This past spring I checked out from the public library Russ Feingold’s book, While America Sleeps: A Wake-up Call for the Post 9/11 Era, and as soon as I finished it, I went out and bought my own copy. Throughout the book, Feingold, the former Democratic US Senator for my state, Wisconsin, gives an interesting behind-the-scenes account of Washington after 9/11 and his time as a member of the US Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. As he recounts his days as a politician, he simultaneously makes observations and doles out advice for American foreign policy.
One of the main themes of the book is the necessity of the American people and government to be more aware of foreign affairs. Towards the beginning of the book, Feingold quotes a 1937 speech by Winston Churchill, during which the former British Prime Minister states, “[Our] fate…depends on what may happen in the world, on what other countries do, for good or for ill.” (16) Seventy-six years later, that advice is still applicable, if not more so, given our increasingly interconnected world. In his numerous discussions of listening sessions, Feingold mentions how often constituents’ questions and comments focused on domestic issues as opposed to global ones. Eventually we learn that political conversations at all levels focused mostly on domestic affairs, and that “there is little expectation within the Senate that senators should know much about foreign issues; expectations are even lower among the public as well.” (236) Additionally, he asserts that people living in other countries know more about Americans, than we do about them. This leads to the important conclusion that the US will experience serious repercussions for ignoring the rest of the world. Not only will deliberate ignorance have a detrimental affect on our standing in the world, but it will also have negative consequences for our national security.
This leads us to the second theme, his advice on how to correct this problem and get America back on the right path. I want to focus on two of his proposals- learning at least one foreign language, and the importance of public diplomacy. Sen. Feingold devotes roughly four pages to the issue of learning a foreign language. I do not know why this is not more of a priority in our education system, although I can guess it is because the US borders only two countries- Canada and Mexico- and therefore learning another language has never really been seen as a necessity. Last spring, I traveled to Germany as part of an exchange program between my high school and a Gesamtschule. I was amazed at how early students there begin learning English. On top of that, many of them usually learn a third language. Of course, I can see why learning a foreign language might be a necessity in Europe, given the fact that any one country borders many different countries. As globalization continues, it is imperative that Americans learn foreign languages. If we want to conduct business in other countries, study overseas, or even just learn about another culture, learning a foreign language is crucial.
In addition to learning a foreign language, Feingold advocates for the importance of public diplomacy. While he states that lawmakers and diplomats need to be “engaged and informed about world affairs,” we also need regular citizens to travel overseas to cultivate relationships and understanding between the US and other countries. (248) Feingold argues that public diplomacy will create “meaningful opportunities for citizen dialogue, a chance for countries to get to know each other from the bottom up.” (264) Perhaps the most well-known attempt by the US government at public diplomacy is the Peace Corps. As a high school social studies teacher, I am a firm supporter of public diplomacy. One of the classes I teach is World Studies, a mix of history, government, geography, and economics. During the thirty-six weeks we are in school, my job is to teach my students (who are mostly 15-16 years old) about various regions around the world using those “strands” of social studies. In other words, I am trying to increase my students’ interest and awareness in global affairs and cultures, as well as break down stereotypes. As I am sure that classes like this are found all over the world, who better to engage in public diplomacy than teachers? Accordingly, I want to point out two specific opportunities for teachers.
The first program is the Fulbright Classroom Teacher Exchange, an opportunity for a teacher from the US and another country to exchange positions for a semester or a year. Unfortunately, there are only six other countries participating in the program. I hope that whichever agency is in charge of the Fulbright (US Department of State? Institute of International Education?) will eventually be able to add more countries to the list. As someone who has a keen interest in transatlantic relations, the second program I want to point out is the Marshall Memorial Fellowship created by the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Participants “visit five cities during the 24-day program” and “explore each other’s politics, business, innovation, and culture through experiential learning.” Given the importance of the relationship between the US and Europe, programs like this one are beneficial to parties on both sides of the Atlantic.
Since 9/11 and the debacle known as the Bush Doctrine, the US has lost its standing in the world. We have a lot of relationships to mend. Russ Feingold has given the American public and politicians a blueprint for a successful foreign policy. Hopefully, more people will read his book and take his advice.