How to Be Smarter Than a Member of Congress

Why has the isolationist wing of Congress been blocking aid to Ukraine and become, in effect, a tool for President Vladimir Putin of Russia?

Republican politics explain some of this folly, but I think another reason is pure cluelessness. Congress has a thread of insularity, reflecting an American population that is, by the standards of the rich world, poorly traveled — only 48 percent of Americans have a passport — and notoriously bad at languages:

Question: If someone who speaks two languages is bilingual, and someone who speaks three languages is trilingual, then what do you call a person who speaks just one language?

Answer: an American.

Lack of familiarity with the world is, I think, one reason the United States periodically pursues self-destructive policies around the world. Perhaps the worst foreign policy mistake in this century was the George W. Bush administration’s expectation that Iraqis would welcome American troops with flowers in 2003; that’s the kind of delusion found among people who have never actually had a conversation with an Arab person. A second Trump presidency might entail even more consequential mistakes: pulling out of NATO, abandoning Ukraine, upending the post-World War II international system.

Time spent abroad corrodes stereotypes (of the kind one hears these days about Israelis and Palestinians alike) and shores up our empathy by reminding us of our common humanity. It also makes our country more competitive: I would argue that Utah has benefited economically because it is unusually cosmopolitan, a consequence of having a large number of residents who have lived abroad as Mormon missionaries.

So my message to young people: Go west! Go east! Go north! And above all, go to the global south! Universities should likewise push students harder to study abroad for at least a semester (or to take a gap year before college to work or study in another country).

We wouldn’t consider university graduates fully educated if they had never read Shakespeare, didn’t know the cube root of 27 and thought Plato’s “Republic” was a small Central American country. And as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, another component of a complete education is some international experience.

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