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Understanding the world takes time, but is worth the effort

February 06, 2005|by TIM ROWLAND

When President Bush used to word "tyranny" in his inaugural address, Rep. Roscoe Bartlett worried about the interpretation overseas. The biggest applause lines in the United States can cause the biggest headaches for a diplomatic delegation abroad.

But if Bartlett's recent hosts - the North Koreans - saw it as a personal affront, they kept it well-hidden. Not like that whole "axis of evil" unpleasantness, probably the three most attention-grabbing words heard in that part of the globe since General MacArthur said in the Philippines, "I shall return."

North Korea basically has three conditions for the dismantling of its nuclear program, one of which involves an end to the "slander" against its regime. (The other two involve U.S. promises to neither engage in a pre-emptive attack nor seek regime change).

As Americans, we get the don't attack, don't overthrow provisions. But don't call us names? To us, that would be as absurd as Grant telling Lee to lay down his arms, sign a pledge of loyalty to the Union and stop referring to northerners as "damn Yankees."

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Name calling is as American as apple pie. But as the world shrinks it would pay to remember, as Bartlett does, that the majority of the globe is not America.

"Other parts of the world are different, but I'm not sure different is worse," said Bartlett, who recently returned from a rare visit to the closed North Korean society in the name of bartering a ban on nuclear expansion.

As governments go, Bartlett is quick to note that North Korea is indeed much worse. But while governments may be cults, they are not culture. And understanding these cultures can hold the key to peace and even friendship.

Bartlett and his fellow congressmen, politicians all, took care to put aside politics for their trip. "We were not representatives of government. We wanted to show them the face of America, human beings talking to other human beings as fathers and grandfathers."

That's a crucial point because while governments can be bad, people seldom are. And people to whom you have been introduced are much harder to hate.

Cultures are largely unchangeable products of thousands of years. We always like to think that the American way is the best way, and for us it is. I am profoundly grateful I was born an American. But it is dangerous to think that the American way is the only way. And even if we could snap our fingers and turn the rest of the world into SUV-driving, Twinkie-eating, reality-TV addicts, would it be a wise idea?

Bartlett, who has traveled to some of the more impoverished regions of the world, has his doubts. "I don't see as many smiles on our own faces as I saw in Ukraine," he said.

I can echo that observation from people I've seen in places such as Bolivia (second poorest nation in our hemisphere) and Nepal (median annual income, $250) - places where, by our standards, people should have no right to be happy, but are. Clearly, money is only one way of measuring wealth.

"We have one quarter of all the 'good things' in the world, but I'm not sure that gives us the right to look down on other nations," Bartlett said. "People will be pretty much what you expect them to be, and if you go in not looking down on them - if you're a true friend - you will win their trust."

Indeed, Bartlett senses that understanding is more powerful than military force in winning the hearts and minds of foreign nations. And understanding one doesn't mean you understand all.

Just compare North Korea, where words mean everything, to Iraq, where the famous pronouncements of the Iraqi Information Minister demonstrated that no one puts an ounce of credibility in public pronouncements.

Understanding the world takes a lot of work and a lot of mental flexibility. We think of logic as a science, but there are many sets of logic, and many people who do not subscribe to our particular brand. And that's OK. We've seen here at home how hard it is for a liberal to change a conservative's mind, and vice versa. And if it's impossible to change the mind of a man across the street, how much more silly is it to think we can change minds half a world away?

That doesn't mean we should change our own views, but it does mean we should make an effort to see things as other nations see them. It would make matters so much easier.

It was fascinating to notice that President Bush, in this week's State of the Union address, called out a number of nations (including our friends, the Saudis and Egyptians) for practices we deem to be unacceptable. Yet on North Korea - once a member of his Axis of Evil triumvirate - he was silent.

Coincidence, maybe, but I doubt it. More likely, the message that Bartlett and others are bringing home is getting through. For an administration that is not immune from accusations of stubbornness, that's a pretty good sign.

Bartlett said he's optimistic that North Korea will not reach the point of crisis. "They know at the end of they day, they cannot have nuclear weapons," he said. That's the ultimate goal, for the sake or world stability. And if North Korea's leaders need the dignity of believing that they are divesting under their own terms, their own culture and their own way of life, what's the harm?

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