It is easy enough to blame the media or schools for American disengagement with the world. A number of commentators noted recently that Time and Newsweek vary their domestic and international cover stories, picking fluffy stories for U.S. readers over breaking news abroad. Clearly they have decided that articles about Glenn Beck, Thomas Edison, and anxiety are of more interest to magazine-rack browsers in the United States than the throes of the Arab Spring, the rise of China, or international asylum-seekers. In editors' defense, they're surely right, and it only reflects a broader disengagement of the media from international affairs. The Tyndall Report notes that for 2011, three international stories were among the top five in terms of network news coverage -- Libya, Egypt, and the Japanese quake. But total coverage of international news was still below the level of the early 1990s, and those top three stories (plus the British royal wedding and the Syrian uprising) accounted for half of all foreign coverage on the ABC, NBC, and CBS television networks. That doesn't leave much space for covering a banner year for African growth or progress toward global elimination of polio.
In fact, as a rule, the foreign news that is reported is about death, violence, and despair. "If it bleeds, it leads" holds for international news as much as local coverage -- it just takes a lot more pints of blood to get on the television if it isn't from American veins. An analysis by Boston University's Denis Wu looked at foreign news coverage in two weeks of 2003 on CNN and the New York Times print edition. It found 560 stories covering foreign affairs. Iraq alone accounted for one-quarter of all stories. Add in the rest of the Middle East and Afghanistan, and that climbs to 38 percent. China got 3 percent; Brazil got 1.6 percent. And if the news is focused on war and tragedy, perhaps it's unsurprising that few Americans realize the rest of the world is increasingly healthy, wealthy, peaceful, and educated. That's a shame, because all this health and wealth provide incredible opportunities for Americans -- not least to trade, invest, or travel abroad for education and health care.
And there's a lot of work for America to do out there. While U.S. exports have been climbing, 140 economies (out of 146 with export data from the World Bank in 2010) exported more than the United States when measured as a share of their GDPs. Only Nepal, Brazil, Haiti, Ethiopia, and Tonga did worse than the U.S. export share (13 percent of GDP), according to the World Bank. Afghanistan outdid the United States by 2 percentage points of GDP. And China's export share was more than twice as big, at 30 percent.
Or look at investment trends. According to World Bank data, in 2010 U.S. net outflows of foreign direct investment -- where American investors were taking a 10 percent or larger share of a foreign company -- amounted to 2.4 percent of U.S. GDP. Twenty economies were above it in that share -- compare Germany on 3.3 percent of GDP, Chile at 4.1 percent, or Singapore on 9.5 percent. Meanwhile, U.S. undergraduates overseas accounted for only 0.4 percent of the global total of people studying abroad for their tertiary education -- and nearly half of those brave enough to venture outside America's borders got only as far as Britain. That hardly counts as exotic in an era where Brits win half the Oscars and present the Golden Globes every year.
If there is a silver lining to this cloud of Americans' disengagement, it is that other countries aren't doing so badly. We have seen there are 20 economies with a higher share of GDP going to foreign direct investment that the United States, and 140 that are exporting more. These countries are reaping the gains of closer global engagement -- in terms of stronger economic performance and greater technology transfer. There's at least the hope that the closer economic ties will make them less likely to go to war, too. Americans benefit from being in that richer and more pacific world -- even if they could do even better by venturing out into it a little more often.