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October 04, 2007

Why Americans Think We're Out There Alone
Posted by Heather Hurlburt

David, you're absolutely right:  the idea that the US is out there, alone and unappreciated, holding back a tidal wave of evil and chaos, seems to be foundational in many Americans' thinking about the world.  With acknowledgement to Meg Bostrom of Public Knowledge, my wonderful client the US in the World Initiative, and others, let me explain why.

Most Americans (though not our policy-junkie readers) get their information about the rest of the world from tv news.  TV news stories have three essential qualities:  they're short, they're sensational, and in the case of international news, they're rather rare, which reinforces the first two qualities.

The style of coverage is either what David Devlin-Foltz calls "the daily bus plunge,"  i.e. mine disaster in China, train wreck in India, floods in Bangladesh (see the small world news clips in the Times for a great example of the genre), or it's using Americans to get an up close and personal angle on some issue.  So you see sniffing dogs from Fairfax County, VA heading off to earthquakes in Pakistan.  A Michigan hospital donating free care to a badly-burned Iraqi child.  Utah national guard troops returning from war duty.

Three things you will hardly ever see:  foreigners helping other foreigners; foreigners helping us; foreigners saying thank you.  You will also almost never see a story that explains the complexities of how US assistance in one place enables others to do more elsewhere.

This topic actually came up in my most recent appearance:  Eli Lake complained that "no one ever thanks the US" -- which is a great example of the above syndrome.  I compared efforts in the international sphere to changing diapers -- thankless, but part of the deal and not worth whining over -- and some commentator sweetly wrote in to thank me on behalf of my three-year old.

More seriously, I once did a briefing for House of Representatives staff on communications for foreign affairs.  Afterwards, a young staffer from a rural district came up and expressed concern that he couldn't justify our support for international organizations to his constituents.  "Why don't you start with NATO," I said, "and point out that their troops in Afghanistan allow thousands of our troops to have longer rotations at home?"

"NATO has troops in Afghanistan?" he said.

The import of all this is that progressives face a heavy burden when we go out to explain why our emphasis on international partnership and cooperation will work better than unilateralism:  in principle, the public agrees, but it also sees precious little evidence that its principles can be made to work in practice.

This is why it's so important for progressives to come armed with positive evidence in support of our views, and to start by helping change public worldviews from the ground up, or at least from the gut up.


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I'm sure you're right that part of the problem is that people in the US just don't know how many multilateral initiatives are going on around the world, nor about how many of them take pressure off the US military or the economy. Especially on military matters we've always been egocentric. I remember that up until a teacher set me straight in middle school that I thought World War II was pretty much won by the U.S. That Germany and Japan were kicking butt and then we got involved and turned the tide. Because nobody made a big deal about Russia's contributions back in the waning years of the Cold War.

Now a house aide thinks we're in Afhghanistan alone. Wow.

Not surprising, though. When it came to Iraq, Bush wanted people to think that we weren't alone, that while the UN wasn't supporting us, they weren't opposing us and a "coalition of the willing" supported us. Since it was a sham coalition and was exposed as such, is it any wonder that people are skeptical about the contributions our allies make to other efforts?

Finally, there is the problem of priorities. We don't spend enough on our own people and I really am far more concerned about a GM worker taking a pension or benefit cut, or getting laid off, than I am about people in Darfur. I know that's wrong sounding but it's true.

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