Sitting still for foreign affairs

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Most every major American and Canadian city has a foreign-policy council.

It's a good thing.

"The American public needs to be encouraged to pay more attention to world affairs," says William Vocke, past president of World Affairs Councils of America (WACA).

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It's not that Americans are uninterested in international affairs. Two-thirds are, according to surveys. Americans aren't isolationists, as some in Congress apparently believe.

But with the end of the cold war in 1989, Americans rank foreign affairs lower. "It matters, but not as much," says Dr. Vocke.

"It's hard to get people engaged in a broad discussion on foreign policy," says a Council on Foreign Relations official in New York.

This change and others have been a challenge for WACA's 83- member councils across the United States. That's true also of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, with 16 branches in Canada and one in Boston.

Barbara McDougall, president of the Canadian Institute, notes one common challenge. "Business people don't go to lunch for two hours to listen to speakers," grumbles the former foreign minister of Canada.

Or as Vocke puts it: "People won't sit still like they used to."

At a traditional foreign-affairs meeting, a sit-down luncheon, say, at a downtown hotel, a prominent speaker - a foreign minister, perhaps - talked for maybe 50 minutes. After a few questions the do was over.

But councils today often have difficulty dragging out members to such events. This is a generation raised on Sesame Street, used to 30-second sound bites on TV. The pace of life has risen for many.

In 1979, a typical Canadian Institute luncheon at the Empire Club in Toronto might have attracted 400 attendees. Today, 130 would be a good audience.

There's also more competition. Americans and Canadians can turn on TV any time of day or night and get news and analysis. They can roam the Internet for gobs of information on almost any topic.

"It's a challenge," says Stuart Krusell, executive director of the World Affairs Council in Boston. Someone could learn a lot about Morocco, say, in 20 minutes on the Web.

Economic globalization and easier travel mean many see themselves as experts. A person visits France for three days and figures he or she now understands that nation.

"Superficial experts," says Vocke.

Another challenge for the councils has been financial. The Canadian Institute, for example, now gets less government funding as Ottawa has tightened its budget. It has to work harder for corporate money.

In the US, the competition for company funding partially comes from the growth in the number of organizations with their hands out for good causes - homeless shelters, education programs, and so on.

Further, complains Vocke, the wave of mergers and downsizings has made many corporate bosses less interested in community welfare. They ask, "What's in it for my firm - visibility? A marketing advantage?" They don't reckon that supporting a council is "just a good thing to do." Faced with these challenges, most councils have altered their programming. They offer debates and panel discussions. Speakers give a 15-minute summary, followed by a longer period of questions and answers.

The emphasis in topics has shifted from politics, military/security, and economics, in that order, to economics, politics, and the military. The environment, cultural issues, immigration, and human rights are added.

At the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations, few meetings for general members involve meals. They generally start at 5.30 p.m. and last to 7 or 7:30.

Councils are striving to be less elitist, more inclusive of women, minorities, immigrants, and the nonexperts.

Councils belonging to WACA have only 75,000 dues-paying members. Its annual nationwide foreign-policy discussion known as Great Decisions attracts some 300,000.

Yet these bodies help keep the US from being too parochial, too self-centered. And that is important in a still-shrinking world.

*David R. Francis is senior economics correspondent of the Monitor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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