I have argued before that any potential American foreign policy or ‘grand strategy’ that requires statesmen with a nuanced understanding of a foreign region’s cultures, politics, and languages to implement it is doomed to fail. Regional acumen is a rare trait, and one I greatly admire. But it is rare for a reason. Regional acumen just does not scale–or at least, Americans do not know how to scale it.
I have said this before. But it was reinforced tonight when I stumbled–quite by accident–across this old New York Times Magazine personal by Lydia Kiesling. In it she describes her experience learning Uzbek with a FLAS grant from the Department of Education. I encourage you to read the entire thing, but here are few key excerpts:
Four years ago, the federal government paid me a large sum — a year of graduate-school tuition, plus a stipend — to study Uzbek at the University of Chicago. Uzbek is among the least commonly taught of the so-called Less Commonly Taught Languages, or L.C.T.L.s. So uncommonly is it taught, in fact, that without federal largess it would hardly be taught at all. Because I happened to speak decent Turkish, a cousin of Uzbek, and because I spent a week in Uzbekistan when I was 22, and because life is nothing if not a sequence of odd choices vaguely considered, for two years I sat in a room with two other students and produced some extremely literal translations.
Uzbek is a member of the sprawling Turkic-language family, which comprises around three dozen members in six major branches. As in any human family, there are varying degrees of affinity: If Uzbek and Turkish are cousins, Uzbek and Uyghur, which is spoken in western China, are fraternal twins. But Turkic grammars and numbers are surprisingly uniform, and it is theoretically possible for someone to buy milk in Sevastopol (Crimean Tatar) or Ashgabat (Turkmen) or Bishkek (Kyrgyz) using more or less the same words….
Years before I studied Uzbek, it seemed like a cosmopolitan miracle, with my bumbling Turkish, to be able to read an exit sign or negotiate a cab fare in Tashkent. If you sit around long enough in Uzbekistan — on a bus or a park bench — eventually someone will invite you to her home. I would prattle at my hosts until we found common ground. ‘‘Elma,’’ I said, gesturing to the very small, very sweet apples we ate in one woman’s courtyard. ‘‘Olma,’’ she gently corrected.
That was nine years ago, and since then, I have spoken Uzbek outside the classroom on exactly two occasions, once in a pan-Turkic Creole with a Chicago cabdriver named Tilek who was actually from Kyrgyzstan, and once with an Afghan Uzbek in Izmir, Turkey, who looked at me in bafflement and answered in Turkish.
Uzbek exists in my life now as an Eastern echo in the Turkish I have more opportunities to use. When I’m feeling beery, I look for Uzbek songs on YouTube with titles like ‘‘That’s Not Life’’ or ‘‘Life Is Passing.’’ I pick out lines like ‘‘My beautiful one, this is your wedding night.’’ This is perhaps not an ideal use of a highly specific skill acquired at the expense of the American taxpayer. (My halfhearted assay into the security sector fizzled because of unspecified ‘‘information in my background.’’)
I’m settled now, no longer nomadic. But Uzbek is my little insurance policy, a crumpled bill rolled into a stocking, against some unforeseen contingency.”  (emphasis added)
This article gets to the heart of why America will always lack the kind of language and area expertise needed to succeed in the kinds of things the American people (or American leaders) often demand the United States government do. Uzbek is an obscure language. But it is an obscure language at the center of the national security concerns that have bedeviled the United States over the last decade and a half. To give a brief picture:
- There are about three million Uzbeks who live in Afghanistan. Uzbeks were an essential part of the Northern Alliance‘s resistance against the Taliban, and Uzbek leaders became an important part of the government established by NATO forces once the Taliban was driven from power. This is still true. Afghanistan’s current vice-president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, is an Uzbek.
- Uzbekistan is the central hub of central Asia. One of the greatest defeats of our Afghan campaign happened not on the battlefield, but at the diplomats’ table. Uzbekistan’s decision to withdraw American basing and supply rights was nothing short of a disaster, forcing the United States to be even more dependent on Pakistan (our true enemy in the region) for logistic support.
- Uzbek and Uyghur are a hair’s breadth away from mutually intelligible. Xinjiang’s low intensity Uyghur insurgency is he single greatest security concern of China, America’s greatest rival.
This is a language that matters. What happens to the woman who spent a year of her life studying it? She was rejected from the CIA (or wherever) on background technicalities, and has not used her language since. Or to be more precise, she has used it twice. Twice in four years. Twice.
This gets to the heart of America’s problem with regional acumen. Area expertise simply doesn’t pay. You may count the number of private sector jobs currently on the market that demand Uzbek fluency on two hands. And even if there were a multitude of jobs that required proficiency in Uzbek and English, there are undoubtedly several hundred–perhaps several thousand–Uzbekistanis who speak English better than Ms. Kiesling speaks Uzbek, and who will work for less pay to boot.
As for government postings–getting hired is tricky. To pass the proper security clearances the ideal candidate is not married to or romantically involved with a foreigner (or a foreign born citizen with family members still living abroad), does not have financial interests in any foreign countries, has not been employed by or has not had extensive relations with foreign governments, is not living with foreign room-mates, and only has ‘casual and infrequent’ contact with foreign friends and acquaintances–in essence, this candidate will do none of the things that give one language fluency, ‘regional acumen,’ and ‘cultural understanding,’ in the first place! Add to this the usual requirements regarding drug use, financial stability, and personal conduct (none of which, in my experience, correlate closely with the character of those wanderers crazy enough to throw themselves into rare, off-the-beaten-path locales where languages like Uzbek are spoken) and the chances of landing a well paid government job on the strength of your language skills narrows further.
And this is all with a language widely recognized as a critical one. Conflict hot-spots cannot be predicted decades ahead of time, but it can take a decade to master a foreign language and culture. Thus Kielsling’s story is repeated with one language after another. The same tale can be told for those learning any other language in Central Asia (including Farsi), the majority in Eastern Europe, Southeast Asia, and the Middle East, and just about all of them in India and Africa. Years are spent studying a language students will not use. In that case, why bother studying them at all?
This is why America will always fail at regional expertise.