There are always things we say that we think are smart at the time. Later, when we know a bit more, we come to regret them.
So many Europeans have now repeated the criticism that “most Americans don’t even have passports” that it has finally ceased to provoke any response from me. I once said the same thing, confident in my knowledge that the statistic was accurate and that it proved so many points about what was wrong with America. Americans, it seemed, didn’t understand the rest of the world and here was the proof.
Of course, at the time I had never traveled across the Atlantic. These days, when I hear this European epithet, I just smile in a way that may be interpreted as acquiescence but actually means something else.
So here I am, enjoying the seaside pleasures of South Carolina in August 2009 and wondering at the magnificence of the open beaches, the warm gentle surf and the clear blue sky. And I also reflect on whether I could be any happier if I had packed up the family suitcases, grabbed our American passports and taken off to… well, the Spanish islands or the South of France.
But it so much easier to load up the SUV and drive for nine hours than endure abrupt airport workers, surly taxi drivers and jetlag. Just ask Vice President Biden, who is here too. I can’t seem to escape these guys.
In terms of its cultural variety, America surely has no equal. It has beaches, mountains, deserts, a rich natural history, recreational fishing and accessible golf courses. It has theaters, cinemas, art exhibits, top class restaurants and any wine your palate desires. It has distinct cities such as New York City, Chicago, Miami, Washington, DC, Las Vegas, Los Angeles.
It’s domestic markets are so big that American businesses have a competitive advantage just from being born here, and all major manufacturers and service providers try to establish bases in major U.S. population centers.
And it is just so, so big.
You can make a good living here and experience all the joys of hot or cold climates, high or low altitudes, rural or city environments, that you never have to leave its borders to gain a broad perspective on life.
The inference behind the passports comment, of course, is that American politicians are incompetent when it comes to foreign policy, particularly modern Republicans because they are more inclined towards physical intervention. If only they traveled, they would be more worldly-wise and cautious.
And the implied corollary is that Europeans are far more competent in these matters on account of their summer vacations to Orlando and Lanzarote.
But the reality is that a leader’s political philosophy tends to govern his or her approach to foreign policy much more than any personal familiarity with other nations. President Obama is more obsequious to Europeans and Middle East nations because of his pacifist outlook, not because of any deep-seated knowledge about them. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Jacques Delors favored the expansion of European Union powers because they are socialists and favor centralized governance.
Anti-communist Ronald Reagan took on communism against the advice of foreign policy experts everywhere – and won. Margaret Thatcher took back the Falkland Islands on the back of her strong conviction on sovereign rights. George W. Bush imposed democracy on Iraq and Afghanistan because he believed this was the only way to dampen modern terrorism – and the evidence so far is that his strategy has worked.
I can’t see Joe Biden from where I am sitting, but he is close by. And the thought persists that this well-traveled former Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman has at best a spotty record on foreign policy issues. He was proved wrong on the Iraq issue (he wanted to split Iraq into three nations) and a couple of weeks ago he was unwisely insulting Russia from neighboring Georgia.
Nevertheless, three years from now the western media will be criticizing the leading Republican primary leaders – Romney, Palin, Huckerbee, Jindal, et all – for their lack of foreign policy experience and we will no doubt hear again an old cliché about Americans and passports.
American leaders are perfectly capable of having effective foreign policies whether or not they can name the leaders of South Korea and Bangladesh. And it doesn’t matter how many of their fellow countrymen own a passport. The key is their political philosophy.
An English friend once laughed at the stupidity of Americans because, he said, they did not know that the city of Leeds is located in the county of Yorkshire. So I asked him in what U.S. state Chicago is located. Puzzled, he looked at me and retorted: “But that’s different!”