A world of differing opinions

It’s hard to recall a period in history when our own country has come in for as much scrutiny (and, ultimately, unprecedented criticism) by the rest of the world as now. After several years of basking in the global after-glow of the fall of the Soviet Union and all that implied the tear-down of the Berlin wall, the toppling of Soviet monuments in Moscow and the end of most communism in the world quite suddenly the only remaining super power in the world has seemingly, perhaps only temporarily, evolved into the world’s bully.

The U.N.? Don’t need it. The Pope? Thanks, but we know best. Canada? Mind your own business. Germany? You’ve got your nerve. France? Well, yeah, but it’s France. Russia? China? String enough of these together and pretty soon we have the “rest of the world.”

Regardless of how we view war with Iraq, and its justification or lack, thereof, the attitude in Washington these days toward everyone outside our national boundaries appears to be that we are right in our cause, any cause, simply because of who we are: If you don’t agree with us, your thinking is seriously flawed. Twelve years ago in the first Gulf war, the U.S. enjoyed the support of 39 allies. This week in the Azores, the President of the United States noted his last-ditch summit meeting “with America’s two close friends here [Britain and Spain].” Two. Oh, and let’s not forget Bulgaria and Portugal are also with us. Could dozens of other nations really be that na ve about world events to suddenly not support us?

While it’s true that the last couple of wretchedly painful weeks, in diplomatic terms, may soon be forgotten once hopefully decisive military action against Saddam Hussein is complete, what will linger for years will be the startling fact that even many of our friends overseas do not hold us in the high regard that we may have presumed. It’s not who we are that has turned some of our allies against us; it’s what we have become. Sadly, this worldview of America emerged long before the Iraqi conflict, or even 9/11. I’m not talking about the political rhetoric of foreign political leaders; I refer to the people in the streets of London, Copenhagen, Paris, Bucharest, Tbilisi, Kampala, Brussels and elsewhere. They love Americans. It’s “America” they’re not too crazy about these days.

Those Americans who might travel overseas on rare occasion often are surprised to see how American news is reported in friendly countries. We really don’t realize it here, because we have little to compare it to, but nearly all U.S.-based news we see, hear and read every day is all U.S.-centric. If the U.S. is not somehow involved in a news event, we rarely see coverage of it by an American news operation, with the lone exception of international sections of major newspapers. Overseas, especially in Western Europe, the average person is far more informed about what goes on outside his national borders.

One reason for this, of course, is that many countries are within only a few hundred miles of many other countries, unlike us. But another reason for our general lack of knowledge of the rest of the world is our fundamental belief that the world revolves around us. While that may be true in some major respects, you’d be surprised how little of what we do or say is of much interest to our friends overseas.

Even in third-world countries, it is not unusual for students and their parents to speak two languages (English often among them), and for the typical citizen to know his or her respective national history in impressive detail. This is hardly the case here in the most powerful country in the world. And non-American students’ knowledge of other nations, too, is considerably more “worldview” than here at home. We may not have consciously realized it, but we’ve been living out our own mindset of subtle isolationism for many years and now that vacuum of knowledge of the rest of the world is coming back to haunt us with a vengeance.

Time will tell whether going to war with Iraq was the right decision politically, military and diplomatically. That’s not really the issue. Our general ignorance of the outside world beyond our borders, and our apparent lack of curiosity over almost anything that is not American, may oddly speak well for our homeland patriotism, and our loyalty to ourselves. Unfortunately, we’re slowly, painfully learning that it’s not always all about us. Even our best friends will tell us that.

John Merli has been a Prince William County resident since 1984, and a Potomac News columnist since 1985. He has worked in the media for more than 30 years. E-mail him at: [email protected]

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