Ignorance of international affairs: It’s a major problem for America

The United States is still the 500-pound gorilla when it comes to foreign affairs. Yet the American people are woefully (and some seem blissfully) ignorant of the rest of the world.

“American exceptionalism” is not a foreign policy. The rest of the world is catching up economically. That does not mean the USA is declining in absolute terms, rather it means we are getting more peers in the world instead of clients. It also means that simplistic soundbites (and the acceptance of those soundbites without a critical eye) about throwing American military weight around is dangerous.

While most people think the share of the U.S. non-military foreign affairs budget is anywhere from 15-27 percent of the U.S. budget; and these same people think 10 percent is “just about right,” the real number is closer to 1 percent. And that covers all development aid and the operation expenses of the TOTAL State Department, including salaries and the costs of running embassies and consulates around the world. (Oh, and Defense is about 15 percent.)

Efforts to cut the international affairs budgets are really more a means to withdraw peaceful way to help people and solve international problems. Once that is done all is left is either isolationism or regular use of the military. And to be honest, isolationism doesn’t work in a global economy and I would rather spend money than blood to solve problems.

But why is the international affairs budget such an easy target?

Bottom line: There is no constituency for it.

Most of the American people are ignorant of not only the foreign affairs budget but also of the rest of the world. And the American media don’t help much by limiting its coverage of global events and by not providing context to most of the stories that are published/aired.

Let’s look at a couple of items:

Last week, Jeffery Brown of the PBS NewsHour interviewed former Carter National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski.

The discussion covered a lot of turf — as it often does when Brzezinski gets going — but the key point came late in the interview:

“We are a democracy. We can only have as good a foreign policy as the public’s understanding of world affairs. And the tragedy is that the public’s understanding of world affairs in America today is abysmal.”

And this point is so important, that even with all the other stuff talked about, PBS used it as a pull quote.

He continues:

It is probably the least-informed public about the world among the developed countries in the world.

And the consequences?

I think the consequences are likely to involve more turmoil, in the sense that certain problems which could be avoided might the get out of hand. First on the list, obviously, is Iran, and the likely consequences, destructive consequences of military violence there.

The consequences are likely to be more regional crises. The consequences are likely to be the absence of collective responses to the new global problems that affect all of humanity.

Yep. The world is changing and Americans are continually surprised and seem unable to deal with those changes.

Brzezinski: U.S. Should Work With Russia, Turkey to Solve Global Problems

The whole proposition that an informed electorate is vital to a democracy comes back to the role of the media. Our job — in a democracy — is to not only afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted but also to provide information necessary for a democracy to thrive.

And there is the famous Thomas Jefferson quote:

“The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

Many focus on the last phrase but look more closely at the first phrase: “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right…”

In this case, “keep that right” does not mean meeting some “correct” conservative or liberal position but rather “”right” as in factual with the proper context.

It seems that too many of the great American media outlets are more interested in fluff than and over playing local news to the detriment of informing the American people about global events. Hence Brzezinski’s “abysmal” comment.

Even Jon Stewart at the Daily Show noticed how poorly the American people are being served by the media:

TIME Magazine’s U.S. Edition

Guess the US cover!

The issue is not the cost of getting more and better international affairs reporting. The issue is understanding that it is important.

Bean counters cite focus groups that say they want more local reporting. They miss, however, the fact that people also want news they can use to help explain their current situation. And the current situation in the United States economy is tied to the rest of the world. Europe, Asia, Latin America and Africa all affect Main Street. It is up to the editors and reporters to find those links and report them.

Unfortunately too many editors are faced with fewer and younger reporters to try to cover the news. The lack of international awareness among most Americans is just as prevalent in the news rooms as it is in the general public. So ignorance feeds more ignorance.

Some news organizations are making alliances with organizations that have reporters around the world. But that also means giving up editorial control of the content. With too many editors unaware of the political and economic ins and outs of the rest of the world — and this is not new — the potential for slanted reporting becomes all to real.

Limited reporting on the rest of the world, with little context, does the news profession and American democracy little good. In fact, it does both great harm.

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1 Comment

Filed under Connections, Ethics, International News Coverage, Story Ideas

One response to “Ignorance of international affairs: It’s a major problem for America

  1. Pingback: Are Journalists Writing The Wrong Stories? | Beginning Journalism

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