Opinionated though it may be, it’s not often that this blog has the temerity to launch a new word into the already crowded seas of English vocabulary. But the second decade of the 21st century, the world appears to be moving into an new era of politics. After centuries of fixation with internal political wrangling within the nation-state, leading countries across the globe are finding international politics plays as large, if not larger, role in their welfare.
Von Clausewitz was simply citing what every nation-state at the time accepted as self-evident—that “War is simply diplomacy, carried on by other means“. In the aftermath of the World War (Parts I and II) and with the advent of nuclear-tipped standoffs, local attempts to solve differences at bayonet-point like the Franco-Prussian, Third Balkan or Gran Chaco wars have become (thankfully) passé. Certainly, there are skirmishes. But these are mostly in the Third World. As demonstrated in either Iraq War, few can afford the cost, let alone withstand the effect, of ‘Shock and Awe’ being applied by a superpower.
A hundred years ago, wars were usually ignited by commercial interests, wrapped up as imperial ego and executed by jingoistic enthusiasts. This worked because few traveled far and fewer had experience of other cultures. let alone understood their point of view. So the ‘Hun’ and the ‘Bosche’ were limned as barbarians nailing babies to the doors of Belgian churches. Little conscience was attached to mowing them down in droves any more than the Mahdi’s masses at Omdurman.
Thankfully, one of the few benefits of the nuclear age has been a readiness to leave the sabres in the scabbard and, flawed thought they may be, use talking shops like the United Nations and European Union to iron things out. Of all the arguments deployed over the last few months pro- and contra-Brexit, the fact that the second half of the 20th century cost less than 0.01% of lives in war compared to the first half seems largely to have been overlooked.
Because, at its root, wars are based on ignorance—ignorance by the young men who typically fight them about the pain, hardship and cruelty involved and by the civilisations on either side of the divide who must de-personalise the enemy and can only do that if they are seen as barbaric, inferior, insufferable or in some way deserving of defeat. In short, war depends on ignorance about the other side.
When few traveled and fewer spoke other languages, such ignorance was easy to harness and channel into aggression. The English and Scots through most of their history were good examples of this. But by intermixing and the joint project of empire over the last quarter millennium has overcome most of that and channeled much of the rest into high emotions surrounding sports fixtures. We have become, to coin a phrase, foreignate with one another.
But that is less true as regards Britain and Europe. Though we have passed the point of arming another British Expeditionary Force to follow in the footsteps of Henry V, Marlborough, Wellington and the Old Contemptibles, nonetheless, the average Brit’s experience of Europe is Ibiza (if under 30) or Lanzarote (if not). Our British education may make us Literate and even Numerate. But it does little to make us Foreignate. We indulge in little cultural (as opposed to sun-seeking) foreign travel. We are uniformly poor at languages. Only recently has our cuisine moved past greasy spoon cafes serving ” baby’s ‘ead an’ two veg”.
Compare our travelers to the Dutch, most of whom speak English to a degree that embarrasses us. Or to the Swiss, who have made suave foreignacy into an art form through their multilingual culture and reputation for peaceful prosperity that is the envy of the world. The Singaporeans are rapidly developing into an East Asian version and prospering as a result. Given the Brexit vote, it remains to be seen whether the inforeignate Leavers will turn back time to when Pefidious Albion stood aloof or whether saner voices can salvage the open, close working with neighbours (i.e. the EU) that gave us a half century of peace and prosperity so far.
But a lack of foreignacy worse even than Britain’s (and likely to have an even bigger drag on world progress) is the United States. Not only do they practice a culture almost as self-referential as North Korea but their collective ignorance about the rest of the planet means that many still think like von Clausewitz.
A great nation like the USA can call on an immense reserve of well educated—and therefore largely foreignate—people to help run the country. Even when their narrow two-party democratic machine produced populist rather than capable presidents (Truman, Reagan, Dubya) their staff and the political nomenklatura smooth the way and cushion the effect of simplistic thinking that led to invading Grenada or other throwbacks to gunboat thinking.
But, just as the Brexit vote was swung by inforeignate denizens of Labour’s disintegrating post-industrial heartlands, so inforeignate thinking now dominating post-industrial areas of the States (e.g. Detroit; Cleveland; Pittsburgh) is being fired up by the least foreignate figure to ever come this close to the White House—Donald Trump. Steeped in the self-referential worlds of development and entertainment in the US, this man augers ill for everyone, not just Americans.
His life is too rarified for him to grasp any vision into Joe Public. His entire upbringing and personal experience is so enclosed he exhibits no foreignacy at all. But, worst of all, his ego will not allow him to gather advisers (as opposed to yes-men) the way former presidents have done to compensate for such fundamental shortcomings.
How Trump will crash and burn is not yet clear. But when analysts pick through the resulting wreckage, they will find an abject lack of foreignacy to have been the cause.