“Traveling in Europe made me understand that America has an island mentality: No one exists except us. There’s a whole other world out there, but most Americans – all they know is America” — will.i.am
A recent Pew poll asked Americans about what they perceive as “global threats facing the U.S.” the threat from ISIS being among them. The news is that 67% of Americans view ISIS as a major threat to the U.S. — a threat only exceeded by the threat from “Islamic extremist groups like Al Qaeda.”
I guess that after more than a decade of indoctrination in which we have been led to regard Al Qaeda as the purest distillation of evil ever known, it will take some time for the average American to accept the idea that there could actually be anything worse than Al Qaeda.
Even so, the fact that most Americans now perceive ISIS as a major threat doesn’t really reveal a whole lot more than the fact that most Americans watch television.
What I find more interesting than the numbers is the premise behind the pollster’s question: that something could be a global threat and yet not necessarily be a threat to America.
This is a reflection of the prevailing mentality among Americans: that America and the world are in some sense separable.
America can be engaged with or disengaged from the rest of the world because, supposedly, if we are so inclined, the rest of the world can be shut out while America tends to its own affairs.
Is it any wonder that a nation that has such difficulty in seeing itself as part of and as inseparable from the world, also has difficulty viewing climate change — the greatest challenge facing our planet — as a threat?
The Pew poll found that 52% of Americans view the spread of infectious diseases as a threat to the U.S., lower, for instance, than the perceived threat from North Korea’s nuclear program.
No doubt for most people being questioned, when it comes to infectious diseases the issue of the Ebola outbreak in West Africa will have been uppermost in their minds.
President Obama’s announcement on Sunday about a U.S. response to the crisis again reflects America’s island mentality. This is how he framed the urgency of the issue:
“If we don’t make that effort now, and this spreads not just through Africa but other parts of the world, there’s the prospect then that the virus mutates. It becomes more easily transmittable. And then it could be a serious danger to the United States.”
He also said, “We have to make this a national security priority.”
For the United States, the Ebola outbreak is less of a humanitarian issue than it is a threat to America’s security.
It’s as though if health workers in Africa could guarantee that the disease was contained and there was no risk of it spreading overseas, then the U.S. would have no reason to be concerned.
America sees itself as a generous country, in part because Americans have a staggering level of ignorance about how much foreign aid the U.S. grants.
Americans on average believe that 28% of the federal budget — more than is spent on defense — is spent on foreign aid when in reality it is just 1%! When informed about actual spending, the majority of Americans say that 1% is about right or too much — only 28% say that 1% of the budget is too little.
What these numbers imply is that most Americans perceive the world as a drain on this nation’s resources. Having been led from birth to believe that this is the greatest nation on earth, how could the rest of the world be perceived otherwise?
When Obama lays out his strategy for dealing with ISIS this evening, it goes without saying that one of the central pillars of his argument will be that this organization poses a threat to America’s national security. To present ISIS in any other way would risk implying that the threat which ISIS poses across the Middle East constitutes a sufficiently urgent threat that even if it was to advance no further, this should nevertheless concern Americans. Such an argument would likely elicit a shrug — we don’t live in the Middle East so why should we care?
The idea that we might care because we all live on the same planet, breath the same air, and inhabit the same world, has little traction in the hearts and minds of Americans who see the world as somewhere else.
The idea that those whose lives are not in danger have a responsibility to pay attention to the needs of those in peril, is a humanitarian impulse which in an era of unquestioned realism, is always a lower priority than the national interest.
Returning to the question about global threats, rather than ask Americans a conceptually mangled question about threats to the U.S., it might have been more interesting to try and gauge awareness about actual global threats, which is to say, threats that are global in scale.
These would be — at least by my reckoning:
- the excessive production of greenhouse gases by human activity resulting in climate change
- the Holocene extinction — the mass extinction of species and loss of biodiversity that has resulted from human activity
- population displacement which now exceeds 50 million people, the largest number since World War II
- industrialized agriculture involving the use of toxic pesticides and genetically modified crops which poisons the food chain, degrades ecosystems, resulting in the loss of topsoil thereby undermining the basis for agriculture
- nuclear weapons both in existing arsenals and through proliferation
- infectious diseases including antibiotic resistant superbugs
- chronic illness caused by unhealthy lifestyles, poor nutrition, and profit driven pharmaceutical protocols promoted by the disease-maintenance industry
- racism and other forms of intolerance which undermine the growth of political pluralism
- the endangered ethnosphere in which the accumulated knowledge of indigenous peoples, their languages and cultures is rapidly being lost
- homogenized global culture in which human aspirations are manipulated in the service of commerce
- technological dependence through which intelligence is being displaced from minds into devices
- inequality stemming from inadequate political representation and excessive corporate power
- ignorance resulting in the proliferation of all the above threats.
Compared with these issues, I don’t believe that ISIS constitutes a global threat, yet it nevertheless poses an urgent threat calling for a global response — a response that should not be artificially separated from the need to envision a post-war Syria.