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Changing our Perceptions of Other Societies

by Bruce Byers

Appearing in the wake of the recent 30th anniversary of the Iranian hostage release and the momentous events now taking place in Egypt and in other parts of the Arab world, the author claims to see a better way to conduct our diplomacy in the 21st century.–Ed.

It seems superfluous to ask whether there are limits to what diplomacy can achieve. Yet in light of recent history it is worthwhile to ask this and related questions. It might be better to ask how we can reform traditional diplomacy to meet today’s challenges. Can U.S. diplomacy reach into the deepest cultural recesses of other societies and influence the popular imagination in positive ways? Should this be a goal of diplomacy? Let us look at a few examples.

On January 20, 1981 fifty-two American diplomats were released from captivity in Iran at the very moment that President Ronald Reagan recited the Oath of Office during his Inauguration in Washington, DC. They had been seized by Iranian revolutionaries on November 4, 1979 and held hostage for 444 days with the approval and collusion of the newly ascendant regime under the leadership of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in violation of international diplomatic agreements and protocols. Khomeini had long been an enemy of Iran’s Shah and of the United States.

On January 27, 1981 President Ronald Reagan welcomed the American diplomats in a ceremony at the White House that I attended. I had served as a diplomat in Tehran from early 1972 to mid 1974 after having studied Farsi at the Foreign Service Institute. During my years in Iran I had traveled widely, lived with an Iranian family, attended many different cultural events, and met students at several universities in Tehran, Isfahan, and Shiraz. I had come to know the people in Iran as culturally and ethnically diverse. And yet all of them lived under the autocratic rule of the Shah and his small group of advisors and military and police generals. And most knew the Shah was our ally.

The seizure of American diplomats in Iran hit Americans like a sudden tornado sweeping across the prairie. Few of us knew where Iran was or what our diplomats were doing there. Yet, television news reports showing them being led blindfolded from the U.S. embassy under armed guards sent a shockwave through the public consciousness. How could this be happening to our diplomats? How could the United States have allowed a group of student revolutionaries to enter the diplomatic compound and assault our embassy and its diplomats? Where were the Marines? All kinds of questions flowed through the news media during the days and weeks after the seizure of our diplomats. President Jimmy Carter and his advisors had few definitive answers. They expressed hope that a misunderstanding had occurred and that our diplomats would soon be released. They continued to work towards this goal for months without success and then on until the final moments of his time in office.

It soon became obvious that the U.S. government had misjudged Iranian sentiments regarding its actions towards revolutionary Iran and in support of the deposed Shah of Iran. Why? What had we missed? There had been warnings from our embassy in Tehran earlier in the year that if the Shah were allowed into the United States for any reason, popular emotions in Iran could explode. These warnings were weighed in White House circles and found to be less worrisome than the need to extend humanitarian help to an ailing Iranian ruler.1

In the Sunday, January 23, 2011 edition of the Washington Post’s Outlook section former ABC-TV “Nightline” chief Ted Koppel wrote a comment about the hostage crisis in which he opined that the Iranian revolutionaries learned how to manipulate U.S. journalists and TV media and, through them, exert pressure on American public opinion and against the Carter administration. Koppel was able to build much of his reputation on his nightly reporting about the hostage crisis.

In his January 23 comment about the end of the hostage crisis Koppel wrote: “Americans saw it as the end of a long national nightmare. Iranians saw it as a successful phase in what the Pentagon would come to call the Long War. We were wrong; they were right.”

He also wrote: “the Iranians stage-managed the drama down to the last second. Precisely at noon, just as Reagan began to recite the oath of office, the planeload of Americans was permitted to take off. The Iranians’ message was blunt and unambiguous: Carter and his administration had been punished for America’s sins against Iran; Reagan was being offered a conciliatory gesture in anticipation of improved behavior by Washington.” In the ensuing years both Iranians and Americans have continued to misread the cultural signs of the other and enmity has prevailed.

Traditionally, U.S. diplomats stationed abroad seek to discern political, economic, social, and military trends and report on immediate developments in their respective countries. Their cables inform the State Department in Washington. The information they send is analyzed and shaped into memoranda to top State Department officials, especially the Secretary. In some cases, some of this reaches the White House and the President’s advisors. Bits and pieces of this analytic work may even find their way into statements the President makes and may also influence his decisions.

Every ambassador likes to think that in being the President’s official representative to the government of another country she or he can influence senior government officials and also the decision-making process in Washington. Yet, how much of this thinking penetrates the cultural and social myths that inspire Americans and motivate people in societies of the countries in which our ambassadors and their staffs serve? Foreign affairs scholar Derek Leebaert has tried to answer this question in his new book Magic and Mayhem: the Delusions of American Foreign Policy from Korea to Afghanistan. He describes a force that often envelops leaders and professionals in the policy making process and calls it magical thinking. He writes that it includes “dangerous self-delusions” by normally levelheaded people who become “bewitched into substituting passion, sloganeering, and haste for reflection, homework, and reasonable objectives.”2

Sometimes a single event can produce a profound change in the way Americans view the world. The seizure of U.S. diplomats in Tehran in 1979 was one of those events. The televised destruction of the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001 was another. These two events profoundly shook Americans and confirmed for many of us that the world is a perilous and hostile place. They also confirmed, initially, that our government’s ability to respond quickly and resolutely is limited.

While the American public can be excused from knowing details about precursor events that led up to both of these political and diplomatic thunderclaps, our elected leaders and their advisors deserve closer scrutiny for their failures to “connect the dots.”

The seizure of American diplomats in Tehran was an event waiting to happen. It had roots extending at least as far back as the August 19, 1953 staged ouster of Iranian Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh. British and U.S. intelligence services allegedly drove the coup against him. London and Washington feared that Mossadegh would nationalize the private oil companies, especially the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (that later would morph into BP). Regardless of the reasons behind the staged coup, the United States returned the young Reza Shah Pahlavi to the Peacock Throne in Tehran where he ruled for 26 years as an “enlightened” dictator. Iran became a key member of CENTO, a bulwark against Soviet expansion in the early decades of the Cold War and a major client state of U.S. development aid and military support.

On May 29, 1972 President Richard Nixon flew from Moscow to Tehran for a brief official visit the next day with the Shah to strengthen bilateral relations and assure the Shah of continued U.S. military and economic support. He made no speech that would have underscored the importance of Iran as a U.S. ally. His major diplomatic breakthrough had already occurred earlier in the year with his visit to China. During Nixon’s visit in Tehran several bombs were set off, killing a number of Iranians and severely wounding a U.S. Air Force general on his way to work. The controlled press opined that this was the work of Iranian communist cells.

The Shah of Iran and Ayatollah Khomeini

After Nixon’s visit the Shah became outspokenly critical of U.S. foreign policy while he continued to pay cash for American military aircraft and work to boost the world price of crude oil at the 1973 Vienna OPEC conference. He succeeded in tripling the cost of a barrel of crude oil. His SAVAK secret police hunted down many enemies and suspected enemies and worked long and hard to crush dissident Shia clerics and the small Iranian Communist Tudeh party. All the while conservative Shia clerics residing in Iraq and in Europe continued to spread anti-Shah and anti-U.S. propaganda among the masses of Iranians. Millions of them felt victimized by the Shah, his police, and the presence of U.S. diplomatic and military personnel.

There were ominous signs of growing unrest against the Shah and against the U.S. Their roots were deep in Iranian history and involved a once-powerful and very conservative Shia clergy that opposed “Westernization” of Iran under the Shah’s father Reza Shah during the earlier decades of the 20th century. Still, U.S. diplomats did not spend a lot of time delving into the history of Iranian political strife and its significance for U.S.-Iran relations.

The Cold War was driving U.S.-Iran relations. During the years I worked in Tehran, the U.S. embassy focused more on Iran’s relations with the Soviet Union than it did on what exiled Shia imams were doing. Domestic unrest among alienated Shia mullahs and unemployed youth was not even a minor blip on our diplomatic radarscope. No one was paying much attention to the exiled Ayatollah Khomeini’s propaganda war against the Shah and his distribution throughout Iran of tens of thousands of cassette tapes with his sermons and attacks on the Shah.

One reason for this is that diplomacy is the cautious art of incremental movement between governments. Its focus is primarily on political developments and it is based upon evaluation of the situation at hand. Domestic religious and cultural issues are almost never the subjects of diplomatic reporting. At the same time diplomatic parlance seeks to avoid rash or thoughtless statements that can incite the ire of other governments and, more importantly, of peoples whose attitudes and understanding of America may be vague and distorted at best. For this reason alone, a more careful and incisive understanding of cultural beliefs and the myths that inspire them should be a primary goal of U.S. diplomacy. And yet, I submit, it is low on the priority list of things to do.

U.S. political, military, and diplomatic history has always focused on winning and on forward progress. Setbacks and policy failures tend to be swept aside and buried in archives. In other societies, historical consciousness can be more pronounced among political elites, especially when their countries have been overrun and occupied by foreign invaders. This was certainly true among Iranian political and cultural elites.

In 1992 Francis Fukuyama published an optimistic summation of the meaning of the victory of Western liberal democracy over Soviet autocratic dictatorship and asserted, “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of post-war history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” (See Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man.)

In 1993 Samuel P. Huntington offered a response in the pages of Foreign Affairs and wrote about a “clash of civilizations” in which traditional cultural conflicts had replaced the Soviet-American contest of ideologies. He expanded this in 1996 into a book: The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. He argued that the old ideological warfare between totalitarian states and Western democracies might have ended, but there were other historic forces afoot that paid little heed to the Hegelian dialectic and Fukuyama’s optimism. One of these was a growing Islamic rage against “Westernization.”

Many among American political elites celebrated the U.S. ideological and economic victory over Soviet communism and the “end of history.” Few remembered that Iran had been occupied by Soviet and British troops in 1941 and that Iran’s autocratic Reza Shah had been forced into exile in South Africa in the same year. Later during World War II U.S. troops also occupied parts of Iran as the United States built a supply line from the Persian Gulf to the Caucasus to help its Soviet ally fight the German Wehrmacht. Iranians did not forget this armed foreign occupation, and this memory became one of the building blocks of anti-American resentment among restive students and the more conservative, religious sectors of the population.

Just as we in America can view developments elsewhere in the world as threats to our security and well being, peoples in other societies can hold inimical attitudes towards the United States and its people. Millions of people living in repressive, authoritarian states think of America as both a land of great opportunities and as an omnipotent state willing to use military power to get its way. They see that the United States has often supported dictators who have oppressed them and grown rich and powerful through corruption and milking American largesse. Millions of them also feed on unfounded myths and conspiracies about the U.S.

People in governments around the world have their own illusions and often suspend reality and ascend into the realm of exaggerated thinking about their capabilities and resources. This was true of the Shah of Iran. Thus, we encounter on the international level different kinds of diplomacy, different modes of thinking about regional and global problems, and different myths reflected among the players. This raises the question: Can a more thoughtful, insightful diplomacy counteract unrealistic, often irrational views held by broad masses and members of non-state groups as well as by officials of governments and regimes that harbor adversarial views and policies towards the United States?

It is at this nexus that we have an opportunity and an obligation to do more to elevate the research and analysis of deep cultural forces within other societies to be a key component of American diplomacy. The analysis of languages and the meanings of words in the mouths of different leaders is an important part of such research. I am not writing about more intensive application of public diplomacy. Public diplomacy is but one tool of diplomacy. I am suggesting that with greater care and respect for cultural and historic antecedents and the differences of conceptual thinking as expressed in other languages, we might be able to prevent such explosive events as the seizure of our diplomats in Tehran or the events of 9/11. At least we might gain a deeper understanding of the socio-political forces that can erupt into popular uprisings such as those that have recently occurred in Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen.

Most of our diplomats seek to develop some degree of empathy for the people and institutions in the countries in which they serve. Yet in Washington there is often a lack of cultural empathy among many in the political elites towards officials in other governments and towards the broad masses of people in other societies. For many of them diplomacy is best played on an intellectual field where “principles” are debated, defended, and upheld rather than in the alleys and souks among the less politically informed and educated working classes. This may have much to do with the Ivy League mindset that many bring to their jobs in Washington. Indeed, political elites tend to talk to other political elites, many of whose members have been educated at the same universities and traveled in the same international circles for most of their professional lives.

Since 9/11 we have repeatedly heard senior White House officials and elected representatives in Congress declare the necessity to win “the hearts and minds” of people in other societies in ways that advance U.S. foreign policy goals. Part of this sentiment rests in the belief that American values are superior and should be demonstrated to and emulated in other societies. The subliminal element in such sentiments is the belief that America must “manage” developments in other countries to make the world safer for American interests. This is the evangelical dimension of U.S. foreign policy. It is exactly this dimension that Iran’s revolutionary leaders have rejected and this sticks in our craw.

Another part of this sentiment rests in the conviction that we can show other societies a better way of governance and a more accessible path to freedom and liberation for individual citizens, especially in authoritarian states. This is often expressed in the expenditure of great sums of money and material to demonstrate American good will and shore up sagging relations with other governments.

Several generations of presidential advisors – the best and the brightest – have thought they knew the secret to influencing and changing attitudes among foreign populations in ways that would promote greater understanding and acceptance of U.S. political decisions. At the same time many of these advisors and their staffs were worried about “losing” a country or a region to adversarial forces. They also had to live with constant congressional pressure. The nub of their dilemma was how to apply positive incentives and also exercise power to shape developments in respective countries of geostrategic importance to the United States. And how often have the best intentions and plans in Washington missed the sudden eruptions of popular resentment and hatreds against oppressive governments and against the United States?

In partial response to this question I point to the optimistic pronouncement President Kennedy made in his Inaugural address: “Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty. This much we pledge—and more.”  Kennedy expressed a pride in the efficacy of U.S. diplomacy, often backed up by military and economic power. His words had a grand ring to them, but such thinking has sometimes blinded our leaders to unpleasant realities in other parts of the world. How often has this pride produced results opposite of those the policy makers had envisioned?

Shortly before his Inauguration Kennedy made another speech that is worth recalling. On January 9, 1961, he addressed the General Court of Massachusetts and described his preparations to meet the challenges that he would encounter as President. In expressing his respect and reverence for the people and institutions of his native state, Kennedy compared Massachusetts to ancient Athens and stated, “For what Pericles said to the Athenians has long been true of this commonwealth: ‘We do not imitate–for we are a model to others.’”

Kennedy believed that the institutions and people of Massachusetts and of the United States were a model to behold. His belief informed his Inaugural address and inspired the people he gathered into his Cabinet as well as tens of millions of Americans.

And yet there is another dimension to the political environment he was about to enter and the government he was about to lead. In his January 9 speech, he directed his listeners’ attention to the original political leaders of the Massachusetts Bay colony and, specifically to John Winthrop and stated, “During the last sixty days, I have been at the task of constructing an administration. It has been a long and deliberate process. Some have counseled greater speed. Others have counseled more expedient tests.”

“But I have been guided by the standard John Winthrop set before his shipmates on the flagship Arbella three hundred and thirty-one years ago, as they, too, faced the task of building a new government on a perilous frontier.”

“We must always consider,” he said, “that we shall be as a city upon a hill–the eyes of all people are upon us.”

Kennedy concluded by saying, “Today the eyes of all people are truly upon us–and our governments, in every branch, at every level, national, state and local, must be as a city upon a hill–constructed and inhabited by men aware of their great trust and their great responsibilities.”

President Kennedy and subsequent Presidents have often lauded the virtues and values of the American republic in speaking out on international affairs. Their speeches remind all of us of our exceptional historical role in the world. Their focus is on us and on our national pride and ethos. We are the Sun in the universe of international relations. The talk is about us and who we are and what we will tolerate. It is about our national interests.

Yet recent history has shown that the United States does not live in a vacuum and that its perch high on a sunlit hill is frequently a precarious one. Certainly, the events of 9/11 showed this.

My argument may be counterintuitive, but I am saying that if we pay more attention to the events that led up to the seizure of our diplomats in Tehran and to the attacks of 9/11 and if we analyze more precisely the cultural roots that motivated Iranian revolutionaries to seize our embassy and our diplomats and a group of young men to plan and carry out their airborne assaults, we might come to a better understanding of these historical events and the lessons they offer. This does not have to be seen solely on an axis between Fukuyama’s and Huntington’s interpretations of history.

This is not so difficult. Our military strategists and tacticians are constantly analyzing battlefield experiences and reassessing their methods of training and combat. They change as the battlefield changes; if they don’t, they lose more soldiers. Diplomacy can also change to meet changing environments. The State Department should devote more resources to training our diplomats about the cultural roots, the myths, and the traditions that move other people in their daily lives. Despite such cultural studies training a difficulty arises in the chain of communication between what diplomats observe in their many foreign posts and what eventually reaches our leaders in the boil-down process between ambassadorial cables and public pronouncements in daily press briefings and presidential speeches.


1. See the following American Diplomacy article for details on the reasons for U.S. acceptance of the Shah into the United States and the effect that decision had on Iranian opinion:

2. See the recent review of this book in American Diplomacy at: 2010/0912/ book/book_coffey_magic.html.

Bruce Byers
Bruce Byers

Bruce Byers is a retired Foreign Service officer who held assignments in Tehran, Mumbai, Kabul and several European posts. He also served in Manila before returning to Washington for assignments at the Department of State. He was involved in cultural and informational affairs in the U.S. Information Agency prior to transferring to the State Department when USIA was consolidated into State in 1999.


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