Sitting Still for Foreign Affairs

By Francis, David R. | The Christian Science Monitor, March 1, 2000 | Go to article overview

Sitting Still for Foreign Affairs


Francis, David R., The Christian Science Monitor


Most every major American and Canadian city has a foreign-policy council.

It's a good thing.

"The American public needs to be encouraged to pay more attention to world affairs," says William Vocke, past president of World Affairs Councils of America (WACA).

It's not that Americans are uninterested in international affairs. Two-thirds are, according to surveys. Americans aren't isolationists, as some in Congress apparently believe.

But with the end of the cold war in 1989, Americans rank foreign affairs lower. "It matters, but not as much," says Dr. Vocke.

"It's hard to get people engaged in a broad discussion on foreign policy," says a Council on Foreign Relations official in New York.

This change and others have been a challenge for WACA's 83- member councils across the United States. That's true also of the Canadian Institute of International Affairs, with 16 branches in Canada and one in Boston.

Barbara McDougall, president of the Canadian Institute, notes one common challenge. "Business people don't go to lunch for two hours to listen to speakers," grumbles the former foreign minister of Canada.

Or as Vocke puts it: "People won't sit still like they used to."

At a traditional foreign-affairs meeting, a sit-down luncheon, say, at a downtown hotel, a prominent speaker - a foreign minister, perhaps - talked for maybe 50 minutes. After a few questions the do was over.

But councils today often have difficulty dragging out members to such events. This is a generation raised on Sesame Street, used to 30-second sound bites on TV. The pace of life has risen for many.

In 1979, a typical Canadian Institute luncheon at the Empire Club in Toronto might have attracted 400 attendees. Today, 130 would be a good audience.

There's also more competition. Americans and Canadians can turn on TV any time of day or night and get news and analysis. They can roam the Internet for gobs of information on almost any topic.

"It's a challenge," says Stuart Krusell, executive director of the World Affairs Council in Boston. Someone could learn a lot about Morocco, say, in 20 minutes on the Web. …

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