Saturday, April 21, 2012

Why is America So Ignorant of Other Nations?

In 1831, Alexis de Tocqueville, during his tour of America, was surprised by Americans' lack of interest in other nations and cultures. This is still the case today. Why is it so? There are some good reasons, and there are some embarrassing ones.

About half of American congress people don't possess passports.  So says Derek Leebaert in his recent book, Magic and Mayhem: The Delusions of American Foreign Policy. Before becoming president of the United States, George W Bush had only been outside the United States a handful of times, and never for more than a few days. And in general, Americans are quite ignorant of other cultures and nations when compared with what they know about us. But why?

Why don't we care about other nations as much as they care about us? Do we think we are we better than them? Or are we just too busy? Probably a little bit of both.

"[We] believe", says Leebaert, "with good cause, that [we] live in the most fascinating of all countries. Bright, outgoing people find more than enough to occupy them[selves] right here."

America seems to be the most accepting nation when it comes to assimilating legal immigrants (illegal immigrants are completely different story, however). Interestingly as well, immigrants usually integrate quickly into American society, often losing any affinity for their mother country by the second or third generation, developing the same lack of curiosity for "outsiders" that their fellow Americans already possess.

Maybe that's the foundation of why we think we're better than everyone else. Maybe this is why half of the US personnel in Baghdad never once ventured outside the so-called "Green Zone" while they were in Iraq. Is this why, at one point, only 6 out of 1,000 US staff in Baghdad spoke fluent Arabic, while among their British and French counterparts the proportion was much, much higher? Why did so few American military and civilian personnel in Iraq know next to nothing about the differences between Sunni and Shia Islam.  Why did the US military in most cases provide culture briefings to its soldiers heading to Iraq and Afghanistan that weren't even good enough to be called "abysmal"?

Why are we so ignorant of other countries? Do we think we have nothing to learn from them? Ironically, whether we talk of Korea, Iraq, Vietnam, or Afghanistan, our greatest military defeats would likely have been successes had we cared to know much at all about the countries we set out to conquer or democratize.

A campaign staffer of a 2008 Presidential candidate captured the ignorant perception of too many Americans that France, Germany, and other European Union states "have a third world standard of living." Although America has truly been on the forefront of excellent innovation, Americans have in the past been too often surprised that great ideas and inventions can also come from someplace other than America.

During the 2000 presidential election, George W Bush opined that America would be most respected and effective in the world if we were "a humble nation." Humble nations, though, rather than trying to foist democracy on third world nations, are contemplative of what they don't know, and they show respect to other nations and cultures by consistently attempting to know more about them. In this area, although it is not a problem that has cropped up recently, America needs a lot of work.

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