Language is a crucial link in the foreign policy supply chain

by Lee Feinstein

A pandemic period of critical shortages, shipping delays and even unfilled prescriptions at CVS reminds all of us that disrupted supply chains thousands of miles away disrupt everyday life on Main Street.

It has exposed vulnerabilities that result from a lack of long-term planning and investment. Quick fixes can only do so much. Two recent experiences here in the Midwest reminded me that the same is true in foreign policy; we must protect our human supply chains because we pay now, or we pay later.

At a reunion of seven of the 10 members of the 9/11 Commission hosted recently on the campus of Indiana University, one commissioner recalled the effort to recruit staff to support the commission’s work. He said that there was not one Pashto speaker on Capitol Hill following 9/11.

His comments speak to the importance of knowledge of the peoples, cultures, and languages of the world to a successful foreign policy.

Navigating foreign policy challenges and preventing avoidable mistakes requires an effort at global understanding. Tailoring such information so that it is available when needed by foreign policy decision-makers is a perennially tough assignment. But any chance of getting information to the people who are on the front lines is impossible without a bench of “area experts,” people who have the knowledge and language skills necessary to provide context when it’s most needed to officials in government, humanitarian workers, and others who are on the ground, in the field, and at the policy table.

That’s one of the reasons why I was deeply moved by a recent visit to Camp Atterbury in south central Indiana, one of eight resettlement camps for the 80,000 Afghans evacuated to the United States. The benefit of long-term investment is on daily display there. The camp is overseen by the Department of Homeland Security, established on the unanimous recommendation of the 9/11 Commission. The day-to-day operations are the responsibility of the U.S. military, which dispatched troops to Camp Atterbury on short notice.

One of the biggest needs at the base has been for interpreters, especially women speakers of Pashto, Dari and other languages of the region. Thanks to the multiyear investments of the Department of Education under Title VI of the Higher Education Act, the Center for the Languages of the Central Asian Region, an area studies institute, was able to assemble a list of interpreters available to support the resettlement process at Camp Atterbury.

A separate Defense Department program that provides pre-deployment culture and language training was retooled to produce 1,000 handbooks with Dari phrases and customized to the unique challenges and circumstances of the resettlement for the young soldiers, most of whom are interacting with refugees for the first time.

It’s easy to criticize dysfunction in Washington, but the success of these on-the-ground efforts would never have been possible without bipartisan commitment. Congress has supported investments in the study of critical languages and societies at public and private universities across the country despite efforts to cut or scrap them. The annual cost of funding the full range of these programs was $68 million last year, insignificant within a federal budget of trillions.

They are also the kind of programs that are most needed when they are most politically sensitive: promoting Russian studies during the depths of Cold War; advancing the study of China and Mandarin when bilateral relations are at a low point; or sustaining a longtime investment in Turkic cultures and languages such as Uyghur, before Beijing’s genocidal practices came to light.

U.S. investment in these programs, across state and party lines, is an act of enlightened self-interest that today is enabling swift support for the resettlement of evacuated Afghans who helped save American lives. Over the long term, it’s an investment that holds the potential to contribute to a foreign policy of engagement, based on principle, and rooted in knowledge of place.

What I’ve seen in my career and in my teaching tells me that this is an approach to international security needed to win and sustain the support of the American people, without which no foreign policy can succeed.

Lee Feinstein, a former senior State Department official, is dean of the Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies at Indiana University.