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Getting ready to compete in the global marketplace?

Patrick W. Ryan
Thursday, Jan 3, 2008

Leave it to television commercials to tell the story. Maybe you saw this one from Fedex.

“Hey Bill, put a pushpin in China, that’s Russia. That’s Greenland, Bill.” Pause. “You have no idea where China is, do you Bill?”

Pity poor Bill. In this humorous display of world knowledge ignorance he’s been found out to be an average American. It’s the sort of revelation that we tend to just laugh off as a national characteristic – America’s insularity from the outside world and seeming disregard for global affairs.

But there’s a serious side to our lack of world awareness. The National Geographic Society tells us that among surveyed 18-24 year-old Americans – the most recently educated cohort in society – about 60 percent could not locate Iraq on a map of the world. The results locally were more shocking. Nine of 10 adults from a Putnam County group surveyed in a non-scientific “pop quiz” couldn’t find Iraq. The map question was but one of many in the NGS survey that indicated an alarming lack of knowledge and understanding about the outside world.

A 1983 landmark report called “A Nation At Risk” suggested that if “an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.” Not much appears to have changed with regard to global awareness – not just in our schools but also among our citizenry at large.

Business leaders, especially, have reason to be concerned about the poor state of global awareness in our communities. They face the daily challenge of coping with a worldwide marketplace that has little margin for miscalculation or lack of understanding of global business and economics. The business community knows that Thomas Friedman’s euphemistic “flat world” not only means that competitive advantages can spring from any corner of the globe, but also that any workforce that is not prepared to compete in the world marketplace will soon be out of business.

In February 2007 the 87th member of America’s World Affairs Council system and the first such organization in the State of Tennessee was founded with the objective of helping people understand what is going on in the world. The simple but ambitious mission blossomed from a shared belief that knowing about world affairs is more important for our citizens, especially our students, than ever before.

The Tennessee World Affairs Council is an independent, non-partisan, educational organization based in Cookeville. What does it do?

The Council develops and facilitates world awareness programs for educational outreach and community-wide opportunities. These include discussion groups, academic competitions, foreign travel, dialogue with businesses, teacher curriculum development assistance, student/teacher seminars, participation in affiliated national program opportunities and distinguished visiting speaker programs – such as the recent visit of the Czech Republic’s Ambassador in Cookeville. The Council is building partnerships and networks to leverage the considerable resources available so as to reach as many audiences as possible.

What the Council does not do: hold a political or philosophical agenda in presenting global affairs programs or advocate positions in U.S. foreign policy – the Council is an American organization that seeks to help Americans know more about the world, because that knowledge is essential for American interests.

Need more evidence about the value to business of global awareness programs? In December the World Affairs Councils of America organized a delegation of leaders from Councils around the United States to visit Saudi Arabia. I represented the Tennessee Council along with members from Alaska, California, Michigan, Montana, New York and the District of Columbia – most were business people who volunteered at their Councils. The goal: learn about the Saudi Arabia and bring that knowledge back to their Councils to develop awareness programs and resources.

Our group saw firsthand facts on the ground that defied the stereotypes hyped in America’s mainstream media including social issues, economic developments and relations with the United States. We toured the construction site of what is now a patch of scrubland along the Red Sea. It is ascene for what will become a city larger than Washington, D.C. in the next 20 years – equipped with first class industrial, residential, financial and transportation facilities. America’s participation in the project? Very little to be seen despite the rich legacy of U.S. involvement in building the country’s infrastructure from scratch to a world-class basis. Other indicators? The governor of the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority told us that Europeans and Asians were rushing to fill the investment and trade vacuum left by the Americans. A Saudi Trade Mission toured the United States seeking investment partners for over $625 billion in projects over the next 20 years. The result? A mediocre showing among Americans.

Why the indifference to investment in a booming marketplace? One member of the group, vice president of a Virginia-based defense corporation, suggested that when senior company officials learn of opportunities around the world, such as those seen in Saudi Arabia, they are often shot down by corporate board members whose understanding of the world is limited or tainted by stereotypes and sound bites.

The remedy? Knowledge. That’s what the Tennessee World Affairs Council aims to do for our students, citizens and businesses, with your help.

Patrick W. Ryan is president of the Tennessee World Affairs Council, a non-profit educational charity based in Cookeville. He completed a 26-year Navy career as a submariner and intelligence officer before founding Ryan & Associates, an editorial consulting firm focused on foreign affairs information resources. Learn more about the Tennessee World Affairs Council at its Web site,

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