By Rick Steves
For many Americans, the critical question in this election season is, "How can we make America safer in the world?"
Call me a girly man, but I think — given the fact that Americans are outnumbered 20 to 1 on this planet — we'd be safer by better understanding our world. A great first step is to travel — thoughtfully.
Increasingly, our government finds itself at odds with the rest of the globe. Our standing in world opinion is at an all-time low. Even our closest allies — 30 of 35 nations according to a University of Maryland poll last month — oppose U.S. policies.
The United States is routinely outvoted at the United Nations 140-5. On issues that relate to Cuba, Israel and Palestine, land mines, environmental initiatives and nuclear regulation, our only allies are Micronesia, the Marshall Islands, Palau and Israel.
Though many Americans aren't particularly concerned about America's unpopularity, it is dangerous and expensive. If the world is a mean neighborhood, more friends are better than more enemies. Huge military costs abroad, skyrocketing security costs at home and the loss of trade as American goods become shunned overseas are an economic drain, the brunt of which we'll all bear.
If Americans traveled more, we'd better understand our place on this complex planet and fit in more comfortably. And eventually, perhaps, we wouldn't need to spend as much as the rest of the world combined on our military to feel safe.
How the world sees America
Thoughtful travel — becoming a "temporary local" to really get a break from our cultural norms — shows us how the world sees America. My travels have taught me that people around the world are inclined to like Americans. They just disagree with our government:
• Travelers see stop signs in Portugal that have "USA" spray-painted below the "STOP."
• In Switzerland, "beware of dog" signs show a picture of our president inserted where the dog belongs.
• This summer in Slovenia, I learned that locals are annoyed when the United States sends them an ambassador who doesn't speak a word of their language. They joke that Americans who hear the name of their capital, Ljubljana, don't ask "Where's that?" but "What's that?"
My Slovenian friends mused that the world would be smart to establish a scholarship giving each American a free trip abroad as a high school graduation present. While they know that's unrealistic, they're convinced that if more Americans traveled before they voted, they would elect a government with policies that didn't put it at odds with the rest of the world.
Though many Americans travel, millions more don't venture out to see or experience the world. About 80% of Americans do not hold a passport. Many of those have stubbornly held worldviews based on little more than TV news. Travel gives us a firsthand look at the complexity and struggles of the rest of the world, enabling us to digest news coverage more smartly.
Travel helps us celebrate — rather than fear — diversity. On a trip through Afghanistan, I was eating lunch in a Kabul cafeteria. An older man joined me with his lunch, intent on making one strong point. He said, "I am a professor here in Afghanistan. In this world, one-third of the people use a spoon and fork like you, one-third use chopsticks, and one-third use fingers — like me. And we are all civilized."
How Travel Helps
Travel helps us appreciate the challenges other societies face. Stepping into a high school stadium in Turkey, I saw 500 teenagers punch the sky with their fists and shout, "We are a secular nation!" I asked my friend, "What's the deal? Don't they like God?" She said, "Sure, they love God. But here in Turkey, we treasure the separation of mosque and state as much as you value the separation of church and state. And, with Iran just to our east, we're concerned about the rising tide of Islamic fundamentalism."
Travel shows us that Americans are the haves in a have-not world. With fewer than 5% of the planet's population, we control 50% of its wealth. We are the global fat cats. In contrast, nearly half of this world's people live on $2 a day.
A traveler who has looked into the eyes of a desperate mother — baby in her arms too weak to flinch at the flies on his face — can better understand how that statistic translates into human suffering.
Travel combats ethnocentrism. I was raised thinking the world is a pyramid with the USA on top and everyone else trying to get there. But as I traveled, I met intelligent people — living in countries nowhere near as rich, free or full of opportunity as America — who wouldn't trade passports with me. They are thankful to be Nepalese, Bulgarian, Turkish or Nicaraguan.
Such cultural snapshots — the essential joy of travel — have made me both thankful to be an American and an enthusiastic citizen of the planet.
Travel gives us a perspective that can translate, through the voting booth, into American policies that will not alienate us from the family of nations. And when that happens, we'll all be truly stronger, safe and better off.
Rick Steves spends four months a year in Europe, writing guidebooks, leading tours and producing a public television series. Visit his website at www.ricksteves.com
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