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.

GETTY
Show Hide image

Want your team to succeed? Try taking a step back

From the boardroom to the sports ground, managers need to step back for creativity to thrive.

Everyone is in favour of creativity, usually at the expense of creative people. The concept is in perpetual boom. Give us creative midfielders, creative leadership, creative solutions, creative energy. It’s with the “how” that the problems start – with extra meetings and meddling, over-analysis and prescriptiveness, whiteboards and flow charts. Professional systems rarely support the creativity that they allegedly seek. The creativity industry system is at odds with its stated goals.

The novel was an early casualty. Nothing makes me close a book more quickly and finally than the creeping realisation that the author is following a narrative map purchased on an American creative writing course. Life is too short for competent novels. The creativity industry pulls up the worst while dragging down the best.

Something similar happens inside professional sport, even though creativity is so obviously linked to performance and profit. Yet sport, especially English sport, has suffered from excessive managerialism. Perhaps guilt about English sport’s amateur legacy gave “professionalism” free rein, however pedestrian its form.

Here is sport’s problem with creativity: professional systems crave control, but creativity relies on escaping control. If an attacking player doesn’t know what he is going to do next, what chance does the defender have?

So when truly unexpected moments do happen, they take on a special lustre. This month, Olivier Giroud scored an unforgettable goal for Arsenal. Bearing down on the goal, he was already launched in mid-air when he realised that the cross was well behind him. With his body far ahead of his feet, Giroud clipped the ball to the top corner of the net with the outside of his left ankle – a so-called scorpion kick.

It was, in retrospect, the only option available to him. Football, for a moment, touched the arts – not only beautiful, but also complete. Nothing could have been added or taken away.

I once tried to compare the perfect cricket shot to Robert Frost’s celebrated description of writing a poem: “It begins in delight, it inclines to the impulse, it assumes direction with the first line laid down, it runs a course of lucky events, and ends in a clarification . . . Like a piece of ice on a hot stove the poem must ride on its own melting.”

A great goal, however, fits that poetic model better than a cricket shot. Cricket shots come in many aesthetic grades, but they are all intended as shots. A goal, on the other hand, is more than just a very good pass, only better. There is an act of transformation within the event.

Frost’s acknowledgment of luck (distinct here from fluke) neatly defuses the accusation. Saying that a great goal involved luck does not to diminish it. Many unearned factors must interact with the skill.

“But did he mean it?” some people have wondered about Giroud’s goal. That isn’t the point, either. There wasn’t time. Giroud had solved the problem – to make contact with the ball, however possible, directing it towards the goal – before he was fully conscious of it. That doesn’t make it an accident. The expertise of a striker, like that of a writer, is opportunistic. He puts himself in positions where his skills can become productive. It is a honed ability to be instinctive. “If I’d thought about it, I never would have done it,” as Bob Dylan sings on “Up to Me”, an out-take from Blood on the Tracks.

Pseudo-intellectual? Quite the reverse. There is nothing pretentious about recognising and protecting creativity in sport. Over-literal decoding is the greater threat: instinctive performance needs to be saved from team meetings, not from intellectuals.

Having described a creative goal as unplanned – indeed, impossible to plan – what can coaches do to help? They can get out of the way, that’s a good start. It is no coincidence that the teams of Arsène Wenger, who is sometimes criticised for being insufficiently prescriptive, score more than their fair share of wonder goals.

The opposite arrangement is bleak. A friend of mine, a fly-half in professional rugby union, retired from the game when his coaches told him exactly which decisions to make in the first six phases of every attacking move. In effect, they banned him from playing creatively; they wanted rugby by numbers.

Not everything can be rehearsed. One useful book for coaches scarcely mentions sport – Inside Conducting, by the conductor Christopher Seaman. “I’ve never had much sympathy for conductors who ‘program’ an orchestra at rehearsal,” Seaman writes, “and then just run the program during the performance. There is much more
to it than that.”

Dan Vettori, the rising star among cricket’s Twenty20 coaches, is rare for having the bravery to echo Seaman’s theory. He believes that cricketers are more likely to play well when they feel slightly underprepared. It’s a risk and a fine balance – but worth it.

As I explored here last month in the context of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, there is a danger of slotting players into false stereotypes and classifications. Giroud, for example, is slow. Slow yet athletic. That’s an unusual combination and partly explains why he is underrated.

We often think of pace as the central and definitive aspect of athleticism. But speed is just one component of total athletic ability (leave to one side footballing skill). Giroud has an outstanding vertical jump, power and great balance. Because he is big and slow, those athletic gifts are harder to spot.

Management systems overestimate both labels and top-down tactics. A braver policy, pragmatic as well as aesthetic, is to be less controlling: allow opportunity to collide with skill, directed by an open, expert and uncluttered mind. l

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge