Much like Gary Johnson, we all need a global education
Gary Johnson, the US Libertarian Party candidate for president, keeps drawing blanks. Asked on September 28th by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews to “name one foreign leader that you respect and look up to, anybody” in any country of the world, Johnson struggled to pick a name. Finally, he could only say “I guess I’m having an Aleppo moment”. It was his second such moment in just a few weeks.
In an earlier MSNBC interview, Johnson was asked what he thought of the tragic situation in Aleppo, Syria’s oldest, most war-ravaged city, which has been in the headlines worldwide. “What is Aleppo?” he replied.
The Libertarian candidate should obviously brush up on world affairs. He should also have better foreign policy advisers and maybe appear on MSNBC less frequently.
But Johnson is not the only one in Washington having “Aleppo moments” these days. Two key US senators — Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker, R-Tennessee, and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Arizona — drew criticism recently for geographical inaccuracies in their statements.
McCain asked Corker “suppose that unimpeded, the Houthis, the clients of the Iranians, had taken over the country of Yemen. What would that do? Would that indeed pose a threat to the Straits [sic] of Hormuz, where they are already harassing American naval vessels?”
Seemingly unaware, as was his questioner, that Yemen is nowhere near the Strait of Hormuz, Corker replied: “It creates greater instability in a region that already has had tremendous amounts of it. But no question, I mean, it borders the strait and again it puts more of that in Iranian hands.”
Such comments have received a lot of play in the international media, including in the Arab world, as an illustration of US politicians’ ignorance of all things international.
But the debate raises an important question. Would politicians, university students and the general public in the Arab world demonstrate any better knowledge of world facts? Hard to say. Not many surveys have been conducted on the topic.
In the Arab world, basic ignorance of the facts too often combined with conspiracy theories many times produce inaccurate and absurdly slanted explanations of international issues. That’s not surprising, considering the failings of the region’s educational systems and the demagogic nature of the prevailing political discourse in the region.
Arab youth are open to the world. They use the internet and smartphones to search for global opportunities. But sectarian, tribal and partisan impulses have encouraged insularity. Radical Salafists, in particular, are trying to destroy all bridges to universality, be they cultural or economic.
In today’s world, proficiency in English provides any aspirational global citizen with a universal tool of communication but Arab educational systems do not ensure adequate training in foreign languages.
In the Arab world, social media are increasingly among the main sources of information but Facebook and other online forums more frequently carry barbs, rumours and vitriolic attacks than objective facts, thereby feeding fear and ignorance.
This is why it is not a priority for many in the Arab world to call out their leaders even when they manifestly have a hard time understanding the way politics in the West functions. Many of the leaders themselves share in the vague notions that the West does not “know us” or is “unfair to us” in the global decision-making process.
Even so sophisticated an Arab leader of yesteryear as Tunisia’s Habib Bourguiba displayed his low expectations of his hosts’ knowledge on a visit to the United States in 1986. Asked by members of a US business delegation how things were back home, the normally courteous president snapped, “You keep on confusing Tunisia with Indonesia. Is this acceptable?” Bourguiba, who was not fluent in English, had been briefed about how little Americans knew about Tunisia and thought the Americans were asking about Indonesia.
It remains true, however, that one might expect Americans, citizens of the world’s richest, most powerful country, to have a better grasp of international affairs. More particularly, US policy makers whose decisions affect millions around the world.
Today, a lot in the Clinton- Trump White House race hinges on foreign policy issues. Everywhere, and not just in the United States, voters bereft of the facts of life in the global arena, are increasingly vulnerable to populist manipulation. That was the case during Britain’s debate on Brexit. It could be yet again a crucial factor in forthcoming European elections.
If Americans are not particularly proficient in foreign languages and au fait with foreign cultures, it is because of an insulation they could afford (or could not escape) based on their history, geography and economics. For decades, institutions such as the National Geographic Society have documented Americans’ lack of familiarity with world geography.
A recent survey by the Council on Foreign Relations and National Geographic Society showed that only 29% of US college students were able to identify Indonesia as a Muslim-majority country. Just 28% knew that the United States is treaty-bound to defend Japan. But the survey recorded some progress compared to decades past: 81% of respondents said current world events are “extremely important” if not “very important” to know. That might suggest a thirst to learn more about the world.
Stereotyping and ignorance on the part of US politicians is difficult to tolerate. The truncated interpretations and inaccurate assumptions offered as facts about the world by Arab politicians can have critical implications.
Lack of grasp of international issues can carry even more critical consequences for the Arabs, today and tomorrow. Progress in the Arab region dictates a mindset that is more in tune with global realities and is better equipped for international engagement and we all, not just Gary Johnson, need global literacy.