Note: This post was written before the firestorm over LTC Vindman’s testimony in Congress. I don’t know Vindman, or how much of this discussion may or may not apply to him. What I do know is that the Trump Administration and its supporters have a peculiar talent for taking a perfectly valid and important issue like this (biased perspectives in foreign policy) and turning it into a poo flinging contest, just as his opponents have a talent for ignoring their own corrupt and biased practices.
In watching the media coverage of foreign policy issues, particularly of the Former Soviet Union, I am struck by the number of expatriots (refugees? immigrants? Is that term itself biased?) and their children who are either in policy positions or are media “analysts”. This applies to many other countries, but it seems more prevalent in that area of the world. I have to say it’s a two edged sword, and on the whole I think it is a problem and introduces some dangerous biases if not viewed with some skepticism, or balanced in some way, such as with current citizens of those countries or (better yet) vetted neutral analysts.
On the plus side, there is little better than someone who was born and raised in a culture. Understanding the language, history, and so forth is invaluable, as are connections to the “old country”. It’s hard to over estimate that value. But there is also a darker side and risk to solely relying on those who chose to leave their native land for perspective, and not appreciating and discussing the biases that might color their views.
Think about how traumatic it must have been for those who fled the Soviet Union in the late cold war, only to see communism collapse a few years later, and in some cases (like Ukraine) their native land “liberated” (ignoring, of course, that Russia was just as much occupied and victimized by Communism as the other Soviet Republics, and many communists from the Republics were among the most tyrannical of the bunch). I think many may have intended to go home after communism fell – but were surprised it happened in their lifetime and once settled in here, with children who are native US citizens, that would be a hard thing to do. On some level to they must have regrets, and I think sometimes look for the worst in order to validate their decision to stay. Some rise above it, have maintained contacts with friends and family, and have a good perspective. But others have a biased view because their contacts are, naturally enough, largely with dissident communities who may be well meaning but are focused on “making things better” and therefore may be looking at what remains to be done rather than appreciating how much things have improved. This applies to many special interest groups here at home, but that’s another story …
The children of these expats also can carry baggage. While having perhaps learned the language and culture from their parents, which is certainly a positive thing, it must be kept in mind they also grew up hearing stories of how bad things were, and why their family had to leave. Many enter the military or other service for their new American homeland, and have likely faced subtle pressure to prove their loyalty. And some have, despite their heritage, lost touch with the land of their parents; I checked the biography of one analyst who frequently comments on Russia as a “security analyst” with the implication of native knowledge. This person left a former Soviet Republic (not Russia) when three years old, has never actually been to Russia, and has apparently only briefly been back to the FSU for a few weeks to visit a grandparent. Again, could be a great analyst, but in that case I’m rather skeptical because the views expressed are rather biased and simplistic in my view.
Listen carefully to how often various analysts (both expats and former Cold War era vets) say “Soviet Union” when they mean “Russia”, or use old cold war metaphors and language. I have to wonder if they haven’t caught up with the times, and the new opportunities (as well as threats) that time has brought. I’m not saying this is the case with every analyst, but as someone who spent his formative years being trained to fight the Soviets, it was a very hard transition to make to realize that Russia is not the Soviet Union. Likewise, the landscape in the Middle East has changed remarkably since the 1980’s and 90’s. It’s hard to keep up, and I know many of my colleagues still think in terms of Cold War memes that no longer apply. The media has an obligation to make sure the views they present to the public are unbiased – or make sure those biases are apparent to the viewer. Having independent, unbiased, skeptical analysts is vital to a democracy, especially when it applies to foreign policy matters of war and peace. I suggest those views are increasingly absent in our infotainment driven world.
With respect to perspective, I’d also like to point out how rare it is to hear a spokesperson from foreign countries in the US media, especially those in which the US is in conflict. All we seem to hear are US politicians, US Government PR people, or “analysts” who are often “former” US government employees (and let’s be honest here, senior military officers, especially retired flag officers, are almost never “former” in any real sense of the word). I recall that during the late Soviet era various Soviet spokesman and analysts would appear on US TV. Why don’t US cable “news” networks interview someone like Maria Zakharova, the articulate spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, or the omnipresent (on Russian TV) journalist Vladimir Solovyov, who practically lives in the studio (FYI, Moscow Times isn’t exactly neutral, but it’s in English :O here is a story in Russian that is more “pro Solovyov”)? We may not agree with what they say, but we should certainly hear it. To argue their statements are significantly more biased or manipulative than those of our own government is probably a bit naive.
In conclusion, we need to bring a wide variety of reasonable, unbiased perspectives in foreign policy debates. We also need to understand other countries from *their* perspective, not just through the prism of our domestic politics and “national interests”. I would love to see more young people of all backgrounds study foreign languages and cultures, including longer trips and immersion to get to see other countries and, equally importantly, how they see us, to be able to provide perspectives that come without the baggage that comes from being part of an expat community. That’s not to say that those from that background should be minimized or discounted – they have and continue to produce some vital insights – but their baggage has to be considered and understood as part of a nuanced whole.