Monday, March 26, 2007

previous entry | main | next entry | TrackBack (0)

Is the U.S. more cosmopolitan.... or just bigger and more powerful?

On his Financial Times blog, Gideon Rachman suggests that Americans are more cosmopolitan than Brits:

We are all familiar with the clichés about American insularity: the number of Congressmen who don’t have a passport, the number of Americans who have never left the US – and so on.

But, as I come to the end of a week in Washington, my overwhelming impression is how incredibly outward-looking intellectual life is in this city compared with London – despite the fact that London flatters itself that it is now the world’s most international city.

On Monday I went to a speaker-meeting at the New American Foundation – one of the plethora of DC-based think tanks, dealing with world affairs. The subject was the future of Pakistan and the speaker was a prominent Pakistani journalist. The room was packed. By contrast, I remember going to a speaker-meeting in London about a year ago with a much more obviously star-studded cast – Bill Kristol, a key neoconservative thinker; Tariq Ramadan, a central figure in the debate about Europe and Islam; and Phil Gordon, one of the leading experts on US foreign policy at the Brookings Institution. The meeting attracted maybe 30 people. You could get more people than that to turn up and listen to the deputy head of the OSCE, in Washington.

Nor is this American interest in the outside world an entirely Washington-based phenomenon. There is a Chicago Council on Foreign Relations and a Los Angeles World Affairs Council; I haven’t noticed their equivalents in Birmingham or Edinburgh.

Or take book sales: Edward Luce, the FT’s Washington bureau chief, recently published a much-acclaimed book on India. You might expect it to do best in Britain - given that Luce is a Brit and given the historical connections between India and the UK. Not at all – “In Spite of the Gods” has sold about 5,000 copies in Britain and almost 30,000 in the US.... Perhaps this is because Britain used to be an imperial power -- while America is still enjoying its imperial moment.

Much as I like the back-slapping of America, a few obvious points of caution are warranted. The most obvious is this one: the United States has roughly five times the population of Great Britain. It shouldn't be that surprising, therefore, if a book sells better five times here or a foreign policy event attracts a much larger crowd.

Second, cosmopolitan implies more than just a keen sense of foreign policy interest -- there are cultural dimensions as well. The U.S. might stack up well in that department as well, but it's not a part of Rachman's post.

Now, that said, assuming that Rachman's point is still correct, is this because "America is still enjoying its imperial moment." Well, right now I would use neither the word "imperial" nor "enjoying."

That said, what the U.S. does have in place is a foreign policy infrastructure that's second to none at this point. Beyond the official organs of the federal government, there are a host of quasi-governmental organizations, think tanks, NGOs, foundations, and yes, God forbid, universities with a vested interest in thinking about the world and America's place in it. Sixty years of superpower status will have that effect.

The interesting question to ponder is how long it will be before another country -- or supranational institution -- matches American investments in this area. There is a lag between the acquisition of power and the development of domestic and international institutions to convert that power into authority.

posted by Dan on 03.26.07 at 09:35 AM


It is hard to imagine Communist Party of China is able to establish Foreign Policy Infrastructure in Beijing which is as open as ones described and discussed in this blog.

The point is in the end 'global authority' does need some moral basis and/or democratic legitimacy (exceptions are Vatican’s and Saudi Arabia’s religion based authority). Despite America's disastrous Iraq campaign, the reservoir of America's 'moral high' based on America's triumphs and good deeds of last century is not yet bottomed out. You can not have long term International Authority unless you are perceptible to moral, democratic sensibilities in some concrete and sustained way.

Can we have that in China? No, we can not imagine that.

posted by: Umesh Patil on 03.26.07 at 09:35 AM [permalink]

At the risk of saying something reasonable (again), the European Union as a whole probably does have a policy community that is nearly as broad and deep as America's. On the other hand, it's very widely distributed (the key places for experitse on Ukraine right now, for example, are neither Brussels nor any of the big-country capitals, but Warsaw and Vilnius), and there are both significant redundancies and significant losses because the national-level policy communities still have to overcome language issues. And of course there's the need for European countries to have experts on each other, in a way that Wyoming doesn't necessarily need to have a Montana expertise.

posted by: Doug on 03.26.07 at 09:35 AM [permalink]

Well, it's not as though DC is five times bigger than London. For personal attendance at events, the population of the whole country isn't quite as relevant as it is for book sales.

posted by: Jacob T. Levy on 03.26.07 at 09:35 AM [permalink]

Jacob beat me to my comment, which was that London is considerably larger than DC (and I think neither is a good stand-in for their respective countries insularity or lack thereof).

posted by: Norman Pfyster on 03.26.07 at 09:35 AM [permalink]

I really don't think that the particular case study involved can be taken to indicate anything very much about "insularity" either way.

Speaking as somebody who quite regularly attends foreign-policy related events in London, I have to say that I wouldn't say that scrappy, half-hearted attendance is the norm. I've frequently attended events that were RSVP-only and were standing-room only on the day.

A few other thoughts:

Given Rachman's figures, "In Spite of the Gods" has actually sold slightly (very slightly) better per head of population in the UK than in the USA.

The comparison between Birmingham and Chicago is a bit of an "apples and oranges" situation. The sheer geographical size of the USA, coupled with its federal political structure, means that the sort of decentralised approach is natural. The UK is both more centralised (in fact the centralisation around a single city is unique in the Western world as far as I'm aware) and geographically smaller. You can hop on the train in Birmingham and be in London for a 9am appointment and then be home again for tea, at a pinch (as long as you can afford the rail fares...). Not so much with Washington DC to LA.

Second of all, the policy culture is a lot different in D.C. than it is in London and I don't think it really offers any lessons about the broader population. In Britain, the policy community is far more focused around professional practitioners and a small number of fairly select policy institutes (RUSI, IISS, Chatham House, CDS etc), who are often directly linked to the government. The American system is far more fully stocked with people who make their money dreaming up policy ideas and engaging in advocacy and lobbying. Washington is an "ideas" town, London isn't - or at least not to the same degree.

I'd also note that as far as I'm aware, it's not so much the case that London "flatters itself" that it's the world's most international city - I believe that it IS the world's most international city based on a number of benchmarks - diversity of foreign population, languages spoken, types of foreign foods available etc. It doesn't have anything to do with dreamy comparisons of how cosmopolitan Brits are in comparison to allegedly parochial Yanks.

posted by: Anthony C on 03.26.07 at 09:35 AM [permalink]

Let's not forget that the sole purpose of DC is to feed the massive machine that is the US government infrastructure. A disproportionate number of the white collar working population of DC are in the infrastructure that Daniel talks about, when compared to London. It's unsurprising that with all the policy wonks, graduate students and interns in one place that there's a big turn-out for free events like that - it's one big networking fair. London might be bigger, but it also has a working population with a much wider range of interests - music, fashion, finance, and so on.

Mind you, I've never seen anything in London like the poverty I've seen in DC. That probably doesn't add anything to the discussion, however.

posted by: merkur on 03.26.07 at 09:35 AM [permalink]

@Anthony C

"The UK is both more centralised (in fact the centralisation around a single city is unique in the Western world as far as I'm aware)"

Madrid in Spain? Rome in Italy?

Furthermore, at one point in time the U.S. had this exact kind of geographic centralization; the bulk of the population at the founding of then nation lived on the Eastern seaboard and Washington D.C. was chosen for its geographic centrality.

But yea, point taken, today L.A., D.C. and Chicago are all major centers of influence, and they are nowhere near as connected or similar as the cities in the U.K.

posted by: adam on 03.26.07 at 09:35 AM [permalink]


"Furthermore, at one point in time the U.S. had this exact kind of geographic centralization; the bulk of the population at the founding of then nation lived on the Eastern seaboard and Washington D.C. was chosen for its geographic centrality."

Yes. But how this is relevant to the current discussion I'm not sure.

I'm not a Spain hand, but in the case of Italy there's far less dominance by a single city than there is in Britain. Milan, for example, is a financial, commercial and cultural player in its own right in a way that Birmingham (or Sheffield or Manchester) isn't.

posted by: Anthony C on 03.26.07 at 09:35 AM [permalink]

In re centralization, everyone knows that there are only two places in France: Paris and anywhere else.

On smaller scales, Denmark has Copenhagen and...? Finland has Helsinki and...? The Czech Republic has Prague and...? Tallinn, for example, has close to 30 percent of Estonia's population in its metro area. That's some serious centralization. If that's not western enough for you, consider that Dublin county appears to contain almost 30 percent of Ireland's population.

Anyone here conversant with Central and South American capitals? I can't do them off the top of my head, but I suspect there's some high-grade centralization in that part of the world, too.

posted by: Doug on 03.26.07 at 09:35 AM [permalink]

I have lived in both London and DC recently. I basically think that the number of people attending foreign policy events in each place is similar.

I would not be surprised if the number of people attending foreign policy events in San Francisco, LA, or Chicago exceeds that in, say, Birmingham or Edinburgh, but you've got to remember that the United States has its political capital in one city (DC), financial capital in another (NY, to some extent Chicago and San Francisco), technology capital in yet another (San Francisco, to some extent Boston), academic capitals in yet another (various East Coast and West Coast cities), media capital in yet another (Los Angeles, to some extent New York), energy capital in yet another (Houston), etc. In the UK, with the partial exception of the academics, these are all centered in London. And while foreign policy events draw interest from the politicos, they also draw interest from people in other fields.

In short, I am pretty skeptical of arguments that people in one developing country are more parochial than in others.

posted by: Chris Stone on 03.26.07 at 09:35 AM [permalink]

Oops, make that "developed" countries.

posted by: Chris Stone on 03.26.07 at 09:35 AM [permalink]

Frankly, having spent lots of time with Europeans in Europe and around the world, my impression is that - on average - they are every bit as provincial, racist and ill-informed as their American counterparts. Take a German factory worker on holiday in turkey and an American at Daytona for Speed Week and their behaviors and attitudes are damned similar. It is just the German had to cross a border to get some sun.

I think the real differences lies in the role and influence of elites. In Europe, elites play a highly influential role in establishing societal norms. The university professor, the brussels eurocrat, etc have a prominent role to play. In the US, intellectual elites are marginalized by the egalitarian and anti-intellectual bend of US culture. Instead, the US glorifies a funny mixture of 'everyman' and celebrity culture. The result is that the O'Reilly Factor and Paris Hilton dominate....

posted by: SteveinVT on 03.26.07 at 09:35 AM [permalink]

Having lived in both cities I find it laughable that anyone could consider DC more cosmopolitan or "outward-looking" than London. Any genuine internationalism in Washington, DC is diluted by overweening sense of fealty DC residents feel toward the US government, the almost exclusive source of their pensions, livelihoods, and children's college tuition. The federal government and its related "sub-industries" employ the majority of the city and suburbs, creating a veritable "bureaucratropolis," of people who believe watching public television or listening to National Public Radio elevates them to the Pantheon of the American intelligentsia.

The reason why those seminars are filled to the brim is both personal and professional: people meet there for jobs (as I did) and mates of similar intellectual interests. This flux of people to policy-wonk seminars is further driven by the overwhelming urge in Washington, DC to establish "power couple" relationship. London on the other hand, is inhabitated by enterprise, fine arts, and government affairs beyond the narrow slice of American government affairs.

posted by: J on 03.26.07 at 09:35 AM [permalink]

Post a Comment:


Email Address:



Remember your info?