You turn on the news, and fire and brimstone rains down. Another dozen or so public figures have been exposed as sexual predators. The president’s Twitter has rung the death knell of decorum. Great Britain will soon have its first biracial princess—and she’s American. These are all notable and striking stories, to be sure. However, they are stories you already saw three hours ago when you last flipped on the T.V. “Maybe it’s a slow news day,” you wonder as you watch different correspondents belabor the same arguments over and over again.
What you don’t see—unless you dig around a newspaper’s website or read the scrawling banner beneath the news desk—is a far more diverse picture of global proportion.
The bombing of an Egyptian Mosque killed over 300 worshippers.
Libya has undertaken a twenty-first century slave trade of African migrants.
An investigation by the New York Times found that the civilian casualty rate of American-backed airstrikes in Syria is 31times the official estimate.
All too often, the American media under-covers and the American public ignores international events. American ignorance in regard to global affairs is neither a new nor particularly revelatory trend. The problem isn’t that there are too many countries, too many domestic issues, and thus too many news stories to cover—the United States boasts over one thousand newspapers and multiple 24-hour news networks. The problem is that most Americans do not care about what is going on in the world at large. And so, American news mediums, being sensational consumer-driven corporations, reflect and reinforce this fact through feeble international coverage.
At its best, the American public’s international apathy is simply a self-centered shortsightedness on foreign affairs, but at its most insidious, this apathy results from a valuation of the importance of American interests and lives over those of foreign nationals. There are definitive racist undertones to some examples of Americans’ global indifference as evidenced by the disparity of coverage between tragedies in Western nations and those in Africa, Asia, and Latin America. However, there are also far less ugly and equally as pervasive social narratives and structural institutions that fuel such apathy.
At the most base and individual level, Americans don’t and, in fact, can’t devote their attention or efforts to foreign affairs (without a tangible or publicized domestic component) because such matters do not directly concern them. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a single mother working a minimum-wage job in rural Nebraska prioritizing issues abroad that seem so far removed from both her efficacy and her own socioeconomic struggles. Further, if any criticisms were to be lobbied at Americans for not so much as sparing a thought towards voluminous international suffering, let this be attributed to the limitations of individual capacity to endure and understand traumas which then hinders the experience of empathy across vast distances.
Another factor which both spurs and validates the American public’s apathy is the blind faith most Americans have entrusted in the United States government to protect the country, promote democracy, and generally do the right thing. Though public opinion has recently trended towards isolationism in the wake of the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the public, by and large, still trusts the United States to be the world’s only military superpower. The manifestation of these apparently conflicting ideological trends is stark and unadulterated public stagnancy. The public believes, but does not demand, that the U.S. should “mind its own business. ” Thus, as the American people don’t forcefully care what goes on internationally, the U.S. government is free to act abroad as it so chooses with little constituency oversight.
Currently, President Trump’s America First campaign deceptively marries these values of isolationism and jingoism in a necessarily distortionary way. Essentially, the doctrine of America First establishes an asymmetric relationship between America and the rest of the world whereby the United States is protected from foreign influence but authorized and, moreover, entitled to intervene abroad. By staunchly promoting American interests over any semblance of international cooperation, America First isolates the United States, placing it alone atop the global hierarchy. The popularity of this doctrine is indicative of Americans’ self-centeredness and inability or unwillingness to understand global context. The campaign’s marketing appeals to both domestic insecurities and isolationist sentiment, while ignoring the global ramifications of America First for foreign nations.
American apathy and ignorance is not problematic because it fails to meet some idyllic, humanitarian conception of our responsibility to alleviate or empathize with universal suffering, nor is a lack of “worldliness” a moral or intellectual sin. Rather, the American problem is a unique and situational one which arises from the fact that the United States is both the world’s foremost geopolitical superpower and a democracy.
While Americans recognize the U.S. as the lone global superpower, they either do not entertain or do not concern themselves with the idea that it might effectively operate as a supervillain. Being an independent capitalist nation with an eye towards national gain, the U.S. has historically wielded its unparalleled influence towards its own benefit rather than that of the international community. At various times throughout history, this tendency has led the U.S. to topple foreign regimes, support “terror” abroad, and meddle in foreign elections. At present, the United States exercises political, economic, and military hegemony over much of the world, especially through its virtual domination of international bodies such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. Consequently, many citizens—not just regimes—of foreign countries view the United States as a “greedy bully” rather than a ‘liberator’ or champion of freedom.
The United States is a constitutional democracy; therefore, its votes and its politicians are the people’s responsibility. Given the United States’ stature as the most economically and politically impactful nation in the world, and as the greatest global threat (as it boasts the world’s largest military and nuclear arsenal), Americans are responsible for caring about the international community.
Norms of prosociality are only necessary and enforceable when there exists a tangible, collaborative community. Thus, to eliminate the burden of transnational responsibility (as opposed to cultivating a transnational culture of care), nations must sever ties with the international community. Whether they like it or not, Americans are playing a global game. And if they don’t like it, their duty as members of a democracy is to demand isolationism rather than benignly believe in it. At the moment, the hawkishness of both major American political parties, and the apathy of the American people are fueling a game of Russian roulette the world over.
Citizens in a democracy are unique in being directly culpable for any injustice their government repeatedly commits without referendum, and as it stands now, we’ve all got blood on our hands.