It’s interesting how little ideas get engrained in your ways of thinking. My father has never been much of a policy guy. He likes to build things. But, oddly enough, he’s directly influenced my foreign policy thinking.
My dad does engineering work in China. Interestingly, he also traveled there after finishing in the Peace Corps over 25 years ago. One of his most interesting observations is how much culture seeps in as a result of trade. His policy response? We should trade with our enemies. Because once they have a McDonalds on every corner, and are watching television in English, they’re on their way to good relations.
It’s an observation that always made intuitive sense to me, although I never considered the implications. Perhaps showing how far foreign policy is from my area of expertise. I just never managed to synthesize the diplomatic/trade/military/aid components of foreign policy.
Greg Mortenson, in 3 Cups of Tea, challenged all of that. His approach of building schools in rural Afghanistan and Pakistan hit home for me, because the focus on education and community involvement mirrored (albeit in very different circumstances) the work I was doing last year in Philadelphia.
But what Mortenson challenged was that a military approach was better than an education/community engagement approach. The two certainly aren’t replacements for each other; but Mortenson catalogues in frightening detail just how the two are in tension. Beyond simple trust issue is the competition for resources.
I had never really put foreign policy in opportunity cost terms. Given the historic difficulties of engaging in foreign policy at a regime-change level, might it be better to focus on small communities and understand culture?
Certainly, when the trade off is education and empowerment, or military action, I’m drawn toward education. Is it a fix? A replacement? Probably not. But is the current balance, with its military focus, the right approach?
Greg Mortenson doesn’t think so.