Sept. 11: America and the World

One thing I'd like add to my remarks from last Friday's The World This Week program on France 24 has to do with the question, at the end of Part I, about the impact of Sept. 11 on America's relationship to the world. To begin with, I usually find that particular discussion a bit reductionist. On one level, America's collective reaction to Sept. 11 included a large dose of distrust and suspicion of a world that suddenly seemed very hostile and threatening.

But on another level, I often find the portrayal of the barriers between America and the world to be exaggerated. Scratch the surface of most Americans and you'll find a pretty direct and often very recent connection to another part of the world. Sure, there are socio-economic and geographic swathes of the country that are leery of the outside world, but that's true of all countries. And for reasons that have to do with America's identity as an immigrant nation, but also its model of absorbing immigrants, we enjoy a "hyphened" relationship to our countries of origin that other destination countries, often by design, don't. The idea of a third-generation American identifying as an Italian-American, Korean-American or Mexican-American from an ethno-cultural perspective, but as a full-fledged American from a citizenship and patriotic perspective is unimaginable in most parts of the world, where there is either an assimilation process that erases the previous identity or lingering barriers that prevent the assumption of the new one. That simultaneous dual identity is even more pronounced in recent American immigrants, and is simply part of the DNA of a city like New York.

Nevertheless, these visceral ties on the level of individual identity can very often coexist with a very real American isolation from the rest of the world. That is partly the result of America's very privileged global role and status, and partly the result of America being, in strategic terms that have impacted its mindset, an island. The American response to Sept. 11 served to break down that isolation because of the direct engagement with the world that followed. That direct engagement was most pronounced in terms of its military component, but there was also a very significant amount of the national conversation and attention span devoted to the problems facing other parts of the world, if only in an attempt to get ourselves out of the holes we'd dug for ourselves in our initial knee-jerk reactions.

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