What Has Happened to America? The Mixed Legacy of 9/11
An address to the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, November 14, 2002
I am going to confess up front that the question posed in the title of this presentation -- “What has happened to America?” -- is a little bit disingenuous. It is certainly a question that many have asked over the past year, often in precisely those terms. In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, it was asked in genuine shock and horror as the country and the world struggled to comprehend exactly what had occurred and why. In the fourteen months since, it has taken on a slightly different meaning, as people throughout the world monitor the unfolding American response to the attacks and try to understand what the nation’s leaders are thinking, where the nation is headed, and what this direction might portend for the rest of the world. These are certainly worthwhile issues to explore, but I think the question itself reveals some misperceptions about America that must be corrected before we can arrive at any worthwhile answers. Its very formulation reflects a certain strain of American thinking -- arguably the dominant one -- which suggests that America is a country that simply ambles along on its own, happily minding its own business, until something happens to it. Then America must once again step in to right the wrong, punish the “evildoers” who perpetrated it, and make the world safe enough for America to return to its isolation and blissful detachment, if not ignorance. Approaching the question from a slightly different perspective, I mean also to point out that the spread of this way of thinking is not something that just recently “happened” in America. In fact, it has been developing for quite some time.
One of the great concerns about the United States’ tendency and willingness to stand alone in matters of international consequence is that this sometimes bespeaks an ignorance of, if not a contempt for, the perspectives of other nations, as well as an unwillingness, borne of America’s tremendous economic, political, and military power, to engage those other nations in working out mutually acceptable solutions to global challenges. While I agree that this is sometimes true, it has not always been the case, and it may be instructive to retrace the steps that led to the current American attitude toward international affairs.
In the years that followed the First and Second World Wars, the United States had more than ample reason to feel confident in its own power and authority. But rather than interpret its unprecedented influence as an opportunity to impose its will upon the world, America chose a much more idealistic tack, envisioning far-reaching new systems of international cooperation and engaging not only the nations that had supported us during the conflicts, but also those that had fought against us. The relationships that Woodrow Wilson envisaged in his proposed League of Nations, and that eventually achieved fruition in the creation of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods system of international economic cooperation, certainly benefited and even sometimes favored the United States, but in proportions that seemed defensible because they were commensurate with the nation’s contributions to and support of the organizations.
Somewhere along the way, this sense of idealism, engagement, and cooperation went missing. In trying to pinpoint the reasons for its disappearance, strong arguments could be made for a variety of international crises, many stemming from American efforts to protect its interests against the spread of Communism. Chief among these was, of course, the country’s failed war in Vietnam and the bitter disillusionment it experienced as a result. But as deeply as that debacle shook the foundations of America’s international involvement, I believe the real turning point came still later, with the overthrow of the Shah of Iran in 1979 and the subsequent hostage crisis there, during which militant Islamic fundamentalists held fifty-two American embassy workers for a year in protest against the United States’ support for the fallen ruler. Where the Vietnam War had demonstrated how badly the United States had misjudged its own military might, the episode in Iran had the even more psychologically devastating effect of demonstrating how badly the country had misjudged the way it was perceived around the world. Americans had thought of their country as a benevolent giant, sowing seeds of democracy by protecting fragile nations from the encroaching Soviet menace. The Iranians’ perception of the United States as the “Great Satan” was obviously a bit different from our own self-image.
The cognitive dissonance this caused in Americans was overwhelming and far-reaching, and indeed began a long period during which the United States steadily became more and more estranged from a world that suddenly seemed wildly unpredictable and often downright hostile. This withdrawal from the international scene reverberated throughout the culture, beginning at the level of government and including the country’s educational systems and media -- the principal means by which Americans’ perceptions of the world are shaped. While building up military strength, Congress cut the foreign affairs budget. The Reagan administration repeatedly proposed reducing to zero the federal Department of Education’s budget for international studies programs. Many U.S. consulates throughout the world were closed.
The American media, disappointingly, followed suit. Beginning in the 1980s and continuing through the ‘90s, international coverage dwindled steadily, particularly in the broadcast media. Foreign bureaus were closed -- they were too costly to maintain, network executives said, especially considering what little good they were doing for the ratings. Eventually, whole nations, regions, and even continents went for as long as a full year without a single mention on the nightly news of the three commercial networks. There was a surge of interest in international news around the time of the Gulf War, of course, and a sudden fascination with the Horn of Africa during the catastrophic engagement in Somalia, and with the Balkans when American troops were dispatched there. But by and large, these incidents played as isolated episodes, with little context provided by the American media and little inclination among the general American public to draw any inferences about what they might indicate when analyzed as a whole. With the economy booming and America’s only perceived enemy -- the Soviet Union -- a fading memory, what reason had Americans to worry about what was going on in the rest of the world?
All of this changed -- at least momentarily -- on September 11, 2001. Nations throughout the world offered their support and good will, and America accepted. The American public, suddenly desperate for context, turned to the news media for explanations, for anything that might help it begin to understand what had led to these vicious attacks. To their credit, the news media responded quickly and comprehensively. Special reports abounded. In one broadcast illustrative at once of how eager the networks were to help and how much work they had cut out for them, ABC News anchor Peter Jennings stood on a room-sized map of the Middle East and central Asia, walking from country to country discussing the various influences and interests at play in each and their relationships both within the region and with the United States. Of course, the fact that he was walking on the countries caused some consternation in some circles, but never mind -- it was an improvement. Public interest in the news in general doubled in the months following the attacks, according to one poll, and many media commentators predicted a renaissance in international journalism -- a time when foreign correspondence might be revived as a respectable line of work and analysis of the global scene might push the underage drinking of the president’s daughters off page one.
At the same time as the American public seemed to be expanding its awareness of the world, the American government was acting decisively to re-assert its authority within it. If September 11 marked the terrible realization that even the world’s only superpower was vulnerable to attack, the year following reflected the United States’ full realization that it still indisputably holds that title. As Fareed Zakaria pointed out in a recent article in The New Yorker, the United States military today is bigger, in dollars spent on it, than the militaries of the next largest fifteen countries combined. Its economy is larger than the next three largest combined. The fifty billion dollars by which the United States increased its annual defense budget after the September 11 attacks overshadows the total defense spending of Great Britain. The early success of its military campaign in Afghanistan underscored in no uncertain terms the fact that America once again holds a position of unprecedented power and influence in the world. Riding high on its victory, and still enjoying the support of the broad coalition of countries that signed on to help in its war on terrorism, America seemed as though it might have been on the verge of a renewed and expanded engagement with the world, the likes of which it had not experienced in more than 50 years. Sadly, this never materialized, and many of the relationships that would have supported it have become strained, if not entirely unraveled.
Reverting to the mistrust of sustained international involvement that caused its estrangement in the first place, America has once again decided to go it alone, asserting its perceived separateness from the rest of the world through declarations of short- and long-term goals that seem to many self-serving at best and imperialistic at worst. President George W. Bush, in his recent report on “The National Security Strategy of the United States of America,” set forth a new vision for the world in which America would henceforth serve as a sort of global law enforcement unit, protecting the economic relationships that he contends are paramount to democratization and acting preemptively -- and unilaterally, if necessary -- to “dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.” If one has any questions about how such a doctrine of world power might look when put into practice, one need look no further than the administration’s current stance with regard to Iraq. In its assertion of the need to force the Iraqis to disarm, and to invade the country and overthrow its president should the Iraqis fail to comply, the Bush administration sought the approval of the U.S. Congress and the United Nations reluctantly -- and, it must be said, more than a little bit peevishly -- only when it became apparent that not doing so might be politically suicidal. The administration has also made it abundantly clear that it will not let the objections of other nations stand in the way of an American military campaign, should Iraq refuse to meet the United States’ demands.
Naturally this unilateralism -- especially coupled with the Bush administration’s adamant denial of the United States’ accountability to either the United Nations or the recently formed International Criminal Court -- has raised the hackles of more than a few nations around the world, including some of the United States’ traditional allies. The recent elections in Germany, for example, in which Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder seemed to be running as much against George W. Bush as against his opponents on the official ballot, provided a telling glimpse into both how America is currently perceived overseas and how much of the good will that the country enjoyed in the weeks and months following September 11 has evaporated. One wonders, however, who in America has actually noticed the shifts in these perceptions. It is troubling enough that the administration seems content to brush them aside; even more troubling is some recent evidence that the American public has, by and large, fallen back into its old habits of not really paying that much attention either.
A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in June of this year found that, less than a year after the September 11 attacks, overall American levels of reading, viewing, and listening to the news are just barely higher than they were in the spring of 2000. It did indicate a slight increase in the percentage of Americans who say they are following international news very closely -- from 14 percent to a slightly less underwhelming 21 percent -- but mostly among affluent Americans, college graduates, and older people. Younger, less educated, and less affluent respondents showed no significant increase in interest, and there was no evidence to indicate that even those who did claim to follow international news were paying much attention to reports beyond those devoted to terrorism or the conflicts in the Middle East. Even more depressing than the respondents’ indifference were the reasons they gave for it. Nearly two-thirds of those who expressed low to moderate interest in international news said that it was because they felt they lacked the educational background necessary to follow it.
As a journalist and an educator, I am, of course, deeply concerned about these trends. In the absence of American interest in what is happening and being said overseas, my fear is that the estrangement which contributed to the conditions necessary for the events of September 11 -- and to surprise us as much as they did -- may return with even more catastrophic results. The stakes are becoming alarmingly high. With North Korea rattling its nuclear sword, Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities in the hands of a government increasingly vulnerable to Islamist theocrats, American tensions with Iraq reaching fever pitch, and no end in sight to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, now is not the time for Americans to take their eyes off the international scene.
I do believe there are steps we can take to begin reversing these trends -- and by we, I mean both the journalistic and educational communities worldwide. Our educational systems must begin working double-time to provide the international background that people feel they lack, and they must start the job not at the university level, but in nursery school. At the same time, our media outlets must broaden their coverage and explore new ways of attracting, focusing, and maintaining public interest, not only in areas beset by conflict, but in the subtly shifting political, cultural, and economic circumstances in which future conflicts -- and future resolutions -- may be born. The war on terrorism and the escalating tensions in the Middle East are not the only international stories worthy of attention; but these days you would not know from watching or reading the news in America that some countries -- like those of Central and South America -- even exist. Some might argue that today’s events in these countries are of far less importance than what is happening in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gaza Strip, and I do not contend by any stretch of the imagination that these stories do not deserve their positions above the fold and at the top of the broadcast hour. However, it is worth remembering that, just a few months before the September 11 attacks, the Taliban was known to the American public primarily for destroying a few historic statues of the Buddha in Afghanistan.
While the media certainly have an important role to play in informing people about the world in which they live, they obviously cannot and should not be expected to carry the entire burden of doing so. It is certainly disheartening to discover that the reason for widespread disinterest in international news is that so many people feel they lack the education necessary to understand it. We must reexamine an educational system that has failed to paint a portrait of the world complete and complex enough to permit an understanding of the interdependent global community. It is telling that the headlines and the general thrust of many post-September 11 stories in America -- not to mention a cascade of political speeches -- asked the question, “Why do they hate us?” rather than, “Why do we know so little about them?” The perception that the United States somehow could and did function separately from the rest of the world had become so deeply ingrained that the less self-centered formulation of the question did not even occur to most, and all the media were doing was reflecting this depressing cultural fact.
I refer to this as a cultural fact because I do not believe that it is simply a trend that we can easily reverse. I don’t think our cultural myopia is incurable, but its symptoms are so many and its causes so deep that we must attack it at every level of the culture, among every population, and in every age group. Our press and our educational systems must work in tandem in this campaign, the former to report fully on the events of the entire world and the latter to provide the global context by which those reports may be fully understood. The news media can open -- or reopen -- as many foreign bureaus as they decide they can afford, but until they can staff them with reporters who are truly conversant in the languages, histories, and political and cultural intricacies of the regions they are assigned to cover, they will continue to reflect the American tendency to approach global events from the perspective of outsiders, interested only insofar as the events directly affect their own lives. And until our educational institutions -- from our preschools to our colleges and universities -- begin to frame every discipline they teach in relation to the global culture and history with which it is connected, any nuance the media do manage to achieve in their coverage of international affairs will be lost on the general public anyway. This change will take generations.
The good news is that, while many Americans believe that the lack of international context in their education has prevented them from following and understanding international news, the American public seems to strongly support -- by a wider margin than ever before -- the means by which we might begin to provide that context. In a survey conducted by the American Council on Education in the spring of this year, nearly three out of four respondents, regardless of race, age, income, or education level, agreed that higher education has a responsibility to educate the public about international issues. Seventy-nine percent agreed that students should have a study-abroad experience sometime during college -- up slightly from 75 percent in 2000 -- and eighty percent agreed that the presence of international students on U.S. campuses enriches the learning experience for Americans. What is more, support was particularly high among younger respondents and minorities, who have not historically participated in international education to a great extent. Our educational institutions must act now to take advantage of this interest. It is clear from all available evidence that education plays a critical role in people’s awareness of and involvement with the events of the world around them. With Americans thirsty for opportunities to increase their knowledge in these areas, it would be a great disservice if we did not satisfy them.
As I have said, I do not think we have a choice. Situations are taking shape now that will determine the character of our world in ways both sweeping and subtle. While we may hope that our elected officials will approach these situations with the utmost thoughtfulness and care, armed with deep and detailed knowledge and understanding of their intricacies and implications, the only way we can be sure of this -- and hold our leaders to account, if necessary -- is to be sure that we, too, possess such knowledge and understanding, and that we discuss and debate the challenges we face until we are satisfied with the proposed solutions. Our media and educational institutions provide the perfect forum for these discussions and debates. Indeed, the accommodation of such exchanges is one of the primary purposes for which both were designed. But we -- the journalists and educators of the world -- cannot simply wait for the public to come to us. We must engage our own constituencies at the same time we more fully engage the whole world, broadening the connection between them. It is the best way we can help to ensure that we never again find ourselves asking what has happened to America -- or any nation of our world -- as though there were some sort of long-lost acquaintance that incomprehensibly dwindled and disappeared.