The curse of superpowers is to see only their own reflection

WikiLeaks above all shows the difficulty the US has in understanding other cultures and societies.

If anyone had doubts that James Blunt had averted World War Three in Kosovo by hesitating over a US order to take Pristina Airbase from Russian hands with fire, they may be ebbing away after WikiLeaks.

Only the Americans could see the world with such crystal clarity – bullet-point intelligence gathering from Iran watcher in Baku, or tabloidese assessments of heads of states. As Simon Jenkins pointed out in the Guardian, what seems to be missing from US diplomatic missions abroad, with some exceptions, is talent: for which read talent of observation and comprehension.
 
We must be only a matter of days away from the cable revelations to Washington that describe Gordon Brown as a useless "squatter" or David Cameron as a snake-oil merchant: both of which descriptions appeared in the right- and left-wing British tabloid press.

What do American ambassadors do every day? Probably, as Alexander Lebedev described during his time as a KGB employee in London, they simply read the papers to fill their cables. Or, in the case of Iraq, prior to invasion, read Rough Guides.

It is a calamity, but at the centre of it is something quite unique to superpowers – as Christopher Andrew's Mitrokhin Archives revealed about the Soviets: the difficulty of experiencing and feeling other cultures and the people of the world as anything other than default Americans or Soviets.

If there is anything touching at all in the cables, it is the lesson in how to conduct talks with the Iranians by the British ambassador in Tehran (which also shows that the Achilles heel of UK ambassadors abroad may be pomposity). But even this is relayed back to Washington like a literal, 1980s textbook lesson from a management consultancy book.

The curse and downfall of superpowers is that they lack imagination. A recent edition of Crossing Continents on the BBC World Service, about Christianity in China, reported how Beijing had launched a serious study of the Protestant work ethic because it seemed single-handedly to the Chinese to hold some golden key to how the United States and northern Europe had become wealthy through capitalism.

For now, however, it seems no country suffers from lack of understanding like the Americans. It was there among its ordinary people post-9/11 – "How could anybody dislike the US?" – it was there in the US army's inability to believe that its soldiers would not be welcomed with open arms as liberators in Baghdad. It is clearly visible in the cable despatches sent out to Washington – intelligence sent without context, understanding or grasp of subletly; tabloid tittle-tattle rattled off as if from a bunch of Yale fraternity kids: "Oh he's not worth bothering about, he's a dork", "she hasn't got a brain". The cables show an entire corporate mindset at work on world populations that must surely be, in their psychological make-up, just like Americans.

How do you tell a world superpower of 300 million citizens, or 1.2 billion (China), or 250 million (Soviet Russia), that the world's other 4.5 billion don't think the American, Chinese or Soviet way? That societies and cultures are as complex, subtle and various as the millions of people who compose them? How do you prevent superpowers that, in trying to understand the rest of the world, take it to be their own reflection in a mirror looking back at them?

Catriona Luke is a freelance writer and editor.

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Tim Shipman's Diary

The Sunday Times political editor on poker, pasta – and being called fat by Andrew Marr.

A couple of Saturdays ago, I was having dinner with my wife at Padella (which serves the best pasta in London) when the phone rang. It was an irate David Davis. “You’re reporting that a friend of mine has said Philip May wants Theresa to quit. It’s not true. I don’t even know Philip May.” I calmly explained that I wasn’t accusing him and I had his friend on tape. “Who was it?” he asked me. I wasn’t saying. “Well, it’s not bloody helpful,” the Brexit Secretary said before hanging up.

The following day, I woke up to watch Philip Hammond explain to the BBC’s Andrew Marr why his cabinet colleagues had leaked me details of how the Chancellor had branded public-sector workers as “overpaid”. “I don’t know who [Tim Shipman’s] sources are,” he said, after inaccurately suggesting that I was being fed information as part of some Brexiteer conspiracy to discredit the cabinet’s leading Remainer.

On Monday, I did an interview with Eddie Mair in the back of a beer garden in Ireland, where I’m playing cricket. In reality, the leaks had much more to do with colleagues irritated at Hammond’s sometimes grating behaviour. Word reaches me that he regards it all as very unhelpful. It seems odd after 16 years in political journalism to have to say this, but we’re not here to be helpful. It might make sense if our politicians gave us less to write about. Over the past three years, they have delighted us enough.

Back for seconds

Voter fatigue is a recognised problem. No one talks about journalist fatigue. We all hope that Theresa May rejuvenates on her Swiss walk (perhaps regenerating into Jodie Whittaker). Thanks to the decision she took when she last went walking, I’m facing the obliteration of another summer holiday writing a second political tome covering the period since my Brexit book, All Out War, up to the general election. What looked at one stage like the boring second album is now a rip-roaring tale of hubris and nemesis. When I asked for title suggestions on Twitter, there were plenty of votes for “Mayhem” and “Mayday”. The most imaginative was: “The Snarling Duds of May”. Sadly, it’s too long for my publisher.

Catching the big fish

The new-found attention from writing books is a double-edged sword. To my delight, then embarrassment, Andrew Marr referred to me twice as “the doyen” of the print lobby. “We keep trying to stop him,” Marr’s editor, the redoubtable Rob Burley, confided at a rival magazine’s summer party. The following week, Marr said: “The biggest fish in the pool, if only physically, is Tim Shipman…” I got a text from a special adviser friend asking: “Are you paying him?” I pointed out that Britain’s best-known political interviewer had just called me a fat bastard live on national television.

New blood

I make my debut on BBC2’s Newsnight alongside Ash Sarkar of Novara Media, one of the new websites that cheerlead for Jeremy Corbyn. She is nerveless and fluent in her mid-twenties, when I was a tongue-tied naif. People who get the Corbyn phenomenon are rightly getting more airtime. Off the air, she tells me that she’s a “libertarian anarchist” and then asks me where I live. “Are you going to smash it up?” I ask nervously. She smiles. Ash’s main concern is to paint the town red in the Saturday-night sense. A Labour MP draws attention to her Twitter biog, which concludes: “Walks like a supermodel. Fucks like a champion. Luxury communism now!” Bravo. I think…

Brexit gamble

I was greatly cheered by the induction in the Poker Hall of Fame of the late Dave “Devil­fish” Ulliott, the player who did the most to create the TV and online poker boom in Britain. Westminster has a few useful card sharps – Paul Stephenson, formerly of Vote Leave, among them – but I don’t know any politicians who play. By contrast, the US presidents Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon were all accomplished poker players.

When I worked in the US, I interviewed a member of Barack Obama’s poker circle when he was a state senator in Chicago. The cautious, composed and occasionally bold player he described was the mirror image of the politician we came to know. His Republican rival in 2008, John McCain, preferred the chaotic gambling of the craps table and his erratic campaign reflected that. Too many of the current cabinet seem to be dice men. What we wouldn’t give for Devilfish running the Brexit negotiations.

Blundering through

Anyone who has ever dealt with McCain would have been saddened by the news that he is suffering from brain cancer, but his resilience almost makes you feel sorry for the tumour. McCain is undoubtedly the most media-friendly politician I have ever met. When I travelled on his plane in 2008, he took every question from the foreign press pack and made us feel welcome. Through him, I also met Steve Duprey, the former boss of the New Hampshire Republicans. He was fond of explaining Duprey’s first law: “In politics, before considering malevolence, always assume incompetence.” I have had much cause to remind myself of that over the past three years.

Paranoid android

If you are looking for a summer read, I recommend Jonathan Allen’s and Amie Parnes’s Shattered, a great insider account of Hillary Clinton’s disastrous 2016 presidential election effort. It shows how a flawed candidate with little ability to connect with the public presided over a paranoid regime of advisers engaged in Shakespearean bloodletting that led to them coming a cropper when fighting a charismatic populist. On second thoughts, you could always wait to read my second book this autumn. 

Tim Shipman is the political editor of the Sunday Times. “All Out War” is now available in paperback (William Collins)

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue