An Introduction to Foreign Policy   Leave a comment


So, I’ve been to the Middle East twice. My first visit I studied Arabic for six weeks and my second visit I studied Arabic for about three months. Those experiences have shaped the way I view American foreign policy.

Discussions about our foreign policy tend to center about what “the Pakistanis” will do or what message “Iran” is sending. We treat other countries as single monolithic entities, rather than the complex mess of human passions and artificial institutions that they really are. “Saudi Arabia” might have a certain policy towards the Arab Spring today, but “Saudi Arabia” could quite easily go through a palace coup that places a different faction with a completely different policy in power.

In short, other countries are fantastically complicated, and when our most in depth foreign policy conversations are only able to specify as far as “Sunni,” “Shia,” and “Islamist Party,” our absurdly broad margin of error is bound to bite us in the ass.

And it has. The Arab Spring in Egypt took everyone by surprise because “Egypt” was stable. Our relationship with Pakistan is in the trash because “Pakistan” and the United States were on the same side so how could Pakistanis possibly take offence at our dropping a few bombs on funeral processions? Russia is still bad, right? So shouldn’t NATO be as threatening to them as possible?

So the rest of the world is complex. It is filled with literally billions of people who can’t just be stuck into simple categories. That truth was brought home to me in a very special way one night in Morocco.

My wife and I were living in the second story of an old house in the oldest part of the city we were living in. We were chatting with the middle aged couple that owned the house while the eight year old daughter sat nearby. We were talking about something, I can’t recall what, when all of a sudden the Moroccan father started saying excitedly, in broken English that he had picked up serving in the Moroccan army during the first Persian Gulf War, “John Cena! You know John Cena?” The daughter quickly hopped up and started chattering at us about John Cena and how the two of them watched WWE wresting together.

Now, it is one thing to know in your head that American television is syndicated all around the world, and quite another to have a Moroccan Father and his daughter talking excitedly to you about John Cena the WWE wrestler (though it must be said that the mother was much more partial to watching Oprah, herself). It dawned on me, possibly for the first time, that people living outside the US and Europe are actual people who might bond as a family over junk television. If you had asked me about it, of course I would have acknowledged that of course some Moroccans bonded over dumb TV shows. But that’s a very different thing from really realizing it.

Speaking of how life and people abroad are similar to people in the US, I was in Morocco for a couple national holidays and their last election. And I learned that history is made in Morocco the same way it is made in the United States: Newspapers and Television announce that something REALLY IMPORTANT has happened or is about to happen, and then everyone goes home and has supper. Morocco went through its first competitive election, and while that event was, in fact, historic, it didn’t keep people from living out their lives and their personal dramas the same way they always had.

So, yeah, foreigners are people a lot like us. That is, they are incredibly different from each other except in that their mostly interested in their own personal dramas. I learned that in a way I never expected when I went abroad, and I am convinced that it ought to be the first recognized truth of a successful foreign policy.

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