Do Other Countries Know More About Us Than We Know About Them? Does It Matter?

March 29, 2009

I think that this is a really interesting point raised by Matt Yglesias:

“The economic and military might of the United States gives us enormous power to influence events in distant lands. But having a lot of ability to influence events is unlikely to achieve anything useful unless you actually understand what’s happening. And when we get involves in things like the internal politics of Pakistan, or political reform in Egypt, or wars in the Horn of Africa, and so forth we’re dealing in situations where the level of understanding is incredibly asymmetric. If you go to pretty much any country in the world, you’ll find that educated people there know more about the United States than you do about their country. Nobody at highest levels of the American government speaks Urdu. Or Arabic. Or Amharic or Somali or Pashto or Tajik.

Lots of people at high levels in the Pakistani government speak English. President Zardari can deliver a speech in English and his staff can write one for him. If they want to figure out what’s going on in the U.S., they have a vast bounty of media outlets to peruse to gather intelligence. And year-in and year-out Pakistan cares about the same smallish set of countries—Pakistani officials are always focused on issue in their region and issues with the United States. Our officials dance around—the Balkans are important this decade, Central Asia the next, Russia and the Persian Gulf flit on and off the radar, sometimes we notice what’s happening in Mexico, etc.

In other words, in a straightforward contest of power between the United States and Pakistan, we can of course win. But in a scenario where we are trying to manipulate the situation in Pakistan in such-and-such a way and Pakistani actors are trying to manipulate the situation for their own ends, the odds of us actually outwitting the Pakistanis are terrible. They’re in a much better position to manipulate us than we are them.

Note that during the FDR and Truman years, American elites were generally more familiar with Europe than European elites were with the United States. I think that’s an important element in understanding why the institution-building of that era largely worked.”

I’ve heard this argument before, although not stated in quite this way. I think it’s unchallengeable that it’s good to have expertise in the areas of the world you’re dealing with. I’m not sure that it’s essential, though, to have more knowledge of others than they have of you. In many ways, it is preferable that others know a lot about you, as one of the most critical problems in international relations is the communication of one’s own interests, preferences, commitment, and resolve.

I also think that Americans in general have a tendency to greatly overestimate the knowledge that others have of the United States because of their ability to speak English (and their often superficial knowledge of American culture). There is a big difference between fluency in English and an understanding of how American foreign policy is formulated or how our government works. This is particularly the case when dealing with foreign elites who see the United States through ideological or cultural lenses. For example, Soviet leaders frequently suffered from often profound misunderstandings about the workings of the United States government and how domestic interests in the United States influenced the formulation of state policy.

This is the first time, though, that I’ve heard the argument that the United States benefitted in this way after WWII in its interactions with Europe. The US, though, was profoundly successful with in its policies in Japan, and I find it difficult to believe that there were American elites with remotely comparable expertise in that country.

I was struck, though, when reading David Fromkin’s A Peace To End All Peace (a book I highly, HIGHLY recommend – a truly cautionary tale about Britain’s war with the Ottoman Empire in WWI and its policies in the Middle East), by the degree of ignorance among British elites of the Middle East during and immediately after WWI. Unquestionably that ignorance contributed to the creation and perpetuation of bad policies and eventually failed occupations. The same can be said about the US occupation of Iraq nearly a century later.

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