Whenever we are confronted with a foreign policy disaster on the scale of the Iraq War, we must wonder how smart and experienced people in Washington can beget such abominations with their ideas and decisions. What can account for the hubristic decision to invade Iraq? And what can explain the continued eagerness of some among the American right to call for bombing and invasion as a “last resort” solution to the conflicts in North Korea and Iran?
An arrogant militarism, a confusion of the universal desire for freedom with a universal desire to be “liberated” by America, a belief that democracy can be imposed on a society by foreign military might—each of these mistaken beliefs continues to drive much discussion of America’s role in the world.
But perhaps the largest problem, the mistake that underlies all the others, is our stubborn and pervasive ignorance about the affairs of the rest of the world. If another country isn’t developing nuclear weapons, sponsoring terrorism, “stealing American jobs,” or driving up oil prices, most Americans couldn’t care less what it is up to.
Ignorance about the world is an epidemic that affects all levels of American society. It is a consequence of the failure of the American media to give adequate attention to world affairs, the failure of the American education system to instill global awareness in students, and the “America first” culture constantly reinforced in our political dialogue.
University of Chicago professor Bruce Cumings is an adamant critic of the way the affairs of small countries are reported in the American media. Cumings, an expert on Korea, notes that “the media attention span for Korea is next to nil unless there is a crisis to discuss.” The fundamental problem in U.S.–North Korean relations, Cumings argues, is that “the United States for 50 years has meant everything to Korea, but Koreans mean so little to the United States.”
In other words, the enormous asymmetry between America and the smaller states existing in its shadow has become an excuse for ignoring these smaller states and the millions of individuals who populate them. We saw the consequences of this in the widespread and incorrect monolithic view of communism that led America to go to war in Korea and Vietnam, and we see its consequences today in Iraq.
Iraq, in pre-insurgency American eyes, was not an incredibly complex and volatile political tapestry made up of many mutually hostile sects; no, Iraq was simply a nation of oppressed pro-American people who would greet invading coalition troops as liberators after the “shock and awe” air assaults had stopped. Would the war have happened if we had known more about the fissures in Iraqi society, if we had been more aware of the consequences of destroying the Iraqi state?
Think of the Korean peninsula, where America has technically been at war for six decades and where crisis after crisis has threatened to plunge the powers of East Asia into a major conflict. How many professionals in the State Department, Congress, or the Bush Administration can name five Korean writers, or give a decent summary of Korean history? And if the answer is “not very many,” as I suspect, then what consequences has this had for our negotiations with North Korea? What opportunities for peace have been missed?
There are two general solutions to this predicament. First, America must embrace a realistic and humble foreign policy rather than a “transformational” foreign policy. We cannot transform societies we do not understand, and we do not understand any society well enough to transform it by force into a system of government that we prefer.
Second, America must make a concerted effort to educate students to be citizens of the world as well as citizens of America. The importance of instilling a sense of local and national identity as societal glue should not be discounted, but we must educate citizens with a global understanding commensurate with America’s impact on the world.
Educators need not choose between teaching the Western tradition and teaching about the world at large. Issues of international and interethnic conflict are too vitally important and affect too many lives to be simply delegated to those few who specialize in world affairs. Democratic citizens in an interdependent world should have a far more acute sense of how our actions and our political decisions affect the lives of others.
In short, by using education and the media to give global affairs a more prominent role in American society, we can reduce the number of conflicts that we blunder into through misunderstandings and a lack of empathy.