November 20, 2006
What would happen if we had a constitutional amendment requiring candidates for national office to have foreign travel experience?
Three items in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times motivated me to write this entry and to plan two additional entries within the next couple days.
I’ll begin with an idea that grew out of seeing a picture that was smack dab at the top of the first page. It shows George W. Bush in Hanoi, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Hu Jintao. They’re wearing an “ao dai,” which is a traditional Vietnamese costume, and getting ready for a photo op.
Bush was attending Asia’s Pacific Rim economic summit, where he spent the week-end in Hanoi and then flew to Ho Chi Minh City. The newspaper notes that “issues of nuclear proliferation and security formed the backdrop each day of his visit.” In Singapore on Thursday “he called for broad cooperation throughout the region to corral North Korea’s nuclear weapons program” and that afternoon in Indonesia, which is the world’s most populous Muslim nation, his visit was limited to barely six hours because of security concerns.
It’s not surprising that Bush is having a bit of trouble in his travels. After all, he’s been a central figure in the creation of many, though certainly not all, of the difficulties in which he finds himself. As I reflected yesterday morning on how pleased he looked to be part of this international gathering (he does smile a lot), I couldn’t help but think of how, before becoming president, George W. had not visited any foreign countries, if I remember correctly. He seemed to actually be proud of not having been a world traveler, or of reading papers or being an intellectual. Would things have turned out differently for him, and for us all, I wonder, if he had had the experience of traveling beyond the borders of the United States before taking the oath of office? Then I had an idea.
Since the president, vice-president, and members of congress are given the authority to enact laws that will affect the lives of billions, many of whom don’t live in this country, wouldn’t it be good for those who want to hold national office to travel to other countries before they can run for these important positions? Once they become members of congress or have decision-making power within the executive branch of government, they will have many opportunities to fly around the globe and talk with the rich, famous, and powerful. But having on-the-job training for understanding our complex world has major drawbacks. Not only is there the strong possibility of believing one’s own hyperbole, there is the not-inconsequential matter of relying on faulty intelligence to confirm pre-exisiting positions.
So today I’d like to recommend a constitutional amendment.
Let’s forget a ban on same-sex marriage. Although there are those who feel passionate about the matter, the reality is that it’s unlikely that World War III will begin if gays and lesbians are allowed to marry, or prevented from marrying. Individual states ought to be able to handle that issue on their own. I’m worried more about the global issues that can spark wide-spread conflict using real weapons of destruction. Therefore, to prevent future wars because leaders have limited experience in dealing one-on-one with citizens of other countries and other cultures, I suggest we revise the constitution to include the following:
Every candidate for national office shall have spent one-half month in each of five countries in different parts of the world. When traveling to and from these countries, the candidate must travel by economy class and bus, not in first class or limousines. Candidates will be allowed to spend one day with the rich, famous and powerful with whom they will be negotiating once they’re elected. The rest of the time they are to live in the same type of dwelling as ordinary people, preferably in their homes. These are the people who make the beds and sweep the floors in the fancy hotels in which visiting congressmen and congresswomen will stay once they’re elected. They are the teachers who are given the job of educating the young, often with inadequate funds. They are the mom-and-pop owners of small stores competing in the global market.
The purpose of this amendment is to make potential leaders aware of the dreams and aspirations of people around the globe, and to build a bridge of understanding that can act as counter-weight to the voices of extremists. Having gained at least a partial understanding of another country’s world perspective, there is more ground for consensus when resolving problems that may arise in the future. One is far more likely to hesitate choosing a military option for resolving difficulties when you have broken bread with the people you are about to attack.
I believe the average American has a good heart and is well intended. I believe Bush has a good heart and his intentions are good. It’s the carrying out of those intentions that has gotten him, and all of us, into trouble. And the reason he’s in trouble is that he truly believes that he understands what people in the world need in order to be happy. Like many Americans, he sees the world through one set of glasses and doesn’t realize that others have different prescriptions.
This impression of the average American was commented upon by friends of ours from Germany who have been living in Seattle for a couple years while he’s been helping design a boat for the America’s Cup. Recently they were down in Los Angeles to hear their favorite opera star perform and we had brunch together. When my husband asked them what has most surprised them about our country, they said they had to get adjusted to our friendliness. Here, when someone asks you how you are, you’re likely to tell them, for sharing is part of our nature. But while our openness was a pleasant surprise, another characteristic of Americans bothered them, i.e., the tendency to believe we not only know better than other people, but that we don’t extend ourselves to learn about the perspectives of those we don’t live here.
In other parts of the world, especially in Europe, it is common for people to speak several languages and to know much about the people and customs of countries other than their own. Knowing other languages allows them to communicate with others without an interpreter, read newspapers, books and websites in more than one language, view television and movies in a foreign language, and connect to other cultures. So I would include add another piece to the constitutional amendment:
Candidates will be allowed to visit one less country for every language besides English that they speak fluently.
Speaking another language (English) is also important for anyone who wants to become a citizen in the United States. While other tongues can add spice to the melting pot, the primary ingredient should be English. If someone only listens to news in a non-English language and only reads non-English newspapers, that person’s ability to thoroughly understand the issues will be diminished. On the other hand, I take my hat off to those who come here and try to speak English because I am only able to speak this one tongue and appreciate the effort others make to understand me. Wish I had been made to learn a second language when I went to school. By the time I tried to study German in college, the window of learning another language was just about closed.
In considering the idea of creating a more enlightened government, I am tempted to suggest another amendment, that of requiring decisions to be reached through consensus rather than by a simple majority, and preventing lawmakers from
ignoring scientific conclusions of blue ribbon committees in favor of their personal opinions. But those are topics for another time. For now, here is the question of the day:
How would you amend the constitution?