America remains at war in Afghanistan. China is growing increasingly belligerent in her attempt to dominate the Asian Pacific. The E.U. continues to teeter on the edge of fiscal collapse. From watching the Republican and Democratic conventions, however, you would think that international affairs begin and end with America’s relationship with Israel and the challenge of a nuclear Iran. This absence of a substantive foreign policy debate is a product of our national failure to seriously consider the world outside America.
This lack of understanding of international affairs is a cultural problem. Far too few high schools engage in more than a cursory examination of global history and events. Because our curiosity about the world isn’t stoked in school, there is no impetus for U.S. media outlets to engage in international reporting that goes beyond coverage that is inherently limited in its reach and depth of examination. As a result, Americans are largely indifferent to international affairs.
This indifference has serious consequences.
Consider our ongoing military operations in Afghanistan. Here, because many Americans do not have a satisfactory understanding of our Afghan operations/mission, the sacrifice of our troops (and their families) has become an abstraction. In a very real sense, our physical and intellectual separation from the daily struggles of our forces risks creating a disconnect between America’s soldiers and its civilians — a prospect that has long worried military leaders. In essence, our soldiers face this, while we face this. We need to make a greater effort to understand what the members of our military do. You can’t support the troops by simply waving a flag or burnishing a yellow ribbon pin.
There is another national challenge that our lack of interest in international affairs poses for America. In order for American businesses and workers to remain at the forefront of capital creativity and productivity in the highly competitive globalized economy, we need a workforce that can take advantage of global opportunities. As with domestic business, the key is to “know your customer.” Sadly, at the moment we don’t know most of our potential customers. If we want to lose our position as the world’s sole superpower, ignoring international affairs is a good way to go about it.
The fact is, if we really looked at the world, we would find much to be proud of. For example, while many Europeans like to look at America with an arrogant condescension, the history of America’s engagement with Europe and the rest of the world tells a clear story. America — along with our stalwart ally, Britain — defeated the Nazis. The post-war reconstruction of Europe was built on the back of American taxpayers. The freedom of Europe from Soviet domination was secured by America. The economic development of South Korea and Japan is a testament to American generosity. The global economic growth that has benefited billions across our planet is inextricably linked to America’s commitment to freedom of commerce across the sky, land and sea.
Unfortunately, because most Americans do not know this history or its legacy, we are left subject to the negative spin of those who dislike us. Consider our recent experience in Iraq. Because their arguments have not been rebutted, the majority of the international community has been lead to believe that our effort in that country was designed to steal Iraqi oil without regard for the Iraqi people. In fact, our supposed “oil boon” was non-existent and the relative security of Iraq was gained in large part by the sacrifice of our troops, who stood watch protecting Iraqi neighborhoods. This is just one example, but it speaks powerfully to a larger narrative. The notion of American imperialism is not hard to rebut, it just requires knowledge and knowledge requires curiosity.
We have everything to gain from a greater curiosity toward international affairs. The pursuit of knowledge enriches us personally and empowers us as a people. Our foreign policy dialogue need not reside on platitudes; rather, it should be based on the bold, informed expression of our ideals. We are a good and decent people who have done more for the freedom of others than any nation in history. While welcoming debate, we should never be afraid to look beyond our borders, expand our minds and stand up for the country we love.
Tom Rogan is an American blogger and writer currently studying in London, England. He holds a BA in War Studies from King’s College London and an MSc in Middle East Politics from SOAS, London. His blog can be found at TomRoganThinks.com.