by Charles Ray
When I served as the U.S. Department of States Diplomat in Residence at the University of Houston (TX) during the 2005-2006 academic year, in addition to recruiting and mentoring college students interested in taking the Foreign Service Exam, I did a lot of speaking on diplomacy and foreign relations in southeast and south Texas. One of the audiences I particularly liked talking to was high school students, the most interesting and challenging I’ve faced in my 30-year diplomatic career.
The principal of a Catholic school in Missouri City, a town just outside Houston, asked me to do a talk to her ninth graders on international relations. She asked that I try to relate it to them rather than giving the standard State Department lecture, which frankly is targeted to an older audience.
Up to this point in my career, my contacts with American teenagers had been almost exclusively with my own kids and the children of my Foreign Service colleagues. I went home that night to the house I’d rented near Houston’s Astrodome, wondering how I would be able to find a way to communicate to this audience ‘in its language.’
As I sat at my computer staring at a blank screen, an image came into my mind of the twelfth graders I’d spoken to at another school. For some reason, my mind focused on the fact that an overwhelming majority of them were wearing expensive running shoes; Nikes, Adidas, and the like. Why that came to mind, I don’t know, but it reminded me of my tours in Cambodia and Vietnam, two countries where a lot of the shoes and other athletic gear for companies like Nike, Adidas, and the Gap are manufactured. Then, it hit me. I knew how to make international affairs relatable to an American teenager, and in doing so, make it more understandable for adults as well
While many Americans think that foreign political, economic, and social events have little bearing on their lives, a look at our everyday economy tells a different story.
Our Economic Dependence
Who, when reading or hearing about instability in the Middle East or the price of a barrel of oil, thinks of his or her shoes? Those expensive Nike, Adidas or Reebok athletic shoes, believe it or not, are made of a large number of petroleum-based polyurethane products, and glued together with an adhesive that is also a petroleum-based product.
The factory machines that are used to make them are run by electricity that is often provided by diesel-powered generators. The trucks and ships that transport them depend upon petroleum products.
But it doesn’t stop with your feet.
Do you have any idea how many products you use daily, and often take for granted, are made from petroleum products? Hair cream, styling gel, chap sticks, moisturizing lotions, varnish, glue, furniture, car seats, surf boards, and yes, condoms, just to name a few.
If oil gets too expensive, or the supply is disrupted, it is not just driving your car that’s affected. When we talk about dependency on foreign oil, we tend to look just at developing more fuel-efficient cars. What about all the plastic products we use and discard every day?
What about some of the other ‘foreign’ issues that impact our daily lives?
Viruses Can Spread Around the Globe Quickly
We all know that AIDS is a terrible disease. It has been brought under control in the U.S., but is still decimating populations in the developing world. And the current COVID-19 pandemic is orders of magnitude worse. Both show the interrelatedness of the world we live in. Originating in Wuhan, China, within months COVID had appeared worldwide, affecting every continent except Antarctica and disrupting the world economy. A hitherto unknown disease that mutated to enable animal-to-human and then human-to-human transmission, originating in a distant foreign city, is suddenly on our TV screens, complete with daily casualty counts, much like the Vietnam War was in another era. Air travel makes the spread of a deadly virus from the most remote area to world capitals a matter of hours.
But, let’s go back to those athletic shoes. They are most likely assembled in a factory in a country like Vietnam. Most of the workers are young rural women who are between 18 and 25. COVID-19, which caused industries in many countries to shut their doors, has a direct impact on your ability to buy those shoes. The factories can’t make them, and because of border closings and suspension of air traffic between countries, those that have already been manufactured, can’t be shipped. The result: the outbreak of a disease in a country an ocean away impacts your ability to purchase the goods you desire, even if that disease never makes it to our shores.
COVID-19 and other infectious diseases are not just humanitarian and health issues. They have real economic consequences for all of us.
We Are Not Immune from Political Events Abroad
Political upheaval can also create problems for the average American, even when it’s in a remote country that many Americans would be hard-pressed to find on a map.
On January 28, 2003, after weeks of back and forth insults between Thailand and Cambodia over the alleged statements made by a Thai soap opera star that were considered insulting to Cambodians, young Cambodians took to the streets of Phnom Penh, burning the Thai embassy and most Thai-owned businesses in the city.
The already frosty relations between these two historical rivals took a sharp dip, and military forces were alerted on both sides. Borders were closed for nearly a week. Cambodia’s billion-dollar-a-year garment industry ships mainly to the U.S., to customers like the GAP and other top sportswear companies. Needless to say, garment buyers sweated that week, fearing that relations would not improve and they would be left unable to fill post-Christmas orders. Now, most Americans probably never heard about the anti-Thai riots in Cambodia, but I’ll bet you that every executive of GAP in San Francisco knew every detail, and followed events assiduously.
Let’s go back a bit farther in time, and talk about another obscure country that, unknown to the average American, had a potentially negative impact on America’s economy. Sierra Leone, in West Africa, is one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite a connection with the U.S. that dates back to the 1600s, most Americans know nothing about it. From Sierra Leon’s Bunce Island slave fort, slaves were shipped to work the rice plantations of South Carolina and Georgia. Many Sea Island, Georgia residents today can trace their ancestry directly to tribes in Sierra Leone. Furthermore, one of the first naval battles of the American Revolution was fought there when a French warship shelled British positions.
Not knowing this history can be forgiven, but do you know what titanium is? It’s a strong, light metal that is used in manufacturing high performance aircraft. Titanium dioxide is also the component of white paints and dyes; the white dye used in your shoes contains titanium, as do some wax papers. In Sierra Leone, an American company mined the element rutile, which is titanium dioxide in its natural form. Up until 1994, Sierra Leone produced 25 percent of the world’s supply. It was also, unfortunately, ruled at the time by an inept military junta and in the midst of a brutal war financed by the ruler of its neighbor, Liberia, none of which the average American knew much about. Expansion of the rebel war caused the company to suspend operations, drastically impacting the supply and price of titanium worldwide. Now, we can all do without white shoes, but what about the jet engine of the plane that flies the shoes from the factory, or the wax paper you use in your kitchen?
Feeling the Impact of Events Half a World Away
What we drive, wear, eat, and play with, our safety and security, the amount of money we have in our paycheck, all are impacted at times by events half a world or more away.
The next time you go shopping, check the ‘made-in’ labels on products in your favorite stores. Whether its Target or Dillards, there’s a more than fifty percent chance that a majority of the labels will say ‘Made in China’, or some other country. The vast majority will be made somewhere other than the United States. I wear a flag pin on my lapel that has a slogan, ‘Aberdeen – All American City,’ which was given to by the mayor during an official visit years ago. The plastic wrapping that it was in (another petroleum product) had a little white label with the words ‘Made in China.’
Most people have a credit card and a computer. The next time you have a problem with either, you’re likely to call the ‘Help Line,’ and chances are you’ll find yourself talking to someone in southern India rather than southern Indiana.
Your ‘American’ car was probably assembled in a plant in Mexico, and of course, the gas to propel that car is most likely to have been imported from abroad.
Clearly, foreign events — social, economic, and political –are not just remote happenings that we can afford to ignore. Ignorance of these events will not protect us from their negative effects.
Some would say the solution is to produce everything we need right here in the U.S. It sounds seductive as a political slogan, but is it practical, or even possible? Like it or not, we live in a globalized world, and there is no vaccine against globalization. Rather than ignore it, or blindly oppose it, we need to learn to live with it. And, to learn to live with it, we need to educate ourselves. We all need to learn that international relations matter in our daily lives.
Whether you’re a teenager wondering when the new line of sneakers will be on the shelves, a day laborer wondering how you’ll make next month’s rent, or a day trader tracking the ups and downs of the stock market, it helps to be aware of the impact faraway events can have on your daily existence. A virus won’t be stopped by border walls, and the negative economic impacts of events half a world away don’t need visas to enter our country and turn our lives upside down. While many of these events can’t be prevented, recognizing their potential to affect us, being aware of the interrelatedness of the global society, enables us to mitigate some of their impact.
We need to walk a mile in our own shoes to get a better understanding of our place in the world.
Charles Ray served 30 years in the Foreign Service 1982-2012), after a 20-year career in the U.S. Army. He was the first American consul general in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and subsequently ambassador to Cambodia and Zimbabwe. In addition, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs from 2006 to 2009.