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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Eleven things that will definitely happen during the general election campaign

History is repeating itself, as the 2015 general election campaign is echoed in the 2017 snap vote.

The last election is happening all over again.

Here’s how:

1. Michael Fallon is wheeled out to link the opposition leader to nuclear war

2015

The smearer-in-chief Michael Fallon, or Minister for the Today Programme as he has sometimes been labelled, was unleashed by CCHQ to warn that as Ed Miliband “stabbed his own brother in the back” to lead Labour, he was “willing to stab the UK in the back” and threaten national security by doing a deal with the Scottish National Party to cancel Trident. It was nasty, untrue and sadly political rhetoric has only worsened since.

2017

The Tory Terminator is back! This time, aiming his nuclear wordheads at Jeremy Corbyn. But with essentially the same script as last time. Yes, the Labour leader was branded a “security risk” on Trident by the same Defence Secretary who was accused of keeping Parliament in the dark over a failed nuclear weapons test (which suggests no threat to national security at all, of course).

Fallon says Theresa May would fire Trident as a “first strike”. So once again in British politics, to prove you can be trusted with national security you have to be more committed than your opponent to starting a nuclear war.

2. The Conservatives will conjure up the prospect of coalition to scare voters

2015

In what appeared to be a rather risky strategy of constantly putting your opponents on your campaign literature, elegantly playing the recorder, the Tories banged on for weeks about Ed Miliband potentially doing a deal with the SNP in government. And somehow, despite actually being in coalition themselves, the Tories managed to make coalition sound scary enough for this strategy to work.

2017

Guys did you know that there is the chance of a “coalition of chaos” after the election? A “coalition of chaos”, yeah. What’s that, you say? We don’t know either, but it sounds good doesn’t it? “Coalition”. “Chaos”. Alliteration. No, we know there’s no chance of it happening either and that Labour is refusing to work with other parties anyway but stiiiiill “coalition of chaos” is definitely a thing. “Coalition of chaos”.

The good thing about this is that the coalition bogeyman may have less traction this time round because so few people see there being much likelihood of a Corbyn premiership.

3. Someone will photoshop the opposition leader incongruously wearing a flower crown and people will ask if it could affect the election result

2015

#Milifandom was the symbol of a more innocent time in our politics. “Whilst The Sun attacks the 17-year-old behind the Milifandom craze, young people have found an arena of their own in which to have political discussion without obvious tabloid bias,” one fan told the Independent on the eve of the election. “This will obviously have a bearing on the election.”

It didn’t.

2017

But don’t let your flowers wilt just yet, oh admiring youth of the ironic web! For Corbyn became a cult figure loved and memed by many, young and old, the moment he began campaigning to be Labour leader.


Not since flower-crowned Ed had Britain seen a politician so revered. Will this have a bearing on the election? Perhaps, but not in the way some fans may wish…

4. Russell Brand will say something and people will ask if it could affect the election result

2015

That thirsty thesaurus Russell Brand interviewed a number of politicians ahead of the general election campaign for his stressful YouTube channel The Trews and none was more anticipated than when Ed went round to his house a few days before the election. A performance filled with glottal stops and nonchalant shrugs, dropped tees and aitches left an audience clenched in cringe – and a Labour party without the endorsement it wanted. Brand went for the Greens in the end.

2017

He hasn’t had a cosy chat with Corbyn yet but Brand has just returned to live radio with a new show, and it looks like he won’t stay quiet for long as he’s already gatecrashed Katie Hopkins’ LBC show on live radio to lure “Hatie Hopkins” back to humanity.

5. A politician will be caught having the audacity to consume food

2015

Ed Miliband ate a bacon sandwich, and it made front page news. Read my colleague Amelia on why politicians eating in public is such a global preoccupation.

2017

Jeremy Corbyn has had many a food-based controversy. Giant marrow-wielding aside, he has angered Mumsnet with his dislike of biscuits, and called kebab shops “a place of great discourse and discussion” yet implored their owners to serve salad too to provide “the balanced diet that everybody needs”, further riling them by supporting the sugar tax.

6. People will trust or dismiss polls depending on whether they confirm their political bias

2015

Polling: The polls are neck and neck = the Tories will win it/Labour will win it.

Result: The Tories won an outright majority.

2017

Polling: The Tories have a historic poll lead = the Tories will win it/Labour will win it.

Result: We know now never to make predictions because…

7. Every single one will be wrong

2015

For a while after the result, everything looked like this…

2017

…so guys why should we believe the polls this time round saying Labour will be destroyed?

8. Apart from the ones that show Labour doing badly

2015

2017

Oh.

9. Which will be extremely accurate

Great.

10. Well-timed colds will cover up difficult policy positions

2015

Luckily, then Green party leader Natalie Bennett had a cold, which meant she was able to casually cough and sneeze her way through LBC’s questioning on her housing policy. So smooth. No one noticed. Cough.

2017

Not strictly part of the election campaign, but Labour’s shadow home secretary Diane Abbott was thought to have a bout of “Brexit flu”, hence missing the first Commons vote to trigger Article 50.

11. Nigel Farage will lose his seat

2015

In a beautifully degrading snapshot beside Al Murray’s Pub Landlord little Englander caricature, the then Ukip leader Nigel Farage lost in South Thanet – failing to be elected to Parliament for the seventh time.

2017

Will there be an eighth time? With his successor Paul Nuttall apparently preferring to lock himself in a room away from journalists asking whether he’ll be running for a seat, it looks like Farage is still the party’s main hope.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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