Who can keep them foreigners straight?

Certainly not the man responsible for US foreign policy.

Speaking ex cathedra before his first foreign tour, the new Secretary of State John Kerry praised his department for securing democratic institutions in the former Soviet republic of Kyrzakhstan.

This was quite an achievement, made even more remarkable by the unfortunate fact that no such republic exists. It’s a portmanteau word made up of Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. Brought together in this fashion they remind one of the Americans’ refreshing ignorance of foreign lands. Even taken separately, neither of them testifies to Americans’ success in taking their deified democracy to the infidels.

In fact, their proselytising efforts to turn tribal societies into American-style democracies have been ending in consistent and predictable fiascos. Target countries hold some kind of elections to secure American aid (or to escape bombing raids) and then revert to business as usual – or worse.

Americans don’t seem to realise that no democracy can be born at the ballot box unless it’s already born in the people’s hearts. To them ‘all men are created equal’ is supposed to mean that all countries either are or yearn to be just like the good old US of A. And Americans are genuinely upset when this turns out not to be the case.

There are many reasons for this deficit of sensitivity, and one of them is pandemic ignorance of the world’s political geography, history and culture. Hence President Ford declaring at a 1975 press conference that there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe. Thinking he had misheard, the reporter repeated the question, this time specifying Poland, all but a Soviet colony at the time. ‘That’s what I’m talking about too,’ insisted Ford. Fast-forward to 2008, and we have George W. Bush warning that at risk in the Russo-Georgian war was ‘Russia’s duly elected government’.

When I lived in America, I never revolved in such elevated circles, but I can testify from personal experience to the natives’ ignorance at the grass roots. My first job there was as translator at NASA in Houston, where all my bosses were men with advanced university degrees.

One of them, the Texan in charge of the documentation support (including translation) for the Apollo-Soyuz mission, once asked me, ‘Are y’all from Russia?’ ‘Yes,’ I said. ‘D y’all speak German at home?’ Thinking this was a joke, I replied in the same vein. ‘We do sometimes. But usually we speak Russian.’ Jack earnestly thanked me for teaching him something new.

This wasn’t an isolated incident – I had to field similar questions every day. Then a Harvard-educated friend explained that Russia and Germany were so often mentioned together in history lessons that most denizens assumed it was the same country. Moreover, Russian and German were grouped together in the language departments of most Texan universities (in Europe, Slavic and Germanic languages are wisely kept apart).

Once another boss reprimanded me for having a lot of ‘discrufancies’ [sic] in my translations. In my defence I asked for an example. ‘Well, look how y’all translated the word “ball”,’ he said. ‘In English it has four letters and the last two are the same. In y’all’s translation it has five letters and none are the same.’ I laughed at the joke, only to realise it wasn’t.

According to the same helpful friend, our bosses believed that translation meant transliteration: taking English words and writing them out in Cyrillic alphabet. ‘If you probe them,’ he added, ‘you’ll find they don’t know the difference between Austria and Australia, Sweden and Switzerland, not to mention Slovakia and Slovenia.’

Back in Texas I knew many old people who had never been farther than 20 miles away from their home towns. Then I moved to New York and met quite a few Brooklyn residents who had never been to Manhattan, a short subway ride away. With notable exceptions, Americans tend to be happy in their own skin and in their own country. And even hereditary Ivy Leaguers like Bush or Kerry only bother to turn their attention to foreigners under duress.

By itself this sort of parochialism is quite touching. It’s also reassuring that there exists a nation where people are so happy with their immediate surroundings that they have no curiosity about faraway places, or even those not so far away. The problem only starts when such a nation tries to assume the mantle of a world empire.

This is a role for which the USA has no qualifications other than the purely physical ones, and even those are dwindling away. For it takes more than just military and economic power to bring half the world together within one political culture. To assume an empire-building mission, the metropolis has to learn about other cultures first – their spiritual and historical roots, their prejudices and idiosyncrasies, their loves and hates.

This kind of learning can’t be purely academic – it requires centuries of experience in rubbing shoulders with outlanders, learning their ways and teaching them one’s own. Europeans tend to acquire such experience naturally, simply because they’re all bunched together on a small continent, or a narrow channel away. That’s partly why the British Empire was so successful for so long – its administrators weren’t just teachers; they were also learners.

Americans have never been learners, which is why they fail as teachers. Witness their crude, ill-advised efforts to turn the Middle East into a political replica of America’s own Midwest. In a decade of violent nation-building, no nations have been built. However, many have been destroyed or at least taken to the brink of destruction. Moreover, the region has become thoroughly Islamised and radicalised – so much so that the whole world is now a more dangerous place.

Bulls don’t build china shops; they smash the china. Americans will do well to keep this clichéd observation in mind.

Meanwhile, I wish John Kerry a safe journey on his foreign foray. One hopes for all our sakes that he’ll learn a thing or two on his travels. Such as that Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan are two different places. So are Sweden and Switzerland. So are Austria and Australia.

Above all, let’s hope he and his  countrymen will realise that they aren’t yet ready to build nations. Their own is barely finished. The scaffolding is still up. 









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