12/10/2010 05:30 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

WikiLeaks and "State" Knowledge

The flood of WikiLeaks information has inundated the news for more than two weeks. We have learned much about the bizarre practices of the powerful and are now privy to some of the raw attitudes of various senior officials -- players in the world of foreign affairs. Saudi Princes want the US to "take out" Iran. New York City officials incensed Muammar al-Gaddafi because they refused him a permit to erect a "city" tent during his visit for the UN General Assembly. The quality of much of the WikiLeaks barrage makes you wonder why so much of this information remains "classified." Even so, candid cables have made for eye-opening reading. WikiLeaks cables have been titillating -- sometimes better than soap opera or Reality TV! There is even a cable from Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, one of the leading lights of a government in need of more illumination, directing diplomats to gather information on people with whom they interact.

Secretary Clinton's leaked cable, of course, begs the more general question of how prepared diplomats might be to gather worthwhile information. How much do our diplomats understand about the social and cultural life of the countries to which they are assigned, especially those countries in which culture and social life differ greatly from our own? Such comprehension, of course, determines if one "plays" or "gets played" in the game international politics.

The State Department has a long generalist tradition. Every few years diplomats move from post to post, from language to language and from culture to culture. To compensate for such movement, the State Department created the Foreign Service Institute (FSI), which provides intensive -- and excellent -- foreign language instruction for diplomats and their families. FSI also hires area specialists, sometimes historians, sometimes political scientists and sometimes anthropologists, to provide short courses on local history, politics and culture. After several months of intense instruction, diplomats, having been prepared through FSI training, are ready to go to their posts, where, it is hoped, they will construct meaningful social relations with their hosts and refine their knowledge of local social and political life, all of which will be reflected in the kinds of classified cables they send to Washington.

Is this preparation sufficient for a post in a society, which is geographically, linguistically and culturally remote? On several occasions over the years, I have had the opportunity to give FSI presentations on social, cultural and political life in West Africa, the area of my expertise. The diplomats-in-training eagerly took in the information that I presented. Many of them, though, seemed, more interested in the cultural dos and don'ts of everyday etiquette than in how the central themes of socio-cultural life might have a powerful impact on local political processes. This observation reinforced my previous impression that diplomats in a remote place like Niger, where I conducted extensive field research among the Songhay people, had little comprehension of local social, cultural or political life. In Niger, they tended to remain in the capital city, increasingly for reasons of security, and socialized in the American community. Most of them spoke French with varying degrees of fluency -- a credit to the excellence of FSI. None of them, as far as I could tell, spoke Songhay or Hausa, Niger's two major languages. When Nigeriens spoke to me in French, they would invariably be polite and never make critical remarks about Americans. When people spoke to me in Songhay, the script changed considerably. In Songhay people willingly complained to me about American arrogance and ignorance -- two major characteristics of people who can be "played."

Our diplomats are dedicated civil servants. But you can't expect people to become experts of anything in a matter of months or years -- especially something as nuanced as a foreign language and culture. And yet, we live in a culture in which institutions expect quick mastery of difficult tasks. We like to think that an intellectually curious generalist -- a person who can wear many hats -- can quickly learn many cultures, shifting her or his expertise from place to place. Specialists, who spend decades attempting to master a culture area, are often seen as too intellectual -- people who are driven to produce inconveniently complex analyses of complicated social and political worlds.

In remote parts of the world, which are increasingly the sites of political turmoil and danger, our lack of linguistic and cultural expertise is particularly striking. Can we say that our diplomats, policy-makers, and political leaders understand the cultural and political dynamics of Iraq or Afghanistan? One lesson any field anthropologist learns early on is: If you don't know how to ask the proper question, you'll never obtain reliable information. In that circumstance, you can get "played." If an anthropologist gets "played," the consequences are relatively minimal. In academic life you can always refine your misinterpretations. If you are in a position of power, however, the stakes are considerably raised. What are the consequences if a decision is based upon the shallow linguistic and cultural comprehension of a culture area? It is not an over-statement to suggest that in Iraq and Afghanistan, our lack of linguistic and cultural knowledge has produced catastrophic results.

People in power tend to be generalists whose expedient decisions often reflect widespread skepticism -- even distrust -- of specialist knowledge. What generalists sometimes fail to appreciate is that expertise develops slowly. As the Songhay people of Niger say, it takes a very long time for a person's mind to develop. Paying future attention to the hard won knowledge of specialists may not only help make our lives a little bit sweeter, but may also help to save lives.