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29 November 2010

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.

By Catriona Luke

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.

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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.