The Cost of Cultural Ignorance

Total War: Three Kingdoms

I discovered Total War: Three Kingdoms, part of the Total War(*) computer game series by The Creative Assembly and SEGA that is set in China during the period of the Three Kingdoms, in the summer of 2019. This experience, coupled with listening to the audiobook version of The Revenge of Geography got me once again thinking about cultural ignorance (I previously wrote about it here) in Western societies(**).

I am a “Total War veteran,” I own most of the Total War games and spent a lot of time on them. But Three Kingdoms is a real struggle. Whereas there is a basic familiarity with the events, geography, and people of the period with all of the other Total War games (even with Shogun due to the influence of Japanese pop culture and media in the West), there is none whatsoever with Three Kingdoms. I struggle with the geography, I struggle with the events, I am not familiar with the historic characters in the game…hell, I can’t even remember their names!

When we look at the spots that give us friction around the world, we see that they speak Arabic (all of the Arab world), Persian (Iran, as well as some ethnicities in Afghanistan that speak languages closely related to Persian, of which Pashto spoken by the Pashtun is the most prominent), Russian (Russia, Belarus, as well as parts of the Baltics, Ukraine, and several Central Asian states), and Mandarin. But how many people speak any of these languages in the Western world? How many of them are policymakers or -influencers? How many members of the German Bundestag, the French National Assembly, or the American Congress speak any one of these languages? How many staffers do? How many officers or NCOs in those countries do?

I guarantee you, not many. 

Knowing a Language is Knowing its People

Speaking five languages and growing up bilingual, I thoroughly know what it means to speak another language. Turkish has many proverbs on language learning, and my favorite is

The borders of my language [knowledge] are the borders of my world.

Languages come with different patterns of thinking. This is an egg or hen problem. What came first, the thinking pattern, or the language? But in the end, it does not matter. Thoroughly knowing another language means knowing that people, knowing how they think, act, and what is important in their worlds. Knowing another language lets us learn what different peoples think of themselves. This is an important step in understanding these countries, as without knowing how someone sees themselves (and the world around them) you can’t truly know that person. I hate quoting Sun Tzu (another post for another time), however, he knew the importance of knowing someone when he wrote 

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.

Obviously, we don’t want any of these people to be our enemies, rather we want to be friends, but you get my point.

Knowing these languages has also permitted me to consume media in all of the languages I speak, opening my eyes to how distorted the media representation of these countries is and how uninformed journalists shape public thinking. For example, when German media reports about the USA or Turkey, US media writes about Germany or Turkey, or Turkish media talks about Germany or the US, much of the reporting is fundamentally wrong. Nonetheless, this reporting shapes public opinion.

What We Can Do

Many things can be done by individuals to further our understanding of foreign cultures. Especially those working in the fields of defense, foreign policy, or diplomacy, no matter how junior or senior they are, have a responsibility to know the people they are dealing with so that Western foreign policy can finally gain some strategic depth.

There are myriads of books and other resources out there that can serve as a starting point. There is The Revenge of Geography by Robert D. Kaplan, which deals with geography’s influence on culture, behavior, and politics. There is The Rise of the West by William H. McNeill, one of the first works on world history that looked at the context and connection of different world civilizations. There is The Venture of Islam, a three-volume monumental work by Marshall G. S. Hodgson, that is one of the most thorough histories of Islam which not only explains what happened but why it happened, what it was influenced by, and what it influenced. There are The Icon and the Axe by James Billington, a deep look at how and why Russian culture developed the way it did. There is a myriad of different Cambridge History publications, for example, The Cambridge History of RussiaThe Cambridge History of ChinaThe Cambridge History of Iran, etc. that are monumental works that take a deep look into the histories of these countries.

However, none of these resources absolve us from the duty of at least learning one of those languages. Security and foreign policy professionals will never truly understand another country if they do not speak that countries language. Fortunately, in the Age of the Internet, there are lots of resources we can use, from learning about language learning theory and practices, to free resources, native language media, and software that helps us learn vocabulary.

Language learning has never been this easy. We should take advantage of that.

What do you think about the importance of language learning in the fields of security, defense, and foreign policy? Share your opinion in the comments!

(*) The Total War game series is a series of games that play in different periods of history. Players can select nations and control those nations on a strategic map. Players can also tactically control armies on a tactical terrain map when they make contact and go to battle. The Total War series is unique in this mix of strategic and tactical levels. 

(**)Cultural ignorance exists in all societies, however, in this article I will be focusing on Western societies as I am most familiar with them.

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