By R. K. Ramazani (First published by The Daily Progress, May 30, 2010)
The United States may be the world's only superpower, but that is not enough to sustain its power and preserve its values. To do that Washington needs to understand the historical and cultural factors that shape the foreign policy behavior of other nations.
This need is especially pressing regarding the Middle East. We are entangled in wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, face rising terrorism in Yemen and Somalia, and confront Iran over its nuclear policy. Flawed analyses contributed to these predicaments.
In Iraq, Washington botched its approach. The destruction of the Saddam Hussein regime removed the dictatorial glue that held together Iraq's fractured society. Years after the U.S. invasion, sectarian, religious and ethnic divisions remain largely unabated. Arab, Kurdish and Turkmen populations continue to pursue conflicting claims for control of the Kirkuk oilfields. The drawdown of American combat forces this summer may well open the way to civil war.
Washington's understanding of Afghanistan is no greater. The landlocked country is as village-centered today as it has ever been. Nearly 90 percent of the population lives in villages where primordial loyalties of family, tribe and religion dominate daily life. To transform Afghan tribal society into a modern nation will take generations, a timeframe that exceeds both American capacity and its patience.
And few in America understand Iran. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said she did not understand it and presidential candidate Obama said he did not know how Iran works.
Washington does not understand, for example, why it cannot stop Iran from enriching uranium. The reason is that its approach is heavy handed. Because of Iran's history of foreign domination and intervention, including American, the country will fiercely resist any attempts to cripple it, whether through economic and diplomatic sanctions or through the implied threat of a nuclear attack.
Moreover, a coercive approach makes Washington's claim to negotiation sound hollow. As the latest example, the U.S. precipitously dismissed a nuclear deal brokered by Turkey and Brazil and announced on May 17. The deal would have removed more than half of Iran's low-enriched uranium from the country, ostensibly the American goal during talks in Vienna last October.
Washington perceives Iran as enemy, but it needs to understand Iran as we did the Soviet enemy during the Cold War. Enemies or friends, we need to understand and know their cultures, an idea best articulated by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. She noted that "cultural factors are utterly inseparable from foreign policy" and "the more we know and understand about the cultures of those with which we interact, the more successful our policy will be."
In the case of American foreign policy, success would come in two ways. Knowledgeable American diplomats would be able to report home accurately on the conditions of the countries in which they serve. And well-informed foreign policy makers in Washington could plan policies suited to the realities on the ground.
More important, knowing other nations well would better promote core American values and enhance the chances of greater U.S. foreign policy success over the long term. Thomas Jefferson realized as early as 1795 that for the American "ball of liberty" to "roll around the globe" triumphantly it was necessary for U.S. leaders to understand other cultures. He learned foreign languages, studied foreign cultures and adopted those European diplomatic norms that best suited America's interests and values.
Jefferson also thought U.S. citizens should learn about other cultures. In founding the University of Virginia, he wrote in 1816, it "will be based on the illimitable freedom of the human mind, to explore and expose every subject susceptible of contemplation."
In nearly 60 years that I have been present at the University, it has greatly expanded its studies of foreign cultures, including those of the Middle East, transforming Mr. Jefferson's "Academical Village" into a "Global Academy."
But study is not enough. It must be combined with appropriate action.
Autocracy is a root cause of many problems of the Middle East. To Jefferson, education was the best instrument of eradicating dictatorship. He wrote in 1816, "enlighten the public generally, and tyranny and oppression of body & mind will vanish like the evil spirits at the dawn of day."
In this spirit, I believe the Obama administration should launch an Educational Marshall Plan to educate the younger generation throughout the Middle East. The record shows that the more educated the people in the region the more they demand freedom and democracy.
In contrast, pursuing aggressive military policies in the fight against terrorists has its side effects. It alienates the people of the region from the United States and fails to solve their social and political problems.
Above all else, Washington must overcome its ignorance of the needs, wants and hopes of the peoples of the Middle East. Autocratic rulers do not speak for their people.
Jefferson believed that ignorance of other nations as well as our own was antithetical to freedom. He wrote in 1816: "If a nation expects to be ignorant & free in a state of civilization, it expects what never was & never will be."
About the autor: R.K. Ramazani founded in 1954 the study of Middle East politics and foreign policy at the University of Virginia where he is at present the Edward R. Stettinius Professor Emeritus of Government and Foreign Affairs. He has consulted with U.S. and United Nations officials, holds the Thomas Jefferson Award and is coeditor of two books on Jefferson.
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