Foreign Policy: Studying the World Culturally

The State Department, Foreign Service Institute, and our Current Ignorance of the World.

Why are we doing so poorly in understanding those who oppose us: terrorists, enemies?

Are we studying toward understanding their worlds, or engaged principally in inferring from our thinking to how their’s must be?

Several recent journalistic books agree that our ways of studying the Mideast have fallen way short of the actual situation, mind-sets, and thinking of our declared enemies. (E.g., Dennis Ross: “Statecraft: And How to Restore America’s Standing in the World.”)

Studying the 9/11 terrorists, they’re not poor, uneducated, merely “evil” people. They came from middle to upper-middle-class persons in England, Brussels and Germany: had a deep sense of the loss of meaning, sought for direction and help, and dedicated themselves to their mission. They were thoughtful, rather than merely stupid and angry – sought and apparently found mission and meaning in their horrendous (certainly to us) activities.

We have misread the people and factions in Iraq, and seem bent on continuing our ways, irrespective of whatever is happening, and the costs to our soldiers, to the people of Iraq (and elsewhere), but muddle on, apparently content that we “know what we are doing”.

The journalists agree that we have done a poor job of examining our opponents, and I want to report on some fairly personal history of my teachers who had been members of linguistic units during WWII and then part of the newly created Foreign Service Institute right after the war. They were anthropologists and linguists who examined first hand the cultures, languages, thinking.

I was one of their first two students at SUNYBuffalo, where several of these persons were hired as their place in the State Department was terminated. And the then Dean of Arts and Sciences at Buffalo (who my spouse worked for as his child’s care-giver) hired them to begin the Department of Anthropology and Linguistics where I earned my M.A. — Henry Lee Smith, Jr., and George Trager (link to PDF noting his influence on E.T. Hall) were their names. Others went to other universities: Northwest and Pittsburgh – where they lived productive lives as scholars and teachers.

As far as I can tell – I know this through the 1990’s, for sure, and it seems very obvious to this day – that the State Dep’t doesn’t much study others in the world – to explore how they live, talk, think: my training. How did this happen, may reveal a good deal about how our foreign service operatives know and think.

My teachers were canned as John Foster Dulles came into be Secretary of State under President Dwight Eisenhower. Dulles had a particular view of America, and how we are with respect to the rest of the world: America is the “City upon a Hill.” We are the best country, the example and exemplar for all others: the best, the highest. Never mind how other countries are or think: they are long ago. It was, apparently, Dulles’ way of dealing with the Cold War: to oppose rather than to seek new or other ways of talking to our “opponents.”

And my teachers’ heirs have never gotten back into the State Dept – we do not train or use linguists – almost no one speaks the languages of the mid-east, or studies their cultures, educational modes, religions – they are not students of the world who actually go there, live, study, learn. The State Dept, and our foreign policy persons, are not skilled in the world-views of others, but more stamped by how our more military/religious thinkers tend to label them: e.g., we are good, and they must be evil – if they oppose us. If poor, just become active American-type capitalists, and all will work out, good, right.

So sadly, our understanding of the cultures and languages of the rest of the world is not much part of how we deal with that world. Isn’t it finally time to rethink how our diplomatic world is – just that – diplomatic, rather than from the “best country in the world” whose job it is, apparently, to impose “democracy” on all others.

(Just a few months ago, an Australian anthropologist was actually hired to work in Afghanistan, advising our guys at least in that context. Let us hope!)

Bureaucracy can be very strange…!