On March 18, 2013, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Karl W. Eikenberry
spoke at the Annual Meeting of the National Humanities Alliance about the essential
role the humanities play in preparing Americans for effective global engagement.
The meeting was held at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. The
following is an edited version of his remarks.
Karl W. Eikenberry, former U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan and retired U.S. Army
Lieutenant General, is the William J. Perry Fellow in International Security in
the Center for International Security and Cooperation, as well as a Distinguished
Fellow with the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, at Stanford University.
He is a member of the American Academy’s Commission on the Humanities and Social
Sciences and was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in
You, the distinguished members of this audience, have devoted much of your professional
careers to thinking about the humanities and advancing their cause. You know, far
better than I, the intrinsic value of the humanities. Furthermore, you know from
your daily experiences the particulars of the growing crisis we are facing in schools
and universities across our nation as the humanities continue to retreat to the
margins of the curricula.
Therefore, I thought I could best contribute to today’s discussion by moving beyond
these topics, and draw from my own experience in an attempt to answer three questions.
One: Why, at this point in history, are the humanities more fundamental than ever
before to our country’s successful global engagement? Two: How does grounding in
the humanities prepare individuals for effective service in the international domain
and to contribute to informed foreign policy? Three: What might be done to best
advance the study and application of the humanities in our country?
In 1994, in a briefing to Congress, National Humanities Alliance Director John Hammer
From the NHA perspective, a significant amount of scholarly work in the humanities
is of immediate value in addressing both domestic and international policy alternatives
of many kinds. The humanities offer insights that contextualize and identify sources
of conflict–whether they are economic, social, religious, or cultural; [they] focus
on moral and ethical questions upon which all good public policy is based; and [they]
illuminate the practical consequences of various strategic policy choices.
Hammer rendered this assessment almost two decades ago. The world we face and will
face makes his words even more relevant and, indeed, urgent.
Consider these facts and trends:
Based on these global developments and trends, political philosophers and scientists,
historians, anthropologists, linguists, theologians, sociologists, regional specialists,
and, I expect, most others in the humanities and social sciences can rest assured
that the previously announced end of history has been temporarily postponed. You
can safely anticipate at least another century of very productive full employment.
During the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency made a mock travel poster that
included a dramatic photo from Moscow’s Red Square depicting a menacing Red Army
tank formation participating in the annual May Day parade. The caption read, “The
Soviet Union–come visit us, before we visit you.”
I can imagine that such a poster updated to address today’s world might feature
a photomontage of global political activists, scientists, entrepreneurs, traders,
soldiers, students, religious leaders, farmers, and the like, with the caption beneath
proclaiming, “The World – come visit us, before you become irrelevant.”
It is clear that we need a strong cadre of Americans in our government, military,
business, civil society, academe, and beyond who have the right skills and experiences
to help America stay connected with the world and shape outcomes that secure our
How then does grounding in the humanities prepare individuals for effective service
on the international stage, and how can appropriate application of the humanities
contribute to better global engagement?
Like all of you, I can count on one hand my really significant lifetime mentors
and deep sources of inspiration. My short list includes Professor Jay Luvaas, who
taught me advanced military history when I was a cadet at the United States Military
Academy at West Point.
One day, as I was wearying of studies, preparing for graduation, and anticipating
my first field assignment in the Republic of Korea, I asked Professor Luvaas how
his lectures might help me in the years ahead when confronted with a specific tactical
problem far from his classroom.
He replied, “Well, Cadet Eikenberry, the answer to your rather specific question
is, ‘not much.’ The military profession is both art and science, and in this class
we study art.”
Professor Luvaas, though, went on to say,
Karl, let me suggest one of many things that hopefully you can take with you from
this course. You can take perspective and context. In the coming years you may be
called upon to lead soldiers in combat.
I know of no more demanding, stressful, or lonely task. But remember, no matter
how difficult the situation you may face, commanders over the millennia have been
there before you . . . Xenophon’s 10,000, Wellington’s troops at Waterloo, Grant’s
army at Vicksburg.
Different technologies, geography, weather, missions, and odds–but one constant
for military leaders at all levels–they were under severe stress and felt extraordinary
loneliness. And yet, they often survived and found ways to prevail. Historically
speaking at least, you will never be alone.
Jay Luvaas became one of my life’s spiritual companions. Whether serving as a platoon
leader entrusted with forty infantrymen in Korea, commanding the coalition forces
in Afghanistan, or even heading the United States embassy as our ambassador in Kabul,
I remembered Professor Luvaas’s words whenever things got tough. He was always there
to offer perspective and context.
From personal experience I can say that we ignore the study of history at our own
peril. When asked to name the greatest deficiency in formulating our strategies
in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past decade, my reply is always, “The absence of
rigorous thinking in time, as Richard Neustadt would have said.”
The historical perspective and context can help moor ambition and help distinguish
the transient ripple from the rhythmic tide. They can help put hubris in check.
I am not suggesting that having historians at the table would have led to better
policy choices in Iraq and Afghanistan, but after more than eleven years of war,
trillions of dollars of expenditures, and many lives lost and terribly damaged,
it is hard to imagine how the appropriate application of the discipline of history
to policy formulation could have made things worse.
Over the course of my years of service in Afghanistan, the two most cost-effective
U.S.-sponsored projects I can think of are the restoration of the great Citadel
of Herat at one of the gates to Persia–Qala Iktyaruddin–whose origins date back
to the time of Alexander the Great; and the renovation of the National Museum of
Afghanistan in Kabul, which included putting in place a wonderful exhibit of artifacts
from the pre-Islamic Gandhara Buddhist civilization that flourished in Afghanistan
during the times of the later Roman and early Byzantine empires.
These efforts, priced in the few millions of dollars, not the tens and hundreds
of millions associated with massive reconstruction projects, equipping and training
security forces, and conducting military operations, paid two remarkable dividends.
First, they offered the people of Afghanistan, traumatized by decades of conflict
and chaos, evidence of a rich culture and prior days of glory. With displays that
included both some facts and some myths, the Herat Citadel and National Museum of
Afghanistan are part of the foundation on which a more stable and prosperous Afghanistan
must be built. They have made and will make incredible contributions to the promotion
of national unity.
To stand on their head the words of the infamous Nazi playwright Hanns Johst, one
might hopefully say, “When I hear the word gun, I reach for my culture.”
Second, these two projects serve as good American legacy. The Afghan people, when
they see the restored Herat Citadel and revitalized National Museum of Afghanistan,
catch a glimpse of an America that has been, in parts of the world, obscured quite
literally by the fog of war attending many military interventions.
As Chief of Mission in Kabul, over time I came to regard our embassy’s cultural
heritage program manager–aka, embassy archaeology specialist–as one of the most
high-impact members on our team. She was also one of only two archaeologists to
be found in any U.S. embassy around the world.
In 2009, when I was ambassador, we made some modest contributions to the start-up
Afghanistan National Institute of Music in Kabul, which provides instruction in
Western and traditional Afghan music to youth, regardless of means. Two months ago
I attended a concert performed by the Institute’s orchestra here in Washington at
the Kennedy Performing Arts Center.
The event turned out to be one of the most powerful and emotional musical concerts
I have ever attended. The sense of pride engendered among the many Afghan nationals
and Afghan-Americans who attended was overwhelming.
No one in the audience left the Kennedy Center that evening with a definitive answer
to the question of how Afghanistan will fare after the drawdown of U.S. and NATO
military forces over the next eighteen months. Yet everyone in the audience could
leave certain that the Afghan people, given the right environment, can and will
excel on the world stage (no pun intended).
I visited Singapore recently and met with an old friend, the very worldly (and,
to my mind, wise) Ambassador Tommy Koh. I don’t think he would object to me disclosing
a relevant point from our conversation.
Given my background with government and military service, I asked him the predictable
question, “How can the United States improve its standing in Singapore and Southeast
I expected him to dig into details about the Trans-Pacific Partnership Trade Agreement
or the specifics of future U.S. military deployments in the region. His answer was
He simply said, “Send the New York Philharmonic Orchestra.”
The meaning was clear. It was not really about the Philharmonic-Symphony Society
of New York, as it is properly called, or even exclusively about music. His point
was about deploying (sorry for the military terminology) “soft power.”
Victor Hugo wrote, “Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is
impossible to be silent.” I take music as representative of the humanities and agree
with Hugo–what the humanities offer often cannot be verbally expressed but must
not be left silent. America’s historic advocacy of the humanities is a great source
of international appeal, and we retreat from this advocacy at great cost.
In the fall of 2002, I arrived in Kabul on my first tour of duty in Afghanistan.
Eager to rapidly learn as much as I could about the country and the people, I met
with many Afghans and asked them about their history, culture, and customs.
One evening, I hosted General Asifi, then commander of the Afghan Border Police.
Both of us relied on my very good Dari interpreter, the young Dr. Najib. The general
went on at length about the famous traditions of the Afghan people. He was clearly
proud of their renown as excellent hosts. Asifi became more animated, as did my
interpreter in his effort to convey my guest’s enthusiasm.
Dr. Najib translated the general’s culminating sentence as, “We Afghans have a long
and glorious history of inviting foreigners to our country and then hospitalizing
Now, I think Dr. Najib got it wrong in this instance, and the proper translation
should have been, “. . . and then showing them great hospitality.” But the fact
that I am not absolutely sure more than ten years later demonstrates the importance
At a superficial level, this story is about the importance of accurate translations.
But at another level, it demonstrates the critical ancillary skills associated with
proficiency in one or more foreign languages.
I believe that those who speak a foreign language with some degree of competency
learn the art of carefully listening to others, an art that escapes many Americans
abroad who specialize only in transmission. General Asifi was genuinely grateful
to share a meal with an American Army general who listened.
Those who master foreign languages are also much more sensitive to the clarity of
verbal communications, even when working through an interpreter in a language they
do not understand. Even more important, they are better attuned to cross-cultural
When I was a student at Nanjing University, a professor explained to me that if
I spoke no Chinese, I would be a window-shopper admiring the goods on display from
the street. If I went further and learned the language, I would be able to enter
the store and look around. But if I went even beyond this and learned the culture
as well–made accessible, in part, through the portal of foreign language sensitivity
– I would be invited by the shop owner into the back room to see the store’s
I submit that the surprise that attended the suddenness and scope of the Arab Spring
indicates a need to have greater numbers serving in government and relevant policy
circles who are capable of going beyond metaphorical window-shopping. However, only
the humanities and social sciences – enabled in part by language competency
– can give one entrée and access to the store.
How might we promote humanities research and education? Here are three modest suggestions.
First, make the humanities more relevant to contemporary problems–not only in the
universities but (and this is perhaps even more important) in K-12 and continuing
In his classic History of the Peloponnesian War, Thucydides says much about
the conflict between Athens and Sparta, about so-called rising and status quo powers.
I have seen articles by learned American authors in recent years that cast Sino-American
relations as being governed by the “Thucydides Trap.”
Perhaps. However, the historical analogy is not entirely apt. China and the United
States are integrated into a common world economic order (albeit imperfectly), whereas
Athens and Sparta maintained separate trading systems, the Delian League and the
Peloponnesian League. Nor, for that matter, did Athens run huge trade surpluses
with Sparta and maintain large amounts of Spartan treasury notes.
Why not conclude a study of the History of the Peloponnesian War by assigning
essays on contemporary Sino-American interaction, and then have students argue over
how Thucydides himself would see parallels and divides between his own account of
the Athenian-Spartan rivalry and the anticipated trajectory of U.S.-China relations?
An appreciation of the humanities is acquired through long practice and study, but
demonstration of the humanities current relevance through association can serve
as a powerful catalyst.
Second, I encourage all of you in the humanities to engage in important debates
over public policy when you have something to say–which should be often. I am not
sure your voices are adequately heard. In military terms, I am afraid you are at
times AWOL (or absent without leave).
For instance, I mentioned earlier the increasing popular dissatisfaction in many
parts of the world with the failing of market economies to provide sufficient equality
of opportunity, variously argued as equality of outcome.
Every week, I read op-eds by distinguished economists who debate the degree to which
economic or socioeconomic inequality exists in our country and who then go on to
speculate on causes, consequences, and cures.
I do not see the same degree of engagement from relevant disciplines within the
humanities. Had the Gini coefficient, formulated in 1912, been popularized several
centuries earlier, would Rousseau have been content to reduce his arguments on inequality
to the need to achieve a national Gini index of below 0.25?
Those of you in the humanities need to reclaim your space in many of the great public
debates of the times. This argument relates, of course, to my first suggestion about
establishing contemporary relevance.
Third, and last, inspire your students to explore the humanities.
As I approached the end of my sophomore year at West Point, I resolved to drop Mandarin
Chinese, having completed the two years of mandatory foreign language studies at
the Academy. I very much enjoyed my Chinese language classes and was making good
grades, but they were consuming much study time. I was concerned because I was soon
to face a heavy load of science and engineering courses in my junior year.
My Chinese language professor, Mr. Jason Chang (along with Professor Luvaas, he
was one of the few civilian instructors at West Point at that time), learned of
my decision and called me to his office to persuade me to reconsider.
He said, “Mr. Eikenberry, you need to participate in the Chinese Language Club’s
trip to Taiwan this summer before you decide.”
A very wise nineteen-year-old, I told him I had made up my mind and that while joining
the trip would be interesting, it would be a waste of resources.
He persisted and I reluctantly agreed.
So at the age of nineteen, off I went to the Republic of China, as we called it
then. During the trip, I enjoyed:
All are still vivid memories. When I returned to West Point in the fall of 1971,
I told Professor Chang to sign me up for two more years of Chinese language classes.
Two more years then seamlessly became a lifetime avocation. Professor Chang knew
his mark well.
As those of you in the humanities discuss the critical and inescapable need for
support for the humanities, never forget the role of inspiration in exciting the
next generation, so that the torch can be passed to them. I urge all of you to be
© 2013 by Karl W. Eikenberry
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