Americans Rediscover World Affairs

US public begins to brush up on global literacy in face of growing instability.

If you care about world affairs, it's been a tough decade.

Even as the world grew more tightly stitched together through the globalizaton of markets and the cyberization of information, popular American interest in events beyond the border sagged. Since 1990, the only foreign news a majority of Americans have followed "very closely" has involved American troops or hostages, according to surveys by the Pew Research Center in Washington.

But this could be a time that changes the world, and many Americans' interest in it.

"I can't think of a period in our recent history when there has been, simultaneously, such instability in economic and geopolitical terms," says Coit Becker, deputy director of the Institute for International Studies at Stanford University in California. "I expect there will be a heightened sense of public awareness of world affairs, and probably more fear."

Against a backdrop of sinking stock markets, political uncertainty in Russia, economic turmoil in Asia, and terrorist threats against the United States, San Francisco office secretary Pat McCarthy admits, "I'm nervous." About to vacation in France, it's the first time she's been uneasy traveling with a US passport.

Indeed, an unscientific snapshot of public opinion in this particularly international city shows a discernible ripple of anxiety across age and occupation, in sharp contrast to the sanguine public mood that has prevailed for the past two years.

Undertone of anxiety

For some, it's concern about the specter of a return to communism in Russia and a re-ignition of East-West military tensions. For others, it's worry over sharp declines in the stock market, which holds a greater share of the savings of average Americans than ever before.

Edward Friend, an attorney here who grew up in Cleveland during the Great Depression, has been on hand to witness many of the 20th century's biggest events. He's able to put the current tempest in perspective. "I can recall a time when owning an automobile was a sign of wealth," he says. And having seen the US government implement a variety of economic safety nets over several decades, he's convinced there are enough "cushions" in place to avoid a depression.

Yet Mr. Friend does worry that young people today "are more complacent.... They take prosperity for granted."

Florizel Capanang, born in the Philippines but now working for a US firm that sells security systems, readily agrees. "We're so sheltered. The Gulf War was the biggest war I've experienced, but that was played out like a video game. It was so unreal."

Billy Quimby, a recent architecture graduate, says he doesn't follow much of what's going on internationally because it doesn't affect his work. But over the weekend he noticed heightened interest in world financial markets among his banker friends.

There's also been an increase in attendance at programs sponsored by the World Affairs Council of Northern California, which pushes public awareness of international issues.

"The Asian economic crisis has helped return interest. The Russian debacle is giving it even more focus," says council vice president Jean Fowler.

Many analysts believe popular interest in world affairs declined with the collapse of the Soviet Union, partly because the external threat that pervaded American thought and foreign policy for a generation seemed to disappear overnight. A Pew survey late last year found that "most Americans fundamentally doubt the relevance of international events to their own lives."

"We're not a particularly internationally literate society," says Rick Girling, a history and economics teacher at San Francisco's prestigious Lowell High School. Mr. Girling often brings current world affairs into his classroom."Now is an extremely interesting time to be studying economics because lots of theory will be put to the test," he says.

Prosperity not a given

Might Americans' world-affairs literacy improve now?

The dividing line between foreign news and domestic affairs has so blurred that measuring a change will be difficult. The globalization of markets and commerce has linked local pocketbook issues, such as jobs and wages, to the world's economy to such an extent that what's parochial and what's international often coincide.

Many analysts believe the public is generally aware of that. As a result, Americans may have concluded in recent years that the country's own economic prosperity is a sign that the world must be working pretty well.

At least until recently. The magnitude of uncertainty now, including questions about how well a damaged President Clinton can lead, is so great that Professor Becker expects the public to begin pressing political leaders for answers on global matters.

The problem, he says, is that many of America's post-cold-war policy assumptions are under assault, producing a kind of "policy paralysis." Becker, a former Russia adviser to Mr. Clinton, adds, "It's very difficult, nearly impossible to do, but [policymakers] need to wall themselves off from the day-to-day stuff and really think this through."

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