Forgotten Threat

Late last week you could have been forgiven for thinking that the Star Wars era had begun. Space-age computer graphics dominated the news: Satellites orbited the globe, target sites throbbed on interactive maps of Europe and the Middle East. The talk was of Russia and Iran and of whether high-tech missile defense equipment might endanger human health. The pictures, in the wake of the Group of Eight summit, were of statesmen: George Bush’s helicopter landing at a Polish beach resort, Vladimir Putin giving interviews (“I am a true democrat”). At any rate, that was the news and the talk, and those were the pictures, if you happened to be living in Central Europe.

If you happened to be living in Britain late last week, you saw something rather different. On the BBC, the same day’s coverage, following the same summit, focused almost entirely on news of . . . Africa. The talk was of AIDS drugs, malaria cures and poverty, not of missile defense. The pictures were of aging pop stars: Bono and Bob Geldof, bitterly attacking the world’s statesmen (“creeps”) for failing, again, to offer enough aid (“a total farce”).

On the other hand, if you were living in Germany, the news was different again. Judging from their media, the Germans appear to believe that the leaders of the world met, above all, to discuss . . . climate change. The German press crowned Chancellor Angela Merkel “Miss World” because she apparently persuaded George Bush to “seriously consider” halving global carbon emissions by 2050 — a statement that, by the low standards of G-8 summits, counts as an enormous triumph. And of course the pictures, in Germany, were of melting ice.

I am exaggerating here to make a point: In fact, the Germans did mention Africa a few times, as sort of an afterthought. But it’s not exaggerating at all to say that the events of the past week — and the wildly divergent international news coverage that accompanied them — illustrate a profound transformation that has taken place, slowly and quietly, over the past several years. Call it post-post-Sept. 11, or maybe just a return to status quo ante: Either way, it’s pretty clear that that brief moment of consensus — those very few years when the world’s most powerful governments all believed that the world’s worst problem was international terrorism — has now passed.

Once again, everybody is on a different page: Some think the worst problem facing the world is climate change, some think it’s poverty in Africa and some think it’s the need for a missile defense shield, while others think that all are irrelevant by comparison with Iraq. And once again, Americans are more interested in their own problems than those everywhere else. As far as I could discern, in the United States the main news coming out of last week’s summit was that President Bush had a stomachache and missed some of the morning meetings. The world’s attention has wandered away from international terrorism — and so, if I may say, has ours.

It’s not hard to explain why: Time has passed — more than five years now. The Iraq war has distracted the American administration while failing to provoke sympathy or solidarity anywhere else. The Bush administration itself appears to be on its last legs, which means its agenda isn’t taken seriously anywhere, not even in the United States.

Most of all, though, the world’s divided attention proves once again that global Internet access and global television have not created anything resembling a global conversation. On the contrary, the BBC fights hard for its viewers, so it tells them what will interest them; the German press fights for its readers, who care most about climate change; and so on. It’s not just that different readerships hear different opinions; the actual news events covered differ as well. For all the cant about globalization, the world is as provincial as it ever was, maybe even more so. Despite the terrorist attacks in Britain and Spain, the absence of another attack on the scale of the World Trade Center has meant that the world’s attention is no longer singularly focused and that the perceived need for international unity has diminished. No doubt it will continue to do so — at least until next time.

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