Saturday, April 05, 2014

To understand the world, you must engage it

One of the largest diplomatic missions in Taiwan is also one of the least curious about what’s going on here

Yesterday I wrote about the intellectual laziness of Western media and academics, and how this has hampered their ability not only to understand the complex nature of the Sunflower Movement, but also to see the crisis coming. In today’s follow-up, I turn my sights on the foreign diplomatic community, which in some case has been just as complacent.

First, the good news: It’s not all bad. In the past year or so, senior representatives from a number of foreign diplomatic missions based here in Taiwan have turned to local journalists, academics and activists to learn about civic activism. Over lunch or beer(s), I’ve often had the occasion to engage officials on the subject. Sometimes they would even invite me to brief high-ranking officials visiting from the capital. The office that represents my home country here has done this homework; they have left the comfort of their offices and actually went out there to talk with actual people. In other words, they are doing the job that they get paid for. Many other diplomatic missions here have been doing that as well.

In fact, one day before the seminal occupation of the Legislative Yuan on March 18, I was telling a pair of senior officials from the representative office of a certain Western European country that the biggest story in Taiwan in 2014 would be social (in)stability. Both seemed keenly interested, though this must not have come as a surprise to them, as the female representative had been following the issue for a while (I ran into her at the 228 Memorial Day event at Liberty Square a few weeks earlier).

I’d been doing my best to alert anyone who asked that social instability and its impact on cross-strait relations would be the big story for the next couple of years. I knew that because I’d been paying attention to social activism for the previous 24 months and saw the inexorable clash coming. Interestingly, this is pretty much what I told a journalist from the New York Times over coffee in Taipei soon after the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) kicked him out of China because his publication had actually done its job there and unearthed some pretty nasty bits about the Chinese government. I told him he was fortunate to find himself temporarily in Taiwan because things were bound to get interesting. To the great benefit of Taiwan, Austin Ramzy has since produced a number of quality pieces for the NYT about the Sunflower Movement.

Now the bad news: the rest of them. One country in particular, whose officials tend to comment most on Taiwan because of the role their country has played in the Taiwan Strait over the years, has missed the boat entirely. Part of the reason why their pronouncements on the Sunflower occupation have been so notoriously one-sided is that their officials’ entire lives tend to gravitate around the office, the nearby drinking hole, and their home. That particular country, which never misses a chance to flaunt its indispensability, has a long, sad tradition of fielding diplomats who couldn’t be any less interested in getting to know the locals, and whose distrust of journalists puts people like me in almost the same category of mistrust as a Gaza bomb maker. Theirs is a bunker mentality, an unhealthy mix of lack of curiosity, a sense of superiority, and masters back home who rarely encourage going beyond the bare minimum (for examples of diplomats getting into trouble for caring and reporting on local events, I strongly encourage people to read Gary J. Bass’ The Blood Telegram).

That country’s inability to see the speeding train of the Iranian Revolution of 1979 coming makes for fascinating reading, and a lot of material about that incident has since been released, including helpful case studies by Harvard University (required reading during my graduate studies on intelligence and political analysis). Back then political officers would have had to visit the bazaar in person and collect cassette tapes from the Ayatollah Khomeini; today all they have to do at minimum is to log on to the Internet and visit the many web pages created by the Sunflower Movement and its predecessors.

A famous former ambassador of that country to the U.N. and to South Africa when Apartheid was still active once bemoaned that very thing: His political officers rarely left the office and were notoriously uncurious about the country in which they found themselves. It’s a rampant problem, not just for staff deployed here in Taiwan. 

One dangerous consequence of this is that this important country often makes decisions that are based on superficial reporting about, and an even more shallow understanding of, complex developments abroad. That’s why a few years ago when Wikileaks started releasing diplomatic cables from that three-lettered office in Taiwan, I’d tell people not to expect much in terms of secrets and content. As a former government employee myself who consumed reams of diplomatic cables, I knew above all the soporific properties of that kind of material.

Dozens of diplomatic missions operating here in Taiwan have turned to me, and others, for briefings in the past two years, in large part to discuss social movements. Not once has the aforementioned mission done so, and as far as I know, it hasn’t turned to its own citizen experts in-country either. Why would they if they already know everything?

We shouldn’t be surprised then if that mission’s official stance on the Sunflower Movement is so despairingly skewed and sounds like it was drafted by the Ma Ying-jeou administration itself. They don’t know what the stakes are, because they couldn’t be bothered to study the root causes of the current crisis. (Photo by the author)

No comments: