America's Hazy View of the World at Large

Peter Bridges was formerly U.S. ambassador to Somalia.

It is disturbing to come home from several years abroad and find one's fellow citizens so seemingly unconcerned about what is going on in the world beyond our borders.

Certainly foreigners are thinking about us. Africans wonder how far the Gramm-Rudman budget-limitation law is going to cut our aid to Africa, in a perilous decade for African development. Latin Americans see us engaged in a know-nothing national debate on Nicaragua that turns our attention from development--and debt--problems in this hemisphere. Asian industrialized countries wonder how far they can develop trade surpluses with us without further defensive U.S. reaction. Our European allies are deeply concerned about the state of the Reagan Administration in the wake of the Iran- contra scandals; they have been expressing their concerns openly, even though they get small hearing in the American media. One cannot be sure what the Russians think, but certainly their attention is closely focused on their great adversary, with our leadership in deep crisis.

When one looks further inside America, one sees that we are not really unconcerned about world problems. Every thinking American worries about our position in the world today. So far, though, this worry is not being translated into the thorough national discussion we need about what we are doing wrong in foreign affairs--and what we can do better.

Fortunately some of our best people have been giving thought to our dilemma. The Atlantic Council of the United States, headed by Gens. Andrew J. Goodpaster, former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe; George M. Seignious II, former director of the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, and the Citizens Network for Foreign Affairs, headed by former Under Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, have, in a well-reasoned 50-page paper, described our chronic foreign underinvestment and called for a kind of broad national lobby "to assure that the U.S. investment in international affairs becomes and remains commensurate with the country's global position and interests."

The paper might usefully have added a few other considerations.

There is a reason for our decline in foreign-affairs spending. It is not, again, that we lack concern about the rest of the world. But our concerns are unfocused; we are uninformed. To be blunt, the problem in good part is ignorance, which begins in the failure of our elementary schools to teach world geography. It continues in high schools that neglect not just foreign languages but world history. Colleges and universities compound the problem, offering students the chance to study business administration or pre-law or pre-something else without learning what any good citizen needs to know about the world--or even about our own society, as a recent study sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching made clear.

To change this need not take more money, and certainly not more federal money. It does not cost more to teach history than it does to teach home economics; less, probably, since Food 2 may involve baking cakes but studying Europe or Africa does not. Things cannot be changed overnight. It takes a long time to educate a teacher. It can take a community a long time to realize that its school system needs change.

The adult scene is similar. The world does not contain wiser historians or better scholars than our best people on the Soviet Union, on world economics or on classical archeology. But no other developed country has so high a percentage of adult citizens with such a perfunctory understanding of the world outside their borders.

Nor do they trouble themselves to learn. A morning glance at a newspaper plump with local news and ads is complemented by an evening half-hour watching a million-dollar reporter describe three or four calamities or scandals. But Americans are not lazy people. Many of us spend a couple of evenings a week studying ceramics or car repairs. One can hope that more of us will begin studying the problems of modern industrialized societies--and why the Japanese and Germans are succeeding in industry where we fail.

We also suffer from a lack of career involvement with the world. I had not been long in the Foreign Service before I discovered that it was practically the only body in which an American could spend much of a career abroad.

There used to be a sizeable number of American businessmen who made the world their sales territory. They knew their territory; when my father turned 30 he had spent almost a decade selling canned peas and ketchup throughout Latin America. And these salesmen sold; I once found that almost all the 19th-Century household appliances exhibited in a Prague museum were American-made. Now the typical U.S. firm has either given up on sales abroad or leaves its foreign business to foreigners.

Despite this, and despite our inward-looking school system, many young Americans are interested in working overseas. The Peace Corps each year turns away many qualified applicants because it lacks a budget for expansion. If we do not get more directly involved abroad, as individuals, our country will never regain its competitive edge.

There is a foreign-aid constituency in this country that is satisfied with current programs; but its members are often those in agriculture or consulting firms that benefit. There are also Americans who believe firmly that we have no advice to give societies in which an average woman still bears six to 10 children. But the majority of Americans may well think differently. If so, we must reform our aid programs if we are to do more, and that question is best decided before the next cycle of drought and famine in Africa.

A start has been made in the House of Representatives, with a bill on African aid by Rep. Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.). The bill, supported by the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, would require a new foreign-aid focus on smaller scale, with more sustainable projects, including protection for Africa's fragile soils and vegetation.

National leadership begins with the President. No one can substitute as a leader of organizational reform in government. It is the President, above all others, who must analyze for the nation the problems we face in the world, and the ways to resolve them.

We all must play a part. We need patience; it may take decades to solve our problems in foreign trade. We need organization; every American city, perhaps every town, needs something akin to a World Affairs Council, where each citizen can offer ideas on once again making this country the world's reliable leader. Nor is all the wisdom to be had in Berkeley or Boston; at this point we have much to learn outside our borders.

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