America can't afford to ignore what's happening elsewhere

Posted: Friday, March 16, 2001

For those who think of problems abroad as remote and barely worthy of notice, this week's developments might have changed some minds. As France reported the European continent's first confirmed case of highly contagious foot-and-mouth disease, the U.S. government reacted by banning imports of all European Union food products. Argentina, meanwhile, announced that it was having its own outbreaks of foot-and-mouth, and McDonald's, America's largest beef buyer, put forth its own documentation requirements aimed at keeping mad cow disease out of its hamburgers.

The first thing to keep in mind is that foot-and-mouth and mad cow are two completely different things. But it's a measure of world agriculture's hard times that the two have become confused in the popular imagination. Those who have visited Europe recently have felt for themselves the nervousness that now comes along as a silent dinner partner in even such gastronomic capitals as Paris. Vegetarianism is decidedly "in," and everyone you meet seems to have a theory about how these cattle diseases spread and an opinion about the ways in which their governments and the EU have handled them. Newspapers and television news programs are filled with grisly pictures of tens of thousands of slaughtered cattle awaiting cremation.

In America, where a tainted batch of fruit can inspire huge recalls, all of this seems almost surreal. We demand safety -- some other countries might say sterility -- in our food products and have generally been given good reason to expect it. But our government's precautions and those put in place by McDonald's should remind us that America is no longer an island unto itself.

The same is true of our financial markets. Yes, this has been the case for years, but it has never been more so than now. This week's stock-market dive was precipitated in part by the Japanese economic mess, which has many causes and a scarcity of political solutions -- and which has, in turn, been exacerbated by the sudden slowing of the U.S. economy in recent months.

The financial boom of the late 1990s created riches for many Americans and American companies, and it did a lot to prop up a world economy that was not nearly as robust. America's good times, coming as they did on the heels of international trade agreements such as NAFTA, have led many to believe that globalization is an unqualifiedly good thing. Now we might become better acquainted with its downside.

Isolationism is not only not the answer, it is, at this late date, patently impossible. Like it or not, the global economy is here to stay; for good and for bad, it is now simply a fact of life. But it's one that Americans should learn to look at more realistically, and with more informed understanding -- because what's going on in Paris and London and Tokyo is now more likely than ever to have real effects on not only Wall Street but Main Street.

Unfortunately, just as international news has taken on its greatest meaning to peacetime America, it has become hardest to find. Many of even the best news sources now cover the rest of the world sparingly, with a just-the-headlines approach. And some have seemingly dropped out of the business of reporting international news altogether. The press must do better, because the stakes are simply too high not to.

Part of that effort will have to come from news consumers, who must begin to show more of an interest in what goes on beyond our shores. Because today's problems there -- be they foot-and-mouth, a stock-market dive or mad cow -- could very well be tomorrow's headaches here.

Dan Rather works for CBS News.

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