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Humanists in Foxholes

June 17, 2011

Over the last few days, many friends have written in to recommend an op-ed, “The Humanist in the Foxhole,” written by Robert D. Kaplan following the recent unfortunate, if not totally unsurprising, death of Patrick Leigh Fermor, travel writer and intellectual extraordinaire, at age 96. Fermor, as Kaplan and others have written, represented the best of the 20th century British post-imperial / adventurer tradition. At a young age, instead of coming up to Oxford or Cambridge, as so many have, he elected to travel to the Hook of Holland, and hike across Europe (this was 1933) from there to what he insisted on calling Constantinople. Travel grants? Scholarships? Élite fellowships? Rather than participating in the more structured culture of learning through travel that we have today, Fermor learned languages along the way, worked on farms with peasants, and was able to befriend and live with a variety of European gentry and nobility along the way. On the basis of this experience, Fermor was able to make a career (although he might not have called it that) on the basis of this and later travels, primarily in Greece and Southeast Europe. One journalist would later describe him as “a cross between Indiana Jones, James Bond and Graham Greene.”

Patrick Leigh Fermor, Adventurer-Scholar Extraordinaire

And yet, as Kaplan writes, Fermor was a product of his times, one almost unrecognizable to our own world of area studies specialists, a military culture radically different from most of the élite academic institutions, and a set of economic incentives and debt loads in the United States that encourages talented young people less to hike to Greece than either to join the élite financial institutions, or, occasionally, to take risks in the commercial sector via the path of start-ups. Not everyone should become the sort of adventurer that Fermor represented, of course; some parts of the start-up universe, and new sectors like biotech and the application of the Big Data paradigm to real societal problems could be a huge boost for the economyBut what Kaplan worried about more was the move away from what Fermor represented – specialization in areas that one genuinely had a love for, a connection to the place – as opposed to more utilitarian ends. Sure, Kaplan argues, America is a superpower with global interests, and as such, it is important that the country cultivate and develop a cadre of scholars, diplomats, soldiers, and planners with a knowledge and intuition about the strategic landscape of the 21st century – China, Central Asia, the Middle East, Brazil, the Arctic, and so on. Too often, however, we put the strategic ahead of the aesthetic and the local (local in the sense of a knowledge of land, a love of place, etc.). Programs with names like War Studies  and Global Governance and Diplomacy, not to mention the old classic of International Relations, prosper at élite universities like King’s College London and Oxford, but look closer at the content of these courses, and what you find is a smattering of methods courses (bad statistics), a focus on learning about systems or institutions like the police, border control, narcotics control, and so on. Here’s a list of some of the optional courses for Global Governance and Diplomacy at Oxford, a course many of whose students I know well:

  • Climate Change Diplomacy
  • Diplomacy and International Law
  • Global Governance of Innovation
  • Global Financial Governance
  • International Economic Integration
  • International Relations of the Developing World
  • Multi-level Governance and Regional Integration
  • Political Economy of Institutions and Development
  • Political Economy of Intellectual Property
  • Politics of Non-governmental Organisations

That all of this is interesting, I don’t doubt. But for a course that claims to be “global,” there sure seems to be a shocking lack of focus on languages, encouraging travels to the places or cultures that these cultures, institutions, financial arrangements, and climate change problems … actually exist in. (All of this can be yours, if you’re a foreign student without a scholarship, for a mere $40,000, part of a problem in higher education that I just touched on recently.) The point, as Kaplan underlined, is that some of the best problem-solvers and entrepreneurial actors came out of a tradition that put less emphasis on rational-actor models, on national interest, and on neoliberal or realist models of how the world worked than on place and culture. As Kaplan put it, “Unlike the young Winston Churchill in Sudan or the Prussian general Helmuth von Moltke journeying through the Ottoman Empire, Fermor and his friends refused to reduce the world to questions of strategy and national interest: they were more taken by culture and landscape, which in fact made them more valuable than most intelligence agents.”

Leonid Brezhnev, Interventionista?

So what’s an example of this phenomenon actually being helpful? One recent moment for me came up during the Russian section of my interview with Anton Zykov, an M.Phil. student here at Oxford who has worked as a diplomat for the Russian Federation in India. Curious about how Russia views the NATO intervention in Libya, I asked him how Russians thought about the concept of intervention (интервенция), and to what extent they distinguished it from “war” or “interference” (in Russian, вмешательство or vmeshatel’stvo). As Anton explained, the concept of intervention comes out of a totally different historical perspective in Russia. There was, on the one hand, the trauma inflicted by the Western and Japanese “intervention” in the Russian Civil War, which colored Russian and, later, Soviet attitudes towards the West and Japan’s attitude towards the socialist project. More substantively, however, the 1960s and 1970s saw the emergence in the USSR foreign policy establishment of what Russians might call socialist internationalism, but what most English-speakers would call the Brezhnev Doctrine. According to this doctrine, as Anton explained, even if there was only one dissatisfied worker in, say, Dubcek’s Czechoslovakia (or, in theory, in Brezhnev’s USSR), any country in the socialist bloc had the right to “intervene” to protect the interests of the (legitimate) working class. This, in part, is why what Westerners call the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan was never referred to as an occupation, of course, but also as an effort by a “limited contingent of Soviet forces” (ogranichenyi kontingent sovetskykh vojsk) or an effort by “warrior-internationalists” (voitsy-internatsionalisty). (Interestingly, as someone who does not know a ton about the Balkans, there seems to be an interesting parallel here with the way Serbians think about intervention on behalf of fellow Serbs – there can be a sense that even if there is one Serb in peril in, say, Croatia, this constitutes grounds for intervention.) The broader point is that, in the socialist, and, arguably, Slavic universe, the concept of intervention came less out of any Wilsonian internationalist desire, than out of a combination of a Marxist tradition focusing on the working class, but also a sense that solidarity (whether on Marxist-Leninist or, in the case of Serbians, pan-Serb ideals of brotherhood) was crucial to justify an intervention. And as Anton underlined, even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there has not been a serious reformulation of the concept of intervention: the concept of intervention is still grounded, or comes out of, the socialist tradition, and there hasn’t been an incorporation of Wilsonian internationalist values into the Russian understanding of the concept at all. Hence, when we attempt to talk to Russian leaders, to some extent, about the moral necessity of intervention, we’re just not speaking the same language. It’s not just that assisting the intervention in Libya might only be against Russia’s national interest; it’s that the people making the policy come out of an entirely different policy tradition that you just won’t grasp if you’re trained only in the language of Strategic Studies or rational-choice theory.

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, heir to an Iranian leadership tradition

Or take Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the rambunctious President of Iran. His antics on the international stage are well-known. In 2005, after his speech to the UN General Assembly, Ahmadinejad, while on a visit to Qom (the center of Shia scholarship and the Shia ulema in Iran), spoke to senior clerics and told them that he had felt a halo around his head while speaking in New York, and that he had mesmerized the audience. In effect, he meant that he had felt the presence of the Mahdi, the Hidden Imam in Twelver Shiism (the dominant religion in Iran). (This roughly would have been equivalent to George Bush claiming he felt the special presence of Jesus Christ with him, personally, while at a major international event.) At his speech at Columbia University in 2007, he infamously responded to a question about homosexuality in Iran by saying that no gays existed in the country (prompting the New Yorker cover below). Many in the Western media as well as the political class took these incidents as further examples of the fact that Ahmadinejad was a Hitler-like figure, completely irrational, and a threat to world peace. These he might be, but they missed the point that, while Shia scholars denounce the idea that an ordinary man can enjoy a special communion with the Mahdi, there exists a strong presence in Iran, including the Shah, of milleniarian rhetoric in politics. The Shah promised the people the dream of a “Great Civilization” (tamadan-e bozorg) that would surpass European civilization and last for centuries. Likewise, while there are, needless to say, homosexuals in Iran, the real point is that gender norms there are radically different from Western societies. Scholars like Afsaneh Najmabadi, of Harvard, have emphasized how 19th-century Iran had radically different norms of beauty and sexuality. Qajar Iran, she argues, was marked by near-uniform senses of beauty for men and women, and it was often hard to tell the two apart. Only with the onset of Western gender norms and an anxiety of inferiority before Russian and British colonialism did Iranian gender norms harder into categories of “male” and “female” as binary non-exclusives, albeit with a complex historical depth behind them. Closer to the present, Iran has one of the highest rates of sex-change operations in the world, and in a gender-segregated society with conservative sexual norms, men often elect to become women so as to lead an existence that more corresponds with their sexual orientation. Now, I’ve never been to Iran, but the point is that you don’t necessarily deduce these things about a culture, a civilization, from its geographical position on a map, or from a model of how states should behave to one another. You get it by an extended encounter, an extended engagement, with literature, images, language, and, preferably, time spent in the place, too.

The New Yorker's Spoof of Ahmadinejad's Comments - Funny, But They Obscured The Real Point

So what to do concretely? A couple things might be said. One is that this kind of education that Kaplan and I have outlined helps, but it’s not necessarily a preparation for making wise or informed decisions in itself. Paul Wolfowitz, for example, the author of an eponymous doctrine that foresaw US global hegemony running into perpetuity, was notably infatuated with Indonesian culture while serving as Ambassador there. He learned the language, traveled widely, and his wife at the time, Clare Selgin, was an anthropologist who specialized in Indonesian culture. (According to further profiles, Wolfowitz also knew Arabic, French, German, and Hebrew, and his current partner, Shaha Riza, is a secular British-Libyan woman). So the lesson is that even a deep graduate education, being multilingual, and dating beautiful, intelligent, international women of mystery doesn’t necessarily make you a wise strategic thinker. Still, even if that’s true, I’d rather take my chances with someone with, say, the bombshell Filipino-Iranian spouse than not.

Do you really want him in your foxhole?

Other than people being more honest with themselves about their interests, however, it’s not completely clear to me what is to be done on an institutional level. One start might be eliminating a lot of the courses on governance, institutions, and methods, or at least drawing them back, and encouraging students to spend more time in actual places, learning languages, and imbibing in the kind of deep learning that I suspect Wolfowitz had, albeit as an established professional man, in Indonesia. This, I suspect, is a decision on the university level that has more to do with costs (it’s easier to run a big course where people read Henry Kissinger for semester after semester than it is to run tinier language courses, or hire specialists in Indonesian culture) than with good reasoning. Nor does the obsession of some departments that might be best-equipped to give this kind of instruction with self-identity studies, or with postmodernism, make the route into public affairs or foreign policy the easiest one for students who are more pragmatically-minded about their studies. Still, it seems to me that the International Relations and War Studies Departments need to ask themselves: “International Relations … this is about things that are international, i.e. between nations which have distinctive cultures, and about how these different cultures and civilizations relate to one another.” If they took that as the starting point, and used that as the basis for collaboration with humanists, language instructors, and institutions in, say, Jakarta, they might have a creative, imaginative educational program on their hands, rather than getting mired in the gobbledy-gook of which man-made “model” of international relations best captures reality the best. I’m all for balancing travel with time in the library, and writing, preferably lots of the latter, but we need to remember that international relations, and global studies, are about something, and not an object of study themselves. If we did so, I suspect we’d produce not only more people as intelligent and, well, as interesting as Wolfowitz, but also equipped with deeper intuitions and knowledge of foreign societies to improve relations with them, to help educate those back at home about distant and far-away places.

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