in the world. My colleagues and I wanted to look at this country's "estrangement" from others, the disorienting loneliness and distance that the United States seemed to be experiencing in the wake of the Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and other events of that period.

The essays of these historians, political scientists and journalists produced a consensus that somehow this unique nation of ours believed - mistakenly - that it could, through a combination of moral superiority and geopolitical influence, stand apart from all other countries. Simplistic appeals to national self-interest were in vogue, and articulate political speeches denouncing the United Nations and other multilateral agencies could bring almost any audience to its feet. Vast numbers of Americans told the pollsters at the time that they had simply "lost interest" in the rest of the world.

Lost interest indeed. In a trend that only accelerated with the end of the Cold War, Congress cut the foreign affairs budget. U.S. consulates and other posts in far-flung corners of the globe were shut down. America's commercial and marketing influence grew. Young people everywhere listened to our popular music, wore our blue jeans, and drank our Coca-Cola. But the American libraries and cultural centers that once had served as a resource for people to learn about this great, diverse country came to be regarded as too expensive to maintain.

Over a period of time, the Voice of America, an agency that I later had the privilege to lead for two years, was virtually starved of resources - making it almost impossible to fulfill its congressional mandate to report comprehensively for the rest of the world on what was happening across the United States.

Entertainment is king

The media exacerbated this new isolation. In the 1980s and 1990s, coverage of international news for an American audience practically disappeared, especially from the commercial broadcast networks that had become such an important and routine source of information. (CNN has been the exception, but it attracts a large audience only in times of crisis.) Foreign bureaus were closed. One network proudly proclaimed the virtue of its drastic cuts in costly overseas reporting: No one was watching, said the decision-makers.

Entertainment squeezed out substance. Sound bites and factoids replaced thoughtful analysis. Whole continents went unmentioned on the nightly news for a year or two, while the lowest common denominator flourished.

Who wanted to learn about, say, a fundamentalist Islamic regime that was taking hold in Afghanistan with American-supplied weapons, if the alternative was to watch our neighbors compete to become millionaires by answering questions about the most trivial of things?

We barely noticed

Somehow and somewhere along the way, apparently, the United States became unpopular among many people around the world, and we barely noticed.

Was it really not enough to keep telling ourselves we had the greatest country on earth? Could it be that - waves of immigrants notwithstanding - not everyone wanted to live like us after all? Were we so self-satisfied that we had no idea terrorists were establishing themselves and hatching their schemes in our very midst? Was it rational to suppose that having tried and failed once to blow up the World Trade Center in New York, the perpetrators would not come back and try again, with a more effective method?

Just the other day, Rep. Henry J. Hyde, an Illinois Republican and the chair of the House International Relations Committee, wondered aloud on Capitol Hill: "How is it that the country that invented Hollywood and Madison Avenue has such trouble promoting a positive image of itself overseas?"

Maybe Congressman Hyde is right. If we can just get the geniuses of the movie industry and the advertising world to apply themselves to the task, everything will soon be fine - we will be popular again, and people everywhere will go back to emulating us rather than hating us. But I don't think so.

Our story to tell

Of course America has a great story to tell, and we should be telling it - with subtlety and sophistication, and just perhaps a dose of modesty and reserve.

But we can also pay much closer attention to how others see us - how they feel, for example, if, for presumed geopolitical reasons, we support repressive regimes in their countries.

Instead of simply bragging about our own allegedly perfect democracy - which certainly functioned less than perfectly a year ago - we must seek to understand more about their systems and cultures.

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