America Remains Self-Centered

December 6, 2010

Two Turkish delegations visited Washington last week. The first one was Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, who came the day the “wikicables” hit the press. The second delegation was led by Minister of Justice Sadullah Ergin.

Turkish officials and journalists travelling with these delegations as well as academics and analysts who came to Washington last week to participate in a Foundation for Political, Economic and Social Research (SETA) conference were obviously very interested in the content of the cables as they related to Turkey. Yet after exchanging a few generic comments and views based on how this would impact Turkish-American relations, they all seemed very interested in the American domestic debate itself. In other words, the real question was: “How will this impact America’s self-image?”

My short answer to this question is that not much will change. People who have never lived in the United States often do not realize the extremely self-centered nature of American politics, culture and media. Foreign policy issues, what happens in the world or what other countries think about the United States are seldom a source of concern for the overwhelming majority of Americans. They hardly get a mention on TV, and the press coverage is often very superficial. You seldom have TV shows focusing on American foreign policy or public discussions with leading intellectuals making their views known in debate shows like is the norm in Turkey and most of Europe. This is why the wikicables will not change the domestic debate in the United States. The main issues will continue to be the economy and American politics. Practically no American citizen will from now on start thinking that the wikicable scandal clearly shows that “America is in decline” or that “this is a turning point in American history.”

To understand this, all you have to do is to look at the coverage of the story in the American media, leaving aside the local American media, which showed absolutely no interest in the story. Even major newspapers such as The Washington Post and The New York Times did not give priority to the story the way world media did. The reason is simple: The real story is always what happens in the United States and what affects American citizens. This is why the ramifications of congressional elections, the tax debate and the unemployment question always have much more importance compared than foreign policy. Similarly, most American politicians did not react to the story because it was not that relevant for their own communities. American politicians react to domestic politics. Since the media are primarily about what is going on in the United States, there is a vicious cycle of lack of interest in what happens in the world.

To be sure, American foreign policy will not be immune. But even there the analysis is not that dramatic. For instance one of the leading foreign policy commentators in the United States, Fareed Zakaria, argues that “I don’t deny for a moment that many of the ‘wikicables’ are intensely embarrassing, but the sum total of the output I have read is actually quite reassuring about the way Washington—or at least the State Department—works. … The documents show Washington pursuing privately pretty much the policies it has articulated publicly. Whether on Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan or North Korea, the cables confirm what we know to be U.S. foreign policy. And often this foreign policy is concerned with broader regional security, not narrow American interests. Ambassadors are not caught pushing other countries in order to make deals secretly to strengthen the U.S., but rather to solve festering problems.”

There you have it. No need to really sensationalize the story. In my opinion the most important dimension of the US domestic debate will be about cyberspace security and how a 22-year-old US Army intelligence officer was able to download so much data in a thumb drive and get away with it. This is why intelligence security and, despite much progress since 2001, the reluctance to share information within different US agencies will be the real story. In that sense, too, America will remain self-centered.