Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

World Language, Mutual Understanding?

James Skillen


July 19, 2008

Earlier this week, I had the privilege of speaking at a conference in Madrid. Participants came from many parts of the world. English was the conference language, but one could hear people conversing in many languages. I was thankful that English was common, but I have to admit to feeling confined by the fact that everyone could enter my language but I could not enter theirs.

The language arrangement hinted at a larger story. Everyone spoke English, but the conference was not concerned with America’s (or Britain’s) role in the world or with an English-speaking country’s politics and culture. English was merely serving a communication function, as Latin once did in Europe long after the Roman Empire had collapsed.

This fact struck me again during an extra day spent sightseeing. As I walked from the Royal Palace to the oldest part of the city, I came upon the Casa de la Villa (City Hall) just when an important event was about to begin. Officials dressed in ancient, brightly colored costumes were standing at the entryway to which the carpet across the courtyard led. A band was about to play. Skilled horsemen held their steeds at attention. Cameras were everywhere. I moved as close to the temporary boundary fence as possible and (in English) asked a woman standing next to me if she knew what was about to take place. She replied in excellent English that she heard the Japanese prince was about to pay an official visit. She and her mother were Malaysian, on holiday in Spain.

The Mayor of Madrid welcoming the Japanese prince was a mini-picture of the world, a picture worth a thousand words. The Asian century is picking up steam, fueled mostly by growing economic ties. More Asians than Americans were touring Europe. And if a Japanese prince was visiting Madrid, even higher-ranked officials and more influential leaders from China, Korea, Singapore and other Asian countries were visiting leading cities in the Middle East and Africa and looking for markets throughout Europe, Africa, and the Americas.

How much do we Americans know about these dynamics, which in many cases depend on conversations and even negotiations in English? How conversant are we with the concerns and aims of the people of Asia and, for that matter, the people of Latin America, Africa, and Europe? How well do we understand the world from the viewpoint of others?

A visit to Madrid must include at least a few hours in the world-famous Prado museum, which stands just a few blocks away from the train station where the terrorist bombings took so many lives three years ago. Amazing cultural achievements and mind-numbing murder stand side by side as they have throughout history.

Many issues are of common concern of course: rising food and fuel prices, environmental degradation, unstable governments, white collar crime, sex trafficking in women and children, poverty among those not elevated by globalization, terrorism, and much, much more. Yet the approach to these common concerns is no longer contextualized by an overarching Cold War or by a North-South divide, and many of the multicultural complexities of the shrinking globe are only now dawning on us. We have been preoccupied over the past seven years with “wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan and are not prepared to understand the relative decline of America’s economic and diplomatic position in the world.

Spain as well as the United States must be prepared to defend themselves, but before, during, and after any use of military force there must be diplomacy—the perpetual quest to understand neighbors even in order to distinguish friends from enemies. Viewing the world today primarily through a military lens brings less and less of the world into focus. The expansion of diplomacy in many languages is what the United States needs most in the decades ahead.

— James W. Skillen, President
     Center for Public Justice

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”