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One year after 9/11: What Has Really Changed?

One year after 9/11: What Has Really Changed?

The globalization-as-Americanization nexus seems all the tighter now, with people the world over increasingly likely to blame the United States for all their discontents.

Geoffrey Garrett Email Geoffrey Garrett

Learning the histories, cultures, and languages of other countries should be more prominent features of American education.

What has really changed since the terrorist attacks of last fall? My answer is "everything" and "nothing." Everything has changed in the sense that the war on terrorism has given U.S. foreign policy a focus not seen since the height of the Cold War. But nothing has changed in that people in America and abroad struggle with trying to make sense of the immediacy, complexity, and uncertainty of our globalized world. Anxiety, misperceptions and animosities abound. This is nowhere more evident than in the mismatch between America’s perceptions of its global role as the leading force for freedom ("How can they hate us?") and anti-American critics abroad who see an arrogant and naïve giant ("Do they really think we want to be like them?").

What a difference a decade makes. For much of the 1990s, the American way of life was widely admired and embraced. The U.S. was looked to as the world’s benevolent policeman, most notably in Kuwait and in Yugoslavia. American political institutions influenced democratizers around the world. From Moscow to New Delhi, people wanted to "be like Mike," dance like Madonna, and eat at McDonald's. America’s "new economy" was the envy of the world. Today, the United States is criticized for parochial unilateralism, for double standards with respect to democracy and human rights, and for a homogenizing consumer culture that threatens traditional ways of life. Heady speculations about the eradication of business cycles have been replaced by fears of global recession and even deflation.

The world was, of course, less benign in the 1990s than we thought; we can now only hope that it is not as bad as we fear. But either way, we should not lose sight of the fact that globalization marches on, permeating ever more broadly and deeply into the fabric of our planet. 9/11 has not resulted in shrinking global markets (though their expansion has been curtailed by the global economic slowdown). What the terrorist attacks and their aftermath have demonstrated is that globalization is as much a cultural and political phenomenon as it is an economic one. Time and space continue to collapse; the geography of nation-states is increasingly permeable and irrelevant. Al-Qaeda is just as much a part of globalization as Indians telecommuting to Silicon Valley are. Both reflect the everywhere and nowhere quality of contemporary globalization, made possible by the decreasing costs of moving not only goods and capital, but also people, information, and ideas around the world.

During the 1990s, the French led concern that globalization was, in fact, Americanization. The globalization-as-Americanization nexus seems all the tighter now, with people the world over increasingly likely to blame the United States for all their discontents. This is in large measure the product of the power of the United States. It dominates the globe in military, political, economic, and cultural terms in a way that may be unparalleled in modern human history. Most Americans believe that this power is exercised for the good of the world, based on the core American value of protecting and advancing freedom. Perplexed Americans increasingly wonder on what anti-Americanism is based. Critics respond that the United States is both arrogant and ignorant, imposing its will on the world without asking if this is wanted.

Ultimately, it matters less who is right than it does to acknowledge the growing gap between the perceptions of Americans about their country’s place in the world and those of the nation’s critics. As a result, it is imperative that the United States supplements the war on terrorism (at home and abroad) with a campaign to educate its citizens about the rest of the world, and to help the rest of the world better understand America and Americans. Learning the histories, cultures, and languages of other countries should be more prominent features of American education. But this formal education should be coupled with efforts to promote international interconnections for people of all ages and from all walks of life. It is only through such experiences that we can transform an intellectual recognition that we live in a complex globalized world into the heartfelt emotions of humility, understanding and respect on which a better future for our world depends.

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