Interdependence & The Elections

The Conventions are over. Whew. But how striking is it that in this, the world’s most powerful nation, two months away from a critical presidential election whose results will profoundly impact over 7 billion people world-wide, issues of foreign policy and globalization have been nearly invisible. In an unprecedented age of cosmopolitanism and interdependence, our election rhetoric is parochial, inward and self-absorbed. Even President Clinton whose Foundation pursues a “Global Initiative” stuck to the domestic agenda in bringing the Charlotte Convention to its feet.

There has been far more talk at both conventions about American Exceptionalism than about the need for common action to secure an imperiled common world. More U.S.A.! U.S.A.! than “us” – we the people of planet earth. We hear anxiety about the war in Afghanistan, a gnawing worry about Iran’s weapons program; and the usual rhetoric about Jerusalem, played exclusively as a domestic “Jewish vote” issue (not in the Platform!? Obama must love Hamas!)

Otherwise, all the talk has been about jobs (in America), mortgages (in America), reproductive rights (in America), gun violence (in America), taxes (in America), health care (in America) and big government and the pernicious role of money (in America).

Don’t get me wrong: I can think of no topics more crucial to Americans than jobs, mortgages, reproductive rights, gun violence, taxes and health care. And there is no framing issue more vital than the size of government and the impact of money. My problem is with the “in America” part. I care deeply about the American commons. But today our “commons” is global, and our future, if we are to have one, will be shared with the whole planet. If our American citizenship is to count, we must also become citizens without borders, patriots of the planet.

Other than Governor Romney’s throwaway line ridiculing the rise of the oceans, there has been almost no discussion of environmental sustainability, though America faces no challenge more perilous than global warming. The Parties compete for the drill-baby-drill crown proferred by the petroleum industry, and agree that “energy independence” is both possible and desirable. Yet in this age of interdependence, there is no such thing as energy independence. There is one global oil market and prices fluctuate with global supply and demand no single country can control. National markets simply do not exist anymore — not in steel, not in oil, not even in labor. Our immigration problems are a function of a global labor market beyond our reach, of global workers chasing global jobs across borders that no longer contain the global economy.

We live in a 21st century age of brutal interdependence where every challenge we face from warming and immigration to pandemics like the West Nile virus and the drug trade, from terrorism to global financial markets, reflect the reality of global interdependence. To deal with such problems, we will either have to democratize globalization or globalize democracy. Neither Representative Ryan nor Mayor Cruz, each promising that the 21st century will a “second American century,” will be vindicated by history. It will be neither American nor Chinese but a common century. It will belong to all of us, or to none.

This kind of interdependence is not dreaming, it’s realism. But it’s hard for politicians to talk realistically about interdependence when citizens punish them for it, calling them “European” or “socialist” or “Un-American” (as in ‘where’s your birth certificate?’) In his first year in office, President Obama gave speeches in Istanbul and Cairo in which he urged global cooperation and actually used the term “interdependence.” Since then he’s learned to avoid cosmopolitanism in his politics. It may be prudent policy but is political poison.

Nor can we blame citizens for being so punitive when our media — Fox and MSNBC alike — pay so little attention to the world. Grab your remote and channel surf from the American cable shows to the BBC or even Al Jezeera and you will be amazed to discover that important news of crucial importance to American interests emanates daily from parts of the world many Americans can’t find on a map.

Try to find news from East Timor — where Clinton’s wife found herself as Secretary of State during her husband’s rousing speech. (East Timor is part of which country!? she is there why?!) Or news from Libya — did you know Saif Qadafi is still held in Zintan with no trial in sight while local militia dominated by extremists increasingly turn Libya against America? or news from the India/Pakistan frontier –where the risk of a regional nuclear war is much greater than an Iranian attack on Israel.

Conventions won’t talk global issues until politicians are willing to do so; politicians won’t think or talk like cosmopolitans until citizens applaud their global realism; and citizens won’t be ready to cross the traditional national frontiers that have defined their parochialism until an information-grounded media help them grasp the meaning of interdependence. Like reporting international news in depth and why it’s important for Americans.

September 12 is Interdependence Day — a day on which the focus is on bridges not walls, cooperation not frontiers, commonality not exceptionalism. But only when Election Day also becomes Interdependence Day, are American citizens without borders likely to be able to respond effectively to our multiplying problems without borders.

–Benjamin R. Barber

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