06/16/2008 09:37 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

America's Foreign Policy Bubble

I was on Wisconsin public radio last week, being interviewed on the state of U.S. foreign policy. All the callers were in perfect harmony. We all agreed that the last eight years have been a disaster for the United States, that we must move away from militarism and toward diplomacy, that we must, well, you get the drift. I commented to the host that the country would be in better shape if Wisconsin were in charge.

Then a fellow called and said, "What kind of bubble do you all live in? We face a threat in Iran just as dangerous as Nazi Germany. Talking with the Iranian leader isn't going to do squat."

I was happy that he called. It's no fun just talking with folks who agree with you. I spent a couple minutes discussing the false analogy between Iran and Nazi Germany. But in retrospect, I should also have talked about the bubble.

We've seen a lot of bubbles in recent years. There's been the Dot Com bubble. The real estate bubble. The stock market bubble. But no one has talked about the foreign policy bubble.

Let me define the foreign policy bubble this way. We Americans think we live in the greatest country on earth. We think this because we never go anywhere else to test this proposition, except to places like Club Med or on cruises to the Caribbean (talk about bubbles!). Because we're the greatest country on earth, we have the right to disregard the opinions of other countries, which aren't as great as we are. And we can impose our values on everyone else -- after all, why should anyone complain about having greatness thrust upon them? In this perfect bubble, our self-regard builds on itself, higher and higher, until the estimate of our worth far outstrips its real-world value. Then, all it takes is a little pinprick for the bubble to pop.

The Vietnam War was one such pinprick (oops, we lost, how could that happen to such a great and powerful country?!). The Iraq War is shaping up to be another bubble-burster.

What I should have said to that fellow on the radio is: America is a big bubble right now. If you can, try to listen to what people outside this bubble are saying to us. I know it's difficult. During the real estate bubble, it was hard to resist the urgent recommendations to buy, buy, buy. It's not just that the world is fed up with U.S. foreign policy. We have become blind here in the United States to our relative decline. Check out the public transportation system in Japan. Consider the health care on offer in Canada. Sample the schools in Finland. They put us to shame. According to the latest UN Human Development index, we're number 12, down four slots since 2006. It's hard to see all this inside our foreign policy bubble.

The caller was right, of course. Many of us currently inhabit a different bubble: a bubble of hope. We think that it is still possible to change the course of American foreign policy. We think that we can tame the rogue elephant that the United States has become and make it cooperate with the rest of the world. We think we can turn around the persistent no's of Washington -- no to Kyoto, no to arms control, no to negotiations - -and finally get to yes.

In that spirit, I published a piece in YES! Magazine on how we can transform the way America relates to the world. "Social movements have in the past mobilized the American public behind dramatic shifts in U.S. policy," I write in The Way to a Just Foreign Policy. "The civil rights movement and the women's movement have both remade U.S. society. The successes of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama would have been inconceivable a mere generation ago. They are remarkable people, but they also stand on the shoulders of powerful social movements. Today, we need a different kind of social movement -- one that focuses on U.S. foreign policy. Such a movement, drawing heavily on the peace and global justice efforts, would aim for nothing less than a transformation of the U.S. role in the world. This would be no mere change of politicians or adjustments to a few policies. It would be a change of truly global proportions."