Finally, someone in the foreign policy academic
establishment is arguing for the importance of foreign language capabilities.
And it was noticed! Richard Oliver Collin has written at article “Words of War: Iraq’s Tower of
Babel” in the journal "International Studies Perspectives." I’ve only been able to
see the two paragraphs quoted by Stephen Walt on his Foreign Policy blog (here).
His quote from Collin’s conclusion:
It cannot be argued that enhanced language proficiency in
Arabic and Kurdish would assure military victory for the United States in its
conflict with the various Iraqi insurgent groups. Language capability is
a necessary but not sufficient condition for triumph in war and diplomacy. The
evidence does strongly suggest, however, that American inability to create a
basic communications capability has contributed importantly to the failure of
the United States thus far to resolve its Middle Eastern problems at some
minimally acceptable level ... Can this historical trend be changed? There is
no reason to believe that the present spate of Middle Eastern difficulties is
going to be the last chapter in America's involvement in the Middle East ....
The United States historically has attempted to pursue a policy of intense involvement in Middle Eastern affairs, sometimes diplomatic and sometimes military, but without a concomitant commitment to understanding the region's culture, religion, and particularly its languages. Since American foreign policy in the Middle East policy has never been more than sporadically successful, an argument can be made that Washington needs to match its military investment with a serious commitment to language and area studies. Language lessons are cheaper than tanks, and if America's linguists were good enough, the United States might not need quite so many tanks."
To which, Walt adds:
Note: he says linguistic competence is "necessary but not sufficient," so please don't assume that training some more linguists would suddenly give us a magical capability to reorder other countries at low cost.
Walt, on this point, is, of course, right.
Second, Collin’s article is only about the Middle East and
its languages (I think, access to the full article requires a $29.95 fee). The need is much broader. For example, I see engaging China as the US number one foreign policy priority, and teaching our students Mandarin
and sending them to China in large numbers as a very high strategic foreign policy
component of that priority.
Three, I worry about his use of the word “linguists,” as if that were a job, which, of course, it is for a few. What the US needs is people in a wide array of occupations who speak foreign languages, not just “linguists” or “interpreters.”
Four, the effort to train linguist cannot just start when
soldiers join the military or students begin higher education (for languages and area studies). It should start
with kindergarten, or before, involve public immersion programs, and include
spending one year of public high school studying abroad. With about 3 million
students graduating from US public high schools each year, getting 5% of them to
spend a high school year abroad would seem possible (given some reasonable
phase in period) - that's 150,000 students per year. Given its strategic
importance for our future, China should have 50,000 US high school students
studying in it each year. That's how the US should engage China, and we need
not spend more money, just shift how we spend what we now have. My Go Global High
School Study Abroad Program (actual bill considered recently by the Oregon legislature) would
permit states and local school districts to pay existing study abroad
organizations, like AFS, for local students to study abroad. In many cases, the
cost of a one year study abroad program is less than the per pupil cost in the
local school district. We have the money, we just need to begin to shift how we
spend it. In the Arabic speaking world, there are existing high school study
abroad programs for US students in Morocco and Egypt.
And fifth, this is not just a national security concern. Given the global economy today, the US needs citizens speaking foreign languages and knowing foreign markets to develop and sell our products and service abroad.
So, I urge Collin and Walt to take their case to the educators.