Language Schools commencement address by Edward P. Djerejian


Commencement Address by
Ambassador Edward P. Djerejian

Middlebury College Language Schools Commencement

August 13, 2004
Mead Memorial Chapel

Middlebury, Vermont

Thank you very much, Dean Katz, President Liebowitz, distinguished deans, faculty and students and graduates. I've learned a lot about Middlebury in my brief stay here, and especially about the language pledge, and to the surprise, I'm sure, of the president and the dean-since the language pledge says, "I'm signing this language pledge. I agree to use Armenian as my only language of communication while attending Middlebury"-I'm going to give my remarks in Armenian. All of you who do not understand Armenian are welcome to leave, if you wish.

I am really impressed by that pledge.

But more so, I can't tell you how much I am impressed with the mandate and the mission of the school of languages at Middlebury, especially the sentence "We are dedicated to the premise that without real competency in language, there can be little true cultural understanding, and that to be truly effective, language teaching must provide meaningful insight and access into other cultures." That is, indeed, the substance of my remarks tonight. I would like to be as brief as I can-but not that brief-and talk to how the world out there is so relevant to your mission statement and how your mission statement is so relevant to the world that you are going into. And, I will make some remarks about your special role in this whole phenomena a little later on.

The attacks of September 11, 2001, required America to pursue a long-term, comprehensive war on terrorism. Extending military power abroad, practicing vigorous state-to-state diplomacy, choking off financial resources to our adversaries, and improving the defense of the homeland-these are all necessary steps, without doubt, but they are not sufficient to the task at hand.

Over two years ago, President George W. Bush made a statement that I attach a great deal of importance to because it is a presidential statement, and we have to follow up on it, no matter if it's a Democratic or a Republican administration that comes into power after November. He said, "Just as our diplomatic institutions must adapt so that we can reach out to others, we also need a different and more comprehensive approach to public information efforts that can help people around the world learn about and understand America. The war on terrorism is not a clash of civilizations. It does, however, reveal the clash inside a civilization, a battle for the future of the Muslim world. This is a struggle of ideas, and this is an area where America must excel."

Indeed, I am convinced that the seminal challenge that we face as a nation, and globally, is the struggle for ideas between the forces of moderation and extremism, whether it be secular extremism or religious extremism of no matter what religion, no matter what culture. This is the world that you are going into. We have to be honest with ourselves. America [unintelligible] in the struggle of ideas in the Arab and Muslim world.

As Dean Katz said, I was asked by Secretary of State Colin Powell to chair a public diplomacy advisory group, a commission on our communications with the Muslim world. It was a congressionally mandated commission, and the congressmen were basically asking the question: why do they hate us? Why have we reached this level of disfavor in this very important part of the world? And it's true, hostility toward America has reached shocking levels. For example, shortly before the war against Saddam Hussein, by greater than a two-to-one margin, Muslims surveyed in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan said the United States was a more serious threat than Iraq. And the polls have even gotten worse since that time. But often we are simply not present to explain the content and the context of our values and our policies as Americans.

As the advisory group was told in Morocco by one of our interlocutors there, if you do not start defining yourself in this part of the world, the extremists will define you for you. And they have defined us, for example, as ruthless occupiers in Iraq, as bigots intolerant of Muslims in our own country, as being biased in the Arab/Israeli equation, as not being true to our values for political and economic reforms. Many of these depictions are dead wrong, but they stick because it is rare that governments or individuals in the region are prepared to take up our side of the story, and because the United States has deprived itself of the means to respond effectively or even to be a significant part of the conversation.

When our group went from Indonesia through Central Asia, the Arab world to Senegal, visiting Muslim majority countries in the summer of 2003 to prepare our report, I watched a program in Cairo, obviously in Arabic. It was from Abu Dhabi, one of the major satellite T.V. stations in the Arab world which has performed a phenomenal task of bringing what we called "electronic Perestroika" into the Arab world by bursting into the living rooms of Arabs who for years have only been able to watch state-run, propagandistic television programs from the regimes in power. But this was a talk show, a two-hour talk show, and the title was "The Americanization of Islam." Think of that title, "The Americanization of Islam"-as if there's a conspiracy for us to highjack the Islamic religion.

There wasn't one person that appeared on that program that knew anything about America, that we do have freedom of religion, that we are basically a very religious country, that there is, yes, a separation of church and state, temple, mosque and state, but that fundamentally we have seven to eight million Muslims that live in our country who can express themselves. But the conspiracy theory was there. What struck me is that no one was at least explaining our position. It's what I call the Woody Allen syndrome-90 percent of life is just showing up. But we are not showing up, and our public diplomacy is highly deficient.

This is where what you are about comes in in a very major way, because one of the first aspects of learning and communicating with others is to learn their language, and through learning their language, to learn their culture, and to be able to express yourself and to do certain things that define public diplomacy.

The official Washington definition of public diplomacy is to inform, engage and influence. We added two precedents-listen, understand, then begin to inform, engage and influence. But to do all of these, you need language. To do all of these, you need to understand the cultures with which you are dealing. This is where we as a country are remarkably deficient, because the overwhelming majority of Americans don't speak anything but English.

So, we have failed to listen. We have failed to persuade. We have not taken the time to understand our audience, and we have not bothered to help them understand us. We simply can no longer afford such shortcomings.

One of the major conclusions we came back with is that, in the Muslim world, the good news was that Muslims from Indonesia to Africa perceive American values as being similar to their own values. One Iranian woman said to us, "For God's sake, who can be against life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?" Others told us we're all for equality or opportunity-equality before the law, human rights, women's rights is quite differentiated, especially in the Arab world depending on what countries you're dealing with-but that was the good news. They respect American education, especially our university system. They respect our achievements in science and technology. They love many of our products.

But the problem, and where all the public opinion polls in the last three years have shown such disturbingly low opinion and negative ratings of America, is based on their perception of our policies. We determined that there are basically three prisms through which they form the major part of their opinion of us: the Arab/Israeli conflict, Iraq, and the issues of political and economic governance.

On Arab/Israeli, they consider us biased towards Israel. On Iraq, they consider us to be occupiers, not liberators. And, on the issues of economic and political governance, almost all of these countries live under some form of modified dictatorship or autocratic rule with the façade of elections, and people don't have the real right for political participation, nor do they have the right to express themselves economically by getting jobs. Job creation is very low, and they're frustrated.

Where do we fit in on that? We support many of these regimes which they are hostile to. So, it's what I call "the triple whammy." What we have to do is to do a much better job in terms of putting into place policies that really resolve conflicts like the Arab/Israeli conflict, and the Kashmir conflict between Pakistan and India where there could be a nuclear exchange. Perhaps the first nuclear exchange between two countries was India and Pakistan on nuclear powers, over this piece of property called Kashmir, and that's a Hindu/Muslim confrontation.

Beyond that, we have to get Iraq right and leave behind a country intact with some form of political participation representing the people, and we've got to act on political and economic reforms in the Muslim world. Those are essential policy requirements.

But, ever since the collapse of communism and the Cold War, we unilaterally disarmed many of the instruments of persuasion that we have. We dismantled the U.S. Information Agency, USIA. We thought the ideological struggles were over, only to find out, as represented by 9/11, that there is a huge struggle for ideas between Islamic radical extremists who are trying to dominate the whole world of Islam. This is where I put the Casey Stengle management principle-what is our goal in public diplomacy? What you have to do is, you walk into a room. In one corner there are six people who are plotting to kill you, and they hate you. In the other corner of the room there are 60 people who haven't made up their minds yet. Your job is to get to the 60 people before the six do. And that is really, in a nutshell, why public diplomacy is so important.

One of the key things in public diplomacy is human resources and languages. The ability to write and read a foreign language is one of the recognized prerequisites of effective communications. Effective public diplomacy does require sufficient cadres of officers trained in the language and dialect spoken in the Arab and Muslim world-however, there are far too few officers able and willing to communicate publicly in the languages of the region, whether it's in Arabic in its many dialects, Turkish, [inaudible], Indonesian or others.

The latest statistic shows-we delved into this-that only 54 state department employees have tested at the fully professional or bilingual level of competence, level four, in Arabic. Of these, some were tested years ago and may no longer maintain a tested level of competence. Only a handful could hold their own on television.

When they gave me the figure of 54, I went back and said, "Get from the bureaucracy how many professional American diplomats, USIA offices we have who have an ambassador, an assistant secretary of state who can be put on Al-Jazeera television station tonight to debate a critical issue that has come up."

Five. There are only five officers in the American government who are capable of carrying on a full-scale debate on television in Arabic.

There's something radically wrong with what we are doing, and that's why we recommended a program of training 600 fluent Arabic speakers immediately. At least half should be willing and able to speak and debate publicly, and we have several specific recommendations on that.

We also have many recommendations on how we have to get better access to American education and where Americans have to get better access to Arabs in forming centers, using American University of Beirut, American University of Cairo. These educational institutions, student exchanges, this is a critical component. And I'm very pleased to see the program in Middlebury where centers of language training are going on in various parts in the world of the nine languages that are taught here.

Another key thing is English language training. We found that English language training is one of the most underfunded things we do, but putting out American teachers in this part of the world to teach English, you're not only teaching English, you're teaching a culture. You're teaching principles of democracy. You're teaching principles of economic markets. You're changing ideas toward curriculum, and that also is a very important element that has to be addressed.

So much has to be done, but at the end of the day, this struggle of ideas is going to mark your future, the future of our country and, indeed, the future of the globe. Everybody has a stake in it because the struggles within the Muslim world, between extremism and the forces of moderation, affect everyone.

I was in China recently and I told our Chinese interlocutors that you may think that the Middle East is distant, but you are the emerging global giant in the 21st century. You import. Fifteen percent of your energy is imported mostly from the Middle East. As you grow industrially, much more is going to be imported, and you're going to be dependent more and more on Middle East energy like the rest of the world. And you have a population in the west of China that is Islamic, and that poses, through some extremists, a threat to the integrity of the Chinese mainland. So these are, indeed, the challenges that we all face globally.

You, in my eyes, by what I've seen here, may very well be the foot soldiers in the struggle for ideas, perhaps the central challenge of your generation, as I stated. We need you who have been trained at Middlebury, who have done the difficult tasks and made the effort to learn foreign languages and other people's cultures, to understand the other, and we welcome you to take up this challenge, and wish you the best success. I think the future of our country, in many ways, is in the hands of people like you. God speed and best success in the future.