I never thought I’d be in this position. There’s a debate taking place about what matters most when making judgments about foreign policy— experience and expertise on the one hand, or personal identity on the other. And I find myself coming down on the side of identity.
Throughout the campaign, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have been squabbling over who has the better qualifications to lead the world’s only superpower.
Hillary’s case is obvious and perfectly defensible. She’s been involved in foreign policy for eight years in the White House (though in a sideways fashion as First Lady) and then seven years as a senator. Most of the Democratic Party’s blue-chip foreign-policy advisers support her. Plus, she has Bill.
Obama’s argument is about more than identity. He was intelligent and prescient about the costs of the Iraq War. But he says that his judgment was formed by his experience as a boy with a Kenyan father—and later an Indonesian stepfather—who spent four years growing up in Indonesia, and who lived in the multicultural swirl of Hawaii.
I never thought I’d agree with Obama. I’ve spent my life acquiring formal expertise on foreign policy. I’ve got fancy degrees, have run research projects, taught in colleges and graduate schools, edited a foreign-affairs journal, advised politicians and businessmen, written columns and cover stories, and traveled hundreds of thousands of miles all over the world. I’ve never thought of my identity as any kind of qualification. I’ve never written an article that contains the phrase “As an Indian-American …” or “As a person of color …”
But when I think about what is truly distinctive about the way I look at the world, about the advantage that I may have over others in understanding foreign affairs, it is that I know what it means not to be an American. I know intimately the attraction, the repulsion, the hopes, the disappointments that the other 95 percent of humanity feels when thinking about this country. I know it because for a good part of my life, I wasn’t an American. I was the outsider, growing up 8,000 miles away from the centers of power, being shaped by forces over which my country had no control.
When I hear confident claims about liberty and democracy in the Third World, I always think about rural India, where I spent a great deal of time when I was young, and wonder what those peasants struggling to survive would make of the abstractions of the American Enterprise Institute. When I read commentators fulminating about women wearing the burqa—which I don’t much like either—I think about one of my aunts, who has always worn one, and of the many complex reasons she keeps it on, none of which involves approval of misogyny or support for suicide bombers. When I talk to people in a foreign country, no matter how strange, they are always, at some level, familiar to me.
I couldn’t do my job well without the expertise. But any insights I have are thoroughly informed by the perspective and judgment that I’ve gained from being first a foreigner, then a foreign student, then an aspiring immigrant and now an American. My biography has helped me put my book learning in context, made for a richer interaction with foreigners and helped me see the world from many angles. So I understand what Obama means when he talks about his life and its lessons.
Look at the experiences of so many distinguished Americans in foreign policy. Zalmay Khalilzad was, by common consent, a superb ambassador in Afghanistan and Iraq. Could that be in part because of his feel for those cultures? Most everyone regards Henry Kissinger as an enormously skilled negotiator. Could that be partly because as a Jew who grew up in Germany and then an immigrant in America, he has the ability to see things through several different prisms at once?
This might sound like an argument about intangibles, but it’s been embraced by hard-nosed businessmen. Fourteen CEOs of Fortune 100 companies are foreign-born, a number that has grown by leaps in the past decade. Some of these companies have explicitly said that they chose CEOs who could penetrate foreign cultures and markets. This understanding, mind you, comes not from extensive work experience in these countries. Executives like Vikram Pandit of Citigroup and Indra Nooyi of PepsiCo have spent most of their professional lives in the United States. But they have a powerful feel for the world beyond America.
We’re moving into a very new world, one in which countries from Brazil to South Africa to India and China are getting richer, stronger and prouder. For America to thrive, we will have to develop a much deeper, richer, more intuitive understanding of them and their peoples. There are many ways to attain this, but certainly being able to feel it in your bones is one powerful way. Trust me on this. As a Ph.D. in international relations, I know what I’m talking about.