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World: Analysis From Washington: Disappearing Countries

  • Paul Goble

Orlando, Florida; 18 April 1997 (RFE/RL) - Ever more countries are disappearing from the mental maps of people in the United States and elsewhere in the post-Cold War world.

That is not to say that these countries have disappeared from the map the way Yugoslavia or the Soviet Union did. Rather ever more countries are attracting ever less attention from the press and electronic media abroad.

For some countries, this decline in the attention of others comes as a shock. Many Russians, for example, find it difficult to understand that they no longer command the attention they did at the height of the Cold War.

For others, it may even come as a welcome relief. Many Canadians are delighted that the United States seems to be paying less attention to them than in the past, a pattern that has given Canada greater room for maneuver.

But for all, this decline in attention to developments will have some significant consequences, and they are likely to be all the more serious precisely because ever fewer people will be paying attention to them as well.

There are three major reasons for the decline in the attention the media and its audiences pay to news from abroad, all of which flow from the end of the Cold War.

First, the end of the Cold War has led many people to conclude that they no longer face a serious threat from abroad. Throughout the Cold War, people in the West naturally paid attention to countries like the Soviet Union that threatened their existence directly. But few in the media or the population at large see many reasons for continuing to focus on Russia now.

Second, the end of this conflict has led many to believe that now is the time to focus on domestic affairs that were either neglected or overshadowed by international developments earlier.

Given such feelings -- and polls in the United States and elsewhere confirm that they are very real -- the media both print and electronic are providing their audiences with just what the latter want.

And third, it has deprived many people of an intellectual matrix within which to fit the multitude of conflicts still plaguing the world.

During the Cold War, a conflict in a place no one had ever heard of could be fixed as it were on the map of the overarching conflict. Now conflicts in such places are often ignored because there is no mental map on which they can be placed.

But if the reasons for this pattern are obvious, so too are the consequences, even if they have received relatively little attention up to now.

First and foremost, the decline in attention to developments abroad may mean that other major powers may be able to act in ways inimical to the national audiences that are not paying attention.

Small countries and large that ignore developments elsewhere are likely to find that these developments will either have more negative consequences for them or take greater efforts to counter than would have been the case had they been paying attention.

Second, the decline in public attention to foreign developments means that regional powers may be able to dominate their neighborhoods without the restraints that the attention of other larger powers necessarily impose.

Small states living next to large ones frequently must rely on the attention of larger ones farther away to provide them with a kind of surrogate security. If the larger ones farther away do not pay attention, then these smaller states will not have even that.

And third, the decline in public attention to events abroad in many cases will produce a inward-looking smugness that will have negative consequences for the peoples who adopt it -- even if, as seems most unlikely, outside powers do not exploit this situation.

Are these current mental maps in the United States and elsewhere likely to change? Almost certainly. But history suggests that they will change only in response to either a direct challenge to these states or a redefinition of the map by national elites.

One or the other is almost certain to occur, but the longer absence of public attention to other countries, the more difficult this redrawing of mental maps is likely to be.