18 January 2005

Foreign Policy in Omaha

If St. Louis typifies urban America statistically, Omaha is typical in a more elusive and anecdotal sense. Its history reveals the crass commercialism, the blunt meat-and-potatoes aggressiveness and masculinity, as well as the military power that helped define twentieth-century America. Swanson Foods invented the TV dinner in downtown Omaha. A few blocks away, in the kitchen of the World War I-era Blackstone Hotel, the Reuben sandwich was invented. In Omaha a Russian-Jewish immigrant family founded Omaha Steaks. The Strategic Air Command (SAC) with its underground nuclear nerve center is based here. SAC's vast telephone linkage fans out throughout the country, providing the infrastructure for the nation's telemarketing and credit card authorization industries, both born in Omaha in the 1980s. Many of the unsolicited and obnoxious calls that Americans get at dinnertime come from Omaha, and almost every time a credit card is swiped through a machine for authorization, that machine is communicating with a computer in Omaha. (There are other reasons why Omaha is the nation's telemarketing center: midwestern accents are considered neutral and therefore not offensive to anyone-- unlike a New York or southern accent, for example. And because of its Central Time Zone location, Omaha-based telemarketers can start calling the East Coast in the morning, work their way across the country, and dial the West Coast in the late afternoon.) Johnny Carson got his start in Omaha on WOW-TV in 1949. Henry Fonda and Marlon Brando began their careers here. Malcolm X was born Malcolm Little in west Omaha. Warren Buffett, the second richest man in America after Bill Gates, still lives and works in Omaha. The college baseball world series is held every year in Omaha. Omaha could hardly be more American.

But the Omaha I visited in 1996 had a distinctly international flavor. At breakfast I read in the Omaha World-Herald that area farmers had imported llamas from South America to protect their calves from coyotes. The lead editorial was about how high death rates in eastern Europe had influenced the downward trend in the rate of world population growth. The first person I met in Omaha was Susan Leonovicz, who worked in a nondescript suburban office and handed me a business card with English on one side and Chinese on the other.

Leonovicz is a vice president of Mangelsen's, an Omaha firm that imports thread, feathers, porcelain eggs, dolls, and other items from China and other Pacific Rim countries, in addition to wedding ornaments from South Korea, for resale throughout America and Canada. I had wanted to see several other Omaha businesspeople involved in international trade, but they were out of town: in St. Petersburg, Tokyo, and other foreign cities negotiating deals. "Can't some of these items be made in America?" I asked. "Sure," Leonovicz answered, "but Americans won't pay more than, say, $1.99 for a feather, so we import feathers and many other things from places where wages are much lower."

She told me that the Japanese and South Koreans were opening maquilladora factories in China, much like ours in Mexico, using cheap labor to make products for re-export back home, which is partly why Mangelsen's and other businesses with factories in Asia were lobbying for permanent "most favored nation" trade status for China. A foreign policy dominated by human rights would mean job cuts in Omaha, she told me emphatically. What struck me about this discussion was its ordinariness. Foreign trade is a normal subject for the business elite not only in Omaha and St. Louis but, as I would later learn, in Wichita, Tulsa, Des Moines, and other heartland cities, too, all of which had formed their own "foreign policy committees." Intermediaries in New York and Washington were no longer necessary. The foreign policies pursued by these heartland cities were, ironically, more like those of European countries than of the East and West Coast elites, dominated by the concerns of trade and realpolitik rather than by human rights and spreading democracy.
SOURCE: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America's Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1998), pp. 59-60

The Sheila Variations has more excerpts from this book (and is an ardent fan of Kaplan's work).

UPDATE: Geitner Simmons at Regions of Mind posts reactions from Omaha.

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