In the Internet age, the world feels far smaller than it used to. But many Americans still know little about the rest of the world and may be more detached from it than ever. Such a lack of awareness is, in certain respects, understandable. Once the Cold War ended, some 25 years ago, Congress, perhaps out of a false sense of security, cut the foreign affairs budget, which led to the closing of some U.S. overseas posts. The news media, especially the commercial television networks, took their cue and began to reduce overseas coverage—responding, they said, to the decline of public interest in such matters, which conveniently coincided with their own economic woes. Although the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq stimulated renewed attention to international events, that phenomenon proved short-lived. Consequently, as new global challenges have arisen in recent years, American discourse on world affairs has lacked historical context or deeper understanding. It has become difficult to stir thoughtful, informed debate on foreign policy issues during congressional—or even presidential—campaigns. Many politicians who aspire to lead the country seem not to understand what constitutes a foreign policy issue, let alone the complexity of dealing with one. A candidate who speaks a foreign language appears almost suspect.
One symptom of Americans’ new isolation is a sharp contrast between the positive, even zealous views they hold of the United States and its role in the world and the anti-Americanism and negative perceptions of U.S. foreign policy that flourish almost everywhere else. This gap persists in part because relatively few Americans look beyond, or step outside, their own borders for a reality check. Less than 40 percent of Americans hold passports. Compare that figure with the numbers from other English-speaking countries that are geographically isolated: 50 percent of Australian citizens hold passports, as do more than 60 percent of Canadians and 75 percent of New Zealanders. In the United Kingdom, which is admittedly much closer to foreign destinations, some 80 percent of