Leaving Washington to Search for America's Future

WHAT is America's place in the world?

The paralysis over Bosnia underlines how much things have changed since the days of unquestioned United States leadership during the Gulf crisis. July seemed like a good time to explore this country in a new way.

I drove west, across nine northern states to Yellowstone and Glacier Parks, then wove back between the Great Lakes, via Montreal, to a conference on global democracy held in New Hampshire.

The 7,000 miles we covered offered new insights about America's place in the world - and raised intriguing new questions:

* Is there anywhere else in the world that you can drive in one direction for 3,000 miles along excellent roads, with no barriers to your movement? So sparsely peopled - but good people, everywhere.

I soared high above the Mississippi on Interstate 90, while local TV broadcasts showed Midwestern communities pulling together to fight the flood.

* A persistent sadness, especially in the West, over the fate of native Americans. I drove through a number of reservations and visited the Museum of the Plains Indian in Browning, Mont.

My knowledge of the encounters between Euro-Americans and native Americans is admittedly small. But it seems that, until a century ago, the US government was doing to native Americans many of the things the Serbs are doing to the Bosnians today. How can we "preach" to others unless we are prepared frankly to discuss our own record?

* What future for the nation-state? In the High Plains, Canadian and American communities seem closer to each other than they do to their national capitals. And the politics of the American states and Canada's vast provinces frequently looms larger than "national" affairs.

So NAFTA may just accelerate an existing shift in importance away from nation states toward both larger and smaller units.

* Quebec moving toward de facto independence. Since the failure of the Meech Lake accord, most Canadians seem to accept Quebec's independence as inevitable. And with a new native-American "country" about to be born in the Canadian north, Canada looks poised to become something new.

Perhaps like Spain, where previously-repressed Catalonia now proudly describes itself as "Catalonia, a country in Spain"? Actually, the Quebeckers don't look ready to accept even that degree in integration with Canada.

* Should the United States government try to export democracy, and how? While dispute raged in Washington over government funding of the National Endowment for Democracy, these issues were hotly discussed by participants in the "Star Island International Affairs Week." C. William Maynes, editor of "Foreign Policy," pointed out that the American system of "winner take all" elections may not, in many cases, be the best system to export.

Specialists on Africa and the Middle East pointed to the need for in-depth understanding of the cultures of other countries, if we are to help them along the road to democracy.

They noted that many people in developing countries question the depth of US commitment to democracy, when for decades our government has propped up leaders like Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko, or elitist monarchies in the Arab world.

And there was a good discussion of whether Americans should focus their democratization efforts on those countries whose leaders and people already profess a desire to move in that direction, or on the relatively few hard-line holdouts.

One summer month in North America. It was easy to see, ways outside of Washington's beltway, why Americans have increasingly been turning inward. It was good to hear US citizens' deep concerns for the future of our country and to see that many are trying to reexamine our country's place in the world.

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