Many people like to say that Americans are ignorant; it’s not to say that they are stupid, just that they know very little about the world outside of the U.S.
A few years ago, I was an international reporter and attended training at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Communication with 12 other reporters from Asia. As professional reporters with no interest in uninteresting theories of journalism, everybody thought that the “computer-assisted interviewing” class might perhaps teach us some new tricks. As the classes began, all the lazy reporters' ears pricked up as they hoped to learn some advanced techniques. But people were restless only three minutes later when the teacher began teaching us how to manage data in Excel. I was disappointed, and we raised a complaint with the school; embarrassed, they stated, "Last year there were some African students who were particularly interested in how to use Excel, and so we therefore prepared the class for you all too.”
Placing the levels of computer literacy of African and Asian students on a par with one another, it seemed clear that the American media had exaggerated the idea of the "China threat theory,” and reports of the predicted “Asian Century” were still rare; if not, the Chinese students wouldn't have been thought to have had low levels of computer skills. American university lecturers are like this, and ordinary people are even more so.
An old lady in Washington once told me that she didn't like Europe — many years previously, while traveling in Europe, she got lost and asked a police officer for directions, but the officer ignored her, and she was angry enough to want to take him to court for it. I asked her in which country this took place; she stared at me in surprise, and then after a long while finally said to me, "I don't remember which country it was, in any case it was in Europe.” Older people getting confused is forgivable, but surprisingly, young students also lack knowledge of worldwide geography. In the city of Clearwater, Florida, I visited an elementary school. Not five minutes after I had entered a 5th grade classroom, I was already popular: A boy pointed at me and said, "He looks like Jackie Chan!" I liked the feeling of resembling a celebrity, I laughed, and went over to him for a chat. "Where do you come from?” he asked me. I told him I come from China. He tilted his head for a while, and then said, “China in Texas?” For goodness sake! He actually thought the China I meant was the small town of China in Texas. "China is a country, it's in Asia,” I told him immediately. He then even more ignorantly asked me, ”Asia – where's that? I don't know where that is.”
A small child not knowing about the outside world is not a big issue, but there are “educated” people on some Internet forums dedicated to important global issues whose geographic knowledge is also poor. In 2006, there were disputes between Russia and the former Soviet Union country of Georgia. Russia enforced economic blockades against Georgia, and, as this news reached America, Internet forums were in uproar. People were posting messages to protest against Russia: How dare Russia threaten America?! People had mistaken the country of Georgia in the news for the U.S. state of Georgia; they believed Russia was interfering with U.S. internal affairs, and in expressing their resentment toward this, they advocated sending U.S. troops to strike back against Russia.
Their politicians are even more hilarious and embarrassing. At the G-8 summit in Russia in July 2006, then U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had forgotten to turn off their microphones before having a private conversation, the following was broadcast. Bush says, "Where are you going? Home? This is your neighborhood. It doesn’t take you long to get home ... It takes you eight hours to fly home? Me too. Russia's a big country and you're a big country.”*
This short extract exposes many problems: Bush believed that Russia borders the United Kingdom, that Russia and the U.K. were both big countries (here this could either mean territorially big, or it could be intended flattery), and he was amazed that it takes eight hours to fly from Russia to the United Kingdom. Of course, Bush often has problems with using big words, so his poor geographic knowledge is understandable; Americans know this, and the rest of the world knows it very well, too.
The ignorance of Americans about the rest of the world is apparent to everyone around the globe. From the American point of view, America is the whole world. An example of this is the popular U.S. sport, baseball. Major League baseball teams play 300 games per year, and the last games are of course the finals. The final games in the major league are called the World Series. The major league has, at most, two or three Canadian teams, and there is not a single other country that has a team in the league — so how on earth can they dare to call it the World Series?! It makes you despair to think that, in the end, the teams holding the golden trophy are called the "world champions.”
This is also the case with basketball. In 2005, the San Antonio Spurs beat the Detroit Pistons to win the NBA championship. Afterward, someone wrote "World Champions" on the board in the San Antonio Spurs' dressing room. After having seen the Argentinean team play, the team's 6th man half-jokingly crossed out the word “world," and the reason for this is very simple: At the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, the Argentinean team were the world champions, whereas the American team only received the bronze medal. For non-Americans, this kind of ignorance is astonishing, but it is normal for Americans; from their point of view, it is completely logical. They only care about the things that pertain to themselves. Some people spend their entire lifetimes in one small town without caring about anything that happens outside that small town.
This attitude is having two direct consequential effects on the presidential election. The first is the overwhelming majority of the topics being discussed concern domestic issues, homosexuality, abortion and social issues, and these discussions are eclipsing issues to do with foreign affairs. The second is that knowledge of foreign affairs is lacking among ordinary people, and thus can be exploited by the media. What diplomatic issues are to be topics of discussion and how these issues are expressed is extremely important for the presidential candidates. They cannot afford to be careless about these, and because of this ignorance, Donald Trump can say any number of things that defy common sense, and there will still be a large number of fans who believe in him and support him.
*Editor’s note: In the original transcript, Bush is actually addressing Hu Jintao in these statements and not Tony Blair, and thus the following assumptions are about China, not the U.K.