Saturday, January 27, 2007

Stumbling Around

In an opinion article published in the New York Times on January 14th, Nicholas Kristof asked this timely question about the United States: "Why are we so awful at foreign policy?"

After a brief historical review of some memorable foreign policy disasters - of which Iraq is only the most recent - Mr Kristof postulated two reasons for America's foreign policy ineptitude: first, that "...great powers always lumber about, stepping on toes, provoking resentments, and solving problems militarily simply because they have that capability..."; and second, that "We (the United States) don't understand the world."

I think the second reason deserves a little more attention, particularly since Mr Kristof writes that it is "particular to the U.S." It's very true that we as a nation and a people have a shockingly poor understanding of the world around us. This is true for many reasons, not the least of which is that Americans as a whole don't travel abroad very much, and when we do, the trips are most often on the order of ten-world-capitals-in-seven-days tours which provide little interaction with foreign citizens other than store clerks and restaurant and museum staffs. Most Americans, other than military personnel and their families posted overseas, will never live or work in a foreign country, and thereby gain a deeper understanding of how other peoples think and act, and of the social, cultural and political prism through which they view us.

Another reason is our general lack of interest in and ability to speak languages other than English. America is so big, and our need to travel abroad so small, that most Americans never need to learn anything other than English. This prohibits us from learning what people around the world are really saying, and contributes to the view of the Ugly American whose first words on entering a store in a foreign land are, "Does anyone here speak English?"

A third reason is our educational system which places insufficient emphasis on the study of history (among other things). Without a sound knowledge of where we've been and what we've done in the past, it's hard to understand how we got where we are today and what the issues are that surround us.

I could go on at great length, but I think these three ideas are a good start for understanding the answer to Mr Kristof's original question. We live in a vast, interconnected world in which everything we do as a nation has profound consequences both for today and for the future. And since we'll have to live in the future we make today, we owe it to ourselves and to our children and grandchildren to educate ourselves to make the right decisions.

Have a good weekend. More thoughts later.


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