This is my second post on the lecture given by Zbigniew Brzezinski to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs on Monday, April 30, 2012. My first post can be found here.
Brzezinski talked about how the United States could preserve its leadership role in the world. He talked about hegemonic wars in Europe and turmoil in Eurasia and what mistakes the U.S. might make with Iran and China. He also insinuated that we'd already gone down the path to mistake by invading Iraq, but would not mention the war by name. I'm not sure if he was trying to satisfy Republicans on the Council, his book publisher or simply didn't want to get into the whole Bush/Iraq thing, but he's been more candid about this topic on MSNBC in the morning with his daughter, Mika.
Brzezinski was also clear that the NATO summit that most people I know want to protest is pretty important. He believes that it needs to reaffirm the unity of the West and infuse some vitality into Europe. Brzezinski is taking the global security position. One could also argue that the planned protests are to assert rights important to Western unity and global security. Brzezinski might agree to at least part of that as he credited political awakening for some changes in global politics.
However, Brzezinski made another point during the question and answer session that I saw as his most important. Before Americans make global demands, they need to get a grip on global reality. He used the example of the blind Chinese dissident who escaped from an apparent unauthorized house arrest and was briefly in the protection of U.S. diplomats. Brzezinski related several calls for action by the U.S. against China, impassioned calls for freedom and such that make such good sound bytes. He noted that those making the speeches had no idea what was possible, what the U.S. could really accomplish in China. This led to a discussion about education.
Brzezinski was asked if he felt the increased polarization in the U.S. affects its credibility globally, pointing to the Republican presidential debates as an example. He replied that the problem was not so much the polarization, but the display of sheer ignorance on the issues and irresponsible assertions based on ignorance, and concluded that the lack of deep understanding of what is happening in the world today erodes our global leadership legitimacy. Then, he said that our leaders are only as good as the people who vote for them and went on about education in this country. He pointed to people who cannot place the Pacific Ocean on a map for lack of a simple geography class and the 45 seconds of international news we get, at best, each night.
Something else he said about the news really struck me. He said that Americans live in a provincial world in a time when the rest of the world is more connected, and that our news is now "human trivia and medical advice."
On Monday morning, the leading story on both NBC and ABC was an auto accident in New York. It was terrible, of course, but was it national news? Today, one leading story was about a mom who was accused of bringing her daughter into a tanning booth with her. Again, not good, but is it national news? After those headlines, there was a serious panel discussion on NBC about whether people are being mean to Jessica Simpson for not losing her baby weight.
If you go to NBC's News-Sports website (they don't even have a separate news site anymore) this very minute, you get far more sports than news. Under top news is a story about a motorized toilet race in Australia. Does that qualify as international news these days? Not to pick on NBC, ABC now has a huge story about actress Selma Hayek's husband and again the tanning mom. There is a story about an Air Force pilot who died in 2010 and is being blamed for the crash that killed him, and I don't want to downplay the importance of that to his family, but is it major front page news?
As an aside, if you go to Al Jazeera English's web page this very minute, you get a story about UN sanctions over a pretty serious situation in Sudan, a story about police crackdowns once again in Egypt and various situations in Pakistan, Myanmar, Greece and France. RT is showing a story about the investigation into the deaths of 21 Palestinians, the Occupy Movement on May Day, and the explosions in Kabul. BBC News (they don't blend news and sports like NBC), has stories about the Chinese activist, 20 killed in Cairo at a rally, and the European Space Agency's mission to Jupiter.
The difference is of course startling, but it's also important. People in the world know things. They are sophisticated. They have technology and in many places universal free education through college. At the same time, we're arguing whether it's too snobbish to suggest that people go to college and affectionately laugh at people who display on television that they do not know more than a 5th grader. We choose leaders based on with whom we'd rather share a few beers. Then, we declare ourselves exceptional and turn on American Idol.