Provincialism In A Global World: Does Globalization Help Us To Learn From Others?

By Michael Storper, Director of GPA, FCL of Global Processes and Institutions, Professor of Urban Planning 


Our global public affairs program was founded with two major focuses for its research, teaching and training. The first is cross-border issues.  The second is to learn about practices and policies elsewhere—the good and the bad. The idea is  that our approaches to domestic problems in a global world could be improved if we knew about what works or fails elsewhere, especially if problems that we are not solving are somehow resolved elsewhere.

Since GPA@Luskin is located in the United States, let’s think about the state of domestic policy in some major areas.  It is now widely known that the USA is not a global leader in many areas, including health care (poor indices on many fronts but very high costs and lack of universal coverage); gun violence (very high in the USA); primary and secondary education (ranks in the middle of developed countries); infrastructure (ranked “D” by developed country standards, with trillions of dollars of needs unmet); social mobility (now lower than most of the rest of the developed world); surface transportation (a laggard in both urban and inter-city rail, no longer a leader in aviation, and heavy carbon emitter from transportation); criminal justice (high incidence of errors, racial discrimination, reliance on coercive tactics in policing and trial, racial disparities,  high rate of incarceration, and profit-oriented prisons);  reproductive health (high incidence of teen and unwanted pregnancy); children and youth policy (high incidence of child poverty and malnutrition); increasing segregation by space and class (even though the USA is an immigrant nation, it is not truly a melting pot today, if it ever was, but rather a smorgasboard); and the list goes on and on.

There are some areas in which the USA is a world leader, by contrast.  To illustrate, in many areas of technology and science, the USA is the undisputed leader and is considered to have a very innovative economy.  The USA is also considered to have a vibrant popular culture and arts sector, as well as excellent literary production. The USA is a very wealthy nation that creates opportunity for educated people, less so for others.   In the past century, the USA showed the world leadership in becoming the first to create mass secondary and then university education.  It pioneered partnerships of the federal government and land-grant universities.  It created modern banking and credit institutions and business regulation.  It was a leader in creating many international institutions.

In the past, many other countries emulated the successes of the USA.  Europe is just now completing its task of extending mass higher education to its population.   In the rest of the developed world, there is intense focus on becoming as innovative as the United States, because the leaders of other countries understand that this is the key source of American wealth and economic (and by extension political and military) power in the world today.  The USA thus serves as the point of reference for discussions of many elements of the economic policy mix needed to flourish in the 21st century. In contrast, it is safe to say that many other countries see the US experience with race and racism as a cautionary one, with many admiring the open discussion and the mobilization that occur here, but also finding dismay in the cycle of new forms of institutional racism that follow each round of opening.

The point is that in many other countries, the US serves as both a positive and (sometimes) negative example, yet they pay close attention to US domestic policy. When they seek positive lessons, this does not mean that they slavishly want to become Americanized in other ways.  Every society has its own culture and history.  Attention to another country’s successes and failures is not as simple as international benchmarking.  It is more about seeing what the envelope of possibility is about in a set of comparison societies.

This is where the USA seems to be lagging.  There is little in the political or policy debate in such areas as health care, primary and secondary education, criminal justice, and such, where we find regular references to the fact that better performance is widely observed elsewhere and that we know why other countries do better.  Part of this is politics.  There is an enduring myth in the USA of “American exceptionalism” (i.e. American superiority and unique destiny to lead the world and excel).  This myth dies hard with the public.  Political entrepreneurs then exploit it by accusing any opponent who refers to non-American successes as somehow being disloyal or un-American. This has the effect – intended or unintended — of banishing reference to already-achieved solutions abroad from the domestic debate. Thus, American domestic politics acts as a force for provincialism in the globalized world of the 21st century.

Every country has its provincial and nativist elements  (every people has a strong attachment to its identity and way of life).  But we are not talking about policy areas that – in any reasonable sense – involve fundamental questions of identity or way of life.  Health care, child poverty, infrastructure provision, a functioning judicial system; avoiding mass incarceration – are all practical elements of governance that are universally valued.   Others touch on more sensitive dimensions of collective identity (gay rights; women’s rights; gun ownership), and have strong “values” conflicts attached to them that make them more than just practical policy debates.

The point is that in the practical problems that every well-governed country needs to solve – most other countries (especially the developed ones that have the means to solve them) regularly refer to the USA when it is the benchmark for success (as in innovation), as well as when it is less successful.    The USA, by contrast, has become uniquely provincial in the way it refers to (or does not refer to) the experience of other countries in solving such problems.   This is not the case in high-level professional exchanges; there are regularly delegations from the US to other countries to study particular technical issues and we have many worldly, sophisticated public servants in the USA.  But these exchanges do not have traction with the general public or the major policy choices that are made.

The purpose of having public debate about approaches to problems in other countries is not to try and import them “whole cloth.”  It is aspirational:  about whether there is a range of achievable solutions to these common problems of societal management and governance.  Once this is done, the hard work of adapting them to existing institutions begins, and each society must find its way to its best achievable practices.

There are limits, including existing interest groups, the winners and losers from change, and so on. This is why, even in countries that regularly look to the American system of innovation, they do not easily reproduce it at home.  They make incremental changes, and often they fail.  But they do at least have a narrative of comparing their performance, of aspiration, that is derived from looking around globally.

One is struck by how the USA, with its narrative of exceptionalism, combines elements of provincialism and defeatism today with respect to these solvable areas of domestic policy.  For example, in the USA it would obviously be difficult to switch to universal health care as practiced in most other wealthy democracies.  But it is striking that there is not a clear focus on the aspiration to do this, in some American way.  The debate is clouded by false (mostly negative) claims about the cost and quality of health care in other places.

Is public affairs education in the USA doing its part to break this vicious circle?  My sense of it is that we are not.  We emphasize our domestic constraints (ideology, politics, interests – as noted above).  But this “pragmatic” thinking is just a way of restating the status quo, not really reaching for change.  We do not need pie in the sky, because solutions exist right here on earth, in other places.  So global public affairs education in the USA (well, everywhere, for that matter) needs to ramp up its global-comparative focus, as a way of creating awareness of the concrete and feasible solutions to problems that do not appear in the conventional wisdom at home, of setting the bar for aspiration.  One of the missions of GPA@Luskin is therefore to train new generations of more outward-looking domestic policy leaders, as well as new generations who focus on cross-border issues.

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