In the days after 9-11, Americans rediscovered the world. The need to understand an act that seemed incomprehensible became visceral even among people who had never given much thought to what goes on beyond the U.S. borders.
World events have a way of pounding us out of drowsy obliviousness. At the G-20 meeting in London and at the series of summits President Barack Obama will attend this week, the global crisis is grabbing world leaders by their lapels and shouting in their faces that what happens in one place matters everywhere.
That's a reality that finds much resistance in the United States. In his press conference last week, Obama faced almost no questions on international affairs. The drought of interest was so complete that, with no questions about Iran, the president had to sneak his careful words on the subject at the end of the event.
As the economy contracts and the sense of crisis grows, attention has reverted home. In the consciousness of many Americans, the rest of the planet is drifting away from U.S. shores. In the face of job losses, foreclosures and evaporating savings, the reflex to focus on our immediate surroundings is understandable, but it is also misguided. The world is keeping a close eye on the United States. America should reciprocate. It's become a cliche that all politics is local. In fact, all world affairs are domestic. What happens in other countries has a direct impact on what goes on in America.
In the first of only two questions even mentioning another country, during a presidential news conference, a Univision reporter asked whether Washington would send troops to the U.S./Mexico border as a drug war escalates in Mexico. Clearly, a conflict just outside the border can easily bring a wave of violence to this country. And, as Mexican officials complain that Mexicans are killed with weapons bought in the United States with money gained selling drugs to Americans, the problem in Mexico will influence U.S. discussions on gun control and illegal drugs.
Interest in Iran's nuclear program may take a backseat to pressing economic problems, but what happens in Iran can affect all of us. If Iran successfully produces nuclear weapons, the impact will be felt here even if the Mullahs refrain from detonating a bomb. Iran's Arab neighbors are already looking at jump-starting their own nuclear programs, kicking off a dangerous arms race in the most unstable part of the world. The possibilities of weapons falling into terrorist hands or of renewed armed conflict could well materialize. Washington would not remain a mere bystander.
Not only would U.S. troops face the prospect of another Mideast conflict, gas prices would surely shoot into the stratosphere once again. Other nuclear scenarios are even more troubling.
In the case of China, we may not find it terribly interesting that its economy is hurting because of the world recession. But what happens in China impacts this country enormously. Without strong growth there, the Chinese will not have the cash to finance Washington's budget deficit, just when that deficit is morphing into a monster. If Beijing stops buying U.S. debt, interest rates will skyrocket. American lifestyles will change. More jobs will disappear and the economy will face a second tsunami.
Global coordinated action can help all countries weather the multiple challenges ahead.
The traditional, realist view of U.S. foreign policy dictates that American should pay only limited attention to foreign problems unless they have a direct impact on U.S. interests. In today's world, however, nothing happens in isolation. When a government slaughters its own people in a place such as Darfur, it matters not only because as human beings we should care what happens to other human beings.
We have a responsibility to stop the outrages that cause suffering in such a catastrophic scale. But there's more. Dictators the world over are watching. If Sudan gets away with it, and it looks like it will, we will see more instability in other countries. Political turmoil has a tendency to spread. It spreads suffering and economic disruption. It affects where American soldiers fight; how much the government spends on defense and what prices Americans pay for the products we consume.
It is, after all, a small world. We don't need a 9/11 catastrophe or a G-20 summit to remind us how what happens overseas can come crashing into our lives.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for the Miami Herald.