Welcome to an age of interdependence

The outcome of November's presidential election will affect the entire world. Yet until the attack on our consulate in Libya, issues of foreign policy and globalization were nearly absent from the political discourse.

There was talk at both parties' political conventions about American exceptionalism and the nation's exalted place in the world, but little was said about the need for common action with other nations to secure our imperiled common planet. Even former President Bill Clinton stuck to the domestic agenda at his party's Charlotte, N.C., convention.


In an age of unprecedented cosmopolitanism and interdependence, our election rhetoric has been parochial, inward and self-absorbed.

The talk has been about American jobs, American civil rights, American health care. These are all crucial topics, but we need to think of them in international terms. We are American citizens, yes, but we are also citizens of the world. And the complex issues we face today don't honor the borders of nations.


Take climate change. Other than Mitt Romney's throwaway line ridiculing the rise of sea levels, there has been little substantive discussion of this global peril. The parties, meanwhile, advocate "energy independence," something that is neither desirable nor achievable in this era. The oil market is truly global, and no country can control prices that fluctuate with global supply and demand. Solely national markets simply do not exist anymore — not in steel, not in oil, not even in labor. Our immigration problems are a function of a global labor market that is beyond our ability to control.

We live in an age of interdependence, and the challenges we face — climate change, immigration, pandemic illness, the drug trade, terrorism, financial stability — can't be addressed without global cooperation. The 21st century will be neither an American century nor a Chinese century; it will be a world century. It will belong to all of us or to none, and we must decide together how to shape it.

This is realism, not idealism. But it is hard for politicians to talk realistically about interdependence when citizens punish them for it, calling them "European" or "socialist" or "un-American." In his first year in office, President Barack Obama gave speeches in Istanbul and Cairo in which he urged global cooperation and actually used the term "interdependence." Since then he's learned to avoid cosmopolitanism in his politics. Thinking globally may be prudent policy, but it's political poison.

It's no wonder Americans aren't as engaged in the world as they should be. Many of the news outlets that people rely on for information pay little attention to the world beyond our borders. But channel surf beyond the usual American fare, pausing at the BBC or even Al Jazeera, and you will be amazed to discover that important news of crucial importance to the United States emanates daily from parts of the world many Americans can't find on a map.

Meanwhile, on the usual channels, just try to find news from, say, East Timor, where Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton found herself during her husband's rousing speech. (East Timor is part of which country? She was there why?) And when was the last time you saw news out of Libya before the recent tragic events there? In fact, it had been clear for some months to those paying attention that tribal militias were running amok and that the government was having trouble instituting the rule of law. But it took losing a brave ambassador for most Americans to focus on the situation.

Political conventions won't take up global issues until politicians are willing to do so; politicians won't think or talk like cosmopolitans until citizens applaud them for global realism; and citizens won't be ready to cross the traditional national frontiers that have defined their parochialism until an information-grounded media help them grasp the meaning of interdependence, which is about bridges not walls, cooperation not frontiers, commonality not exceptionalism.

As a sovereign nation, we have had more than 200 years of successful independence. But today, in a world without borders confronting challenges without borders, Americans need to learn to become citizens without borders.

Benjamin R. Barber is a scholar at the Graduate Center of City University of New York and the author of "Jihad vs. McWorld" and the forthcoming book "If Mayors Ruled the World." This article originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.