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The U.S. must do better at reflecting its true values and diversity if it wants a credible leadership role in the New Information Age.

American Values in the New World Order


In the 1970s, the United States actively supported cross-border free flow of information in the international arena. Other countries, such as Canada, shrank from that position partly because they feared that it might result in an unhealthy increase of American dominance over other nations.

That struggle has now become moot. The information revolution finally exploded upon the international stage in the '90s. Today, faxes and cellular telephones have become cheaper and more common even in some Third World countries than they are in these United States. Web cafes, providing temporary Internet addresses for those who want to talk to the world (while sipping coffee), have proliferated, and TV dishes have lined distant skylines.

The new technologies have sprouted a new world order. This is not the one announced by President George Bush on the eve of the Gulf War. Rather, it is an informational order which has finally fulfilled the prophecy of Marshall McLuhan, the '60s guru, of a Global Village.

In this new village, corporate executives in Silicon Valley are hiring computer engineers in places as far away as Bangalore, India, to join engineering teams in the United States. Because of the significant difference in time zones between the two countries, this arrangement works very well. When American engineers finish their work at the end of the day, they transmit the files they were working on to Bangalore. There, Indian engineers work on these files during their regular work hours. At the end of the Indian workday, the files are re-transmitted to Silicon Valley, in time for the American engineers to start their day.

In the New Information Age, there is no downtime, and there are no borders.

The question is: How will such new facts affect the international economic and legal order?

Recent economic upheavals in Southeast Asia have shown that no economy is an island. Stock markets, trade, industry and banking have become so intertwined that a shock to the system in one place has had ripple effects in other places.

The world is fast becoming one large bazaar. Today, an American citizen can review for investment purposes, in the privacy of her own living room, a securities offering in Hong Kong, or a proposal for a new venture in Singapore, neither of which may conform to American laws. Our securities laws were developed to protect our citizens from fraud and misinformation. But these laws have limited jurisdictional coverage. The information flowing into our living rooms does not!

This state of affairs indicates that new laws need to be devised to take into account new facts. The question therefore becomes, what kind of laws are needed for this brave new world? An imaginative answer is needed. But laws address only part of the problem.

The other important part concerns the international political/legal regime that will emerge in the next few decades. The United States has been actively promoting American-style democratic institutions abroad. It is not clear, however, how successful these efforts were or whether the international regime will ultimately favor the American model.

Different scholars have predicted different outcomes. Harvard's Samuel Huntington, for example, has predicted a bifurcated international regime in which two blocks re-emerge and engage in hot confrontation.

These blocks are briefly described by him as "the West versus the Rest."

The problem with such a view of the international order is that it clings to pre-Information Age facts. Under the new facts, the lines between "the West and the Rest" have paled next to the common and similar needs of the world. The coming age is one of reconciliation and cooperation, not confrontation.

Furthermore, the U.S. itself has become a microcosm of the world's cultural, ethnic, racial and religious diversity. Consequently, the U.S. is in a position to lead the world by listening to its own internal voices in devising domestic solutions and helping devise international ones. So far, this domestic fine-tuning has not taken place, and many religious and other voices in the U.S. are still struggling to be heard.

As a result, the U.S. is often perceived abroad as intensely secular and morally lax. These conditions also have been associated consciously or subconsciously with the specific American political/legal system and the American society itself. This is a sad situation, given the intent of the Founding Fathers, the facts that the predominant majority of Americans believe in God, and a significant majority subscribes to traditional values. This serious misconception about American beliefs and values creates in many countries a deep-seated aversion to the American Way.

Unfortunately, these countries are often ones that can benefit greatly from our constitutional democratic experience, business experience, and technological and financial expertise.

But for their people, there is often no clear dividing line between personal morality/faith and public behavior/ethic; the one directly reflects on the other. Thus, by espousing the American Way, these people fear that they would be exchanging their political, financial and business problems with spiritual and moral ones. They fear that Americanization will ultimately mean the ushering of a Godless and valueless society.

American programming received by the world's "dishes" has been primarily responsible for this false perception of the U.S. and its civilization. It has also sprouted adverse local consequences among the youth, such as the emergence of a devil worship cult in Egypt and live talk shows about premarital sex and incest on Lebanese television. The latter situation prompted the formation of a Christian-Muslim religious delegation which demanded that the government protect public morality. As the leader of a democratic country, the Lebanese prime minister was cognizant of free speech issues; however, he agreed with the religious leaders' concerns and asked television stations to exhibit greater moral sensitivity.

If American media continue their present course of ignoring the values of the American mainstream, they will alienate an increasing number of the world population. This will then result in undeserved ill will toward our country, and the rejection of the American political/legal system as a model worthy of globalization.

Given the reach of the American media in the New Information Age, Americans must address what was once considered a set of domestic (or even local) problems, with new urgency. These problems have acquired added international significance. Without a better attempt at reflecting true American values (or at least their full diversity) in the American media and other areas of our life, our country will lose its moral credibility and leadership role in the new world. Yet, both are urgently needed for us to play a major part in developing the New World Order.

Azizah Y. al-Hibri is a professor in the T.C. Williams School of Law at the University of Richmond. President of Karamah: Muslim Women Lawyers for Human Rights, she is an expert on Islamic jurisprudence and lectures around the world and appears frequently on CNN and other national media outlets addressing values, religion, law and the future. She will take part in the opening conversation (Sept. 22, 7:30 p.m., Modlin Center for the Arts, University of Richmond) in the Jepson Leadership Forum on Values, Religion and Leadership. This article first appeared in Richmond Law.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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