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What a Fool Believes...
by Todd Ziebarth : Editor, Terrain.org

America: A Changing Symbol?

Last fall, my wife and I took a three-month trip to Europe. We took leaves of absences from work, stuffed our backpacks and headed overseas. It felt particularly interesting to be traveling abroad as an American at this specific point in time in history, as globalization and terrorism converge to create a changing, but still undetermined, view of the United States in many parts of the world.

A Billion Served . . . in Vienna?

As we wandered from country to country to country, from France to the Netherlands to Switzerland, the impact of a global market, specifically our country’s place in it, became more and more apparent to us. It hit home particularly hard in Vienna, about midway through the trip.

In Austria’s capital city, we stayed in a pension on Mariahilfer Strasse, which we understood to be a lively street of cafes, restaurants and shops. Therefore, we expected to have very little problem finding a quick bite for breakfast on our first morning there. Oddly enough, especially considering that it was around ten o’clock on a Saturday morning, every café, restaurant and shop along this now not-so-lively street was closed.

After searching for more than twenty minutes, we finally gave up and ate at one of the few open places—McDonald’s. For lunch, we dined at Subway. And we took our afternoon coffee break at Starbuck’s. As our intestines were still recovering from this thorough taste of home, we were relieved to discover that several of the neighborhood’s restaurants opened for dinner. That evening, we also found out it was a national holiday—Austria’s equivalent of the Fourth of July, sans the fireworks.

So, there it was, the trade-off between convenience and homogeneity that is troubling my country, apparent on a late October day in Vienna. These trade-offs have gone global.

The War on Terrorism, With a Detour Through Baghdad

The specter of terrorism was also ever present throughout our trip, but in a much different sort of way. At various points over our three-month vacation, terrorist attacks occurred in Kuwait, Yemen and Indonesia. There was almost daily violence between Israelis and Palestinians, plus frequent headlines about the hunt for terrorists in England, France and Germany, among other places—not to mention the occasional threatening audiotaped rant from Osama Bin Laden, who apparently was, and is, still at large.

On top of all that, of course, the Bush administration was drumming the war beat for an attack on Iraq. While the rationale for a military intervention appeared to change week by week, from weapons of mass destruction to human rights abuses, the one that seemed to carry the most weight with my fellow countrymen was the alleged link between Saddam Hussein and Al Queda. In fact, one poll showed that 45% of Americans believed that Saddam Hussein was directly responsible for the terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001—a number that gives me serious pause every time that I read it.

Globalization Plus Terrorism Equals . . .?

On the issue of globalization, I was admittedly surprised by the extent to which commercial chains, particularly those that originated in the United States, were making their presence felt throughout most of the 11 countries that we visited. Still, it seemed to me that people were ambivalent about this part of our culture encroaching on their way of life. On the one hand, I heard some complain about it, with people particularly resentful of the increasing number of places serving cheap, fast food. Conversely, whenever we went to one of these franchises, whether it was in England, Belgium or Italy, they were usually packed, and not with Americans.

What seemed like a bigger issue to me, though, wasn’t the impact of the Big Mac, troubling though that may be. Instead, it was the effect of how the United States is “playing with the rest of the world”—or, as seems more appropriate these days, not playing. Our approaches to various world-wide problems—from our refusal to participate in the international criminal court to our rejection of the environmental protections in the Kyoto Treaty (and our failure to come up with a meaningful alternative, as we promised) to our withdrawal from the anti-ballistic missile treaty with Russia, and then add our approach to Iraq on top of all this—is forcing the rest of the world, particularly our long-time allies, to view us differently. While I think that one can make a defensible argument for each of our positions, the message to the rest of the world is obvious: We are withdrawing from collectively solving the world’s problems.

Our critics, of course, are anything but perfect. For starters, many of them still have monarchies in place, a symbol of a time where people ruled based on birth rather than merit, where citizens had no meaningful voice in their government. Also, for all of the understandable criticism that our allies were lobbing over the Atlantic at the United States on the Iraq issue, I strained to hear their governments, be they French, German or Belgian, offer a viable alternative solution for how to deal with the menace that is Saddam Hussein.

Leaving that aside, though, it is apparent that we are at a turning point in how we deal with the international community, which, in turn, will deeply influence how our fellow citizens of this planet view us. In my opinion, while most folks do not dislike Americans—in fact, they still deeply love many things about Americans—they are clearly bothered by what America is coming to symbolize on the Bush Administration’s watch: a spoiled infant, who, when faced with an undesirable situation, packs up his toys and goes home.

As always, there are alternative paths. For one, we can act and lead based on hope, which is one of the fundamental, albeit conflicted, values at the core of this country. In fact, that is why many of our ancestors chose to come here in the first place. They felt a sense of opportunity to reinvent themselves—to leave the old behind and to create a new life in this country. In this new day of globalization and terrorism, this core value is being taken to the mat. As we wrestle with these new phenomena, we must face a difficult question: Is this a place of hopeful people – hopeful for not only a better life for ourselves but for others around the world, and willing to make some tough decisions to take advantage of these historic opportunities?


Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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