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East/West: New Yorkers -- Not So Much Isolationist As Ignorant

Attacking his Republican opponents yesterday, President Bill Clinton spoke of "a new American isolationism" in foreign affairs. But how isolationist are individual Americans today, whatever their politics? According to RFE/RL's Nikola Krastev, who recently conducted an informal survey in New York, residents of the U.S.'s most international-minded city are not so much isolationist as they are ignorant when it comes to post-communist European affairs.

New York, 19 October 1999 (RFE/RL) -- If the United States is in fact "the melting pot" of nations, then New York City should by all rights occupy the central spot in the mix. New York is a place where cultures, religions, ethnic groups, and customs blend into a unique breed of Homo Sapiens -- the New Yorker.

An RFE/RL reporter took to the streets of Manhattan earlier this month to talk to more than 40 New Yorkers about their views on post-communism. The informal, non-scientific survey showed that New Yorkers do not stand out as particularly isolationist -- but then, they seem to know very little about the former communist countries.

Asked to identify some of the former communist countries in Europe, few of those interviewed could come up with more than two names. Countries mentioned included China and Cambodia -- which are neither post-communist nor located in Europe -- and Siberia, which is not even a country. Most frequently mentioned was Czechoslovakia. Very few New Yorkers seem to be aware that that country split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia almost seven years ago. Russia and Germany were next in frequency of mention, while Ukraine was cited only once.

New Yorkers explained their ignorance by citing the hectic pace of their lives in a bustling city that leaves little time for non-career-related activities. Those whose careers require a knowledge of foreign affairs were better informed. Financial and banking professionals, for example, proved knowledgeable about the allegations of Russian money laundering at the Bank of New York -- but even many of them still had trouble with the whereabouts and status of Czechoslovakia. Not surprisingly, the East European event most frequently mentioned was the recent conflict in Kosovo, which was thoroughly covered by the major U.S. television networks. Some of those interviewed approved of U.S. involvement in Kosovo, while some others disapproved. But the majority tended to endorse the idea that the U.S. should always be involved where there are violations of human rights.

A middle-aged New York musician put it this way:

"I don't think the U.S. intervention in Kosovo was justified from the beginning, although now it is a very complex situation. It is so complex that the United States public has moved on to something else... I do think that the KLA [Kosovo Liberation Army] is someone that should be reckoned with in a diplomatic way, so it's a very tricky situation."

On events in Eastern Europe since 1989, New Yorkers displayed slightly more knowledge than they showed on the constituent countries of the region. Most seemed aware that communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union had collapsed, but some were not sure when. Like this Irish-born secretary:

"I know some of those countries became independent, they broke away from Russia, I don't know [if] it [was] in the last 10 years, or more than that, but certainly recently."

Here's a 23-year-old computer consultant free-associating on the subject:

"Soviet Union fell... Germany united, Berlin Wall fell, Yugoslavia broke down and there is civil war, U.S. intervened, dropped a few bombs here and there, I believe Milosevic is still in power. I don't know what's going on in Romania or Bulgaria."

This next young man, who said he was a pimp, was even less sure of recent history:

"Didn't they got some kind of independence? Like they got McDonalds, I think...I think they have a lot more toilet paper now... I think they live somewhat better but they are still struggling for some freedom..."

New Yorkers were divided on the question of how much the U.S. should involve itself in political and economic developments in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. But as was the case with Kosovo, the majority said the U.S. should always be involved where there are violations of human rights. Typical was this 51-year-old criminal investigator:

"I think that we should be involved with what you may call... ethnic cleansing. I don't think the United States should be the world's police, but offer assistance when the country really is asking for it."

Statistically speaking, the number of those interviewed for this report does not allow for scientific conclusions on public opinion in New York. But other, more sociologically grounded studies have suggested that the average New Yorker actually pays more attention to international news than does the average American.

This should come as no surprise: After all, United Nations headquarters and those of many major U.S. TV networks are located in New York City. Brash as it may sound, the city's current mayor, Rudolph Giuliani, long ago proclaimed New York as "The Capital of the World."