Kazakhstan, Borat, and U.S. Policy: Do We Really Get the Joke?
The public relations department at 20th Century Fox loves the Kazakhstan government, which has done more than anybody to promote the studio’s new film, Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. For over a year, the Kazakhstan government has been complaining about Borat’s negative portrayal of its nation. The film’s real joke, however, is not about Kazakhstan; it is about the United States of America and our geographically-challenged population.
It has been estimated that only about 20% of Americans even own passports allowing them to travel abroad. Considerably fewer Americans could locate Kazakhstan on a map, and few of those could probably claim to know anything about life in Kazakhstan. For global policemen, Americans have a limited understanding of the world around them.
It would be bad enough if this was only true of the average American on the street, but even our government officials have difficulty understanding the world they profess to police. Our engagement of Kazakhstan is a perfect example. The United States does not have a coherent policy towards Kazakhstan and the region of Central Asia. Instead, special interests are more often than not able to lobby our policies in different directions, creating contradictory stances that reflect poorly on the United States.
Part of the problem is that U.S. foreign policy is presently based on hyperbole. In the war on terror, the Bush administration has adopted a black-and-white policy that suggests that other countries are “either with us or against us.” At the same time, Bush has declared war on autocracy and tyranny globally, suggesting that the U.S. will “end tyranny in our world.” In the war on terror, Kazakhstan is with us. In the war on tyranny and autocracy, it is against us. Such contradictions expose the flawed nature of the Bush administration’s black-and-white vision of the world.
Recently, Britain’s Channel Four, where Borat had his beginnings, published a list of “five things you should know about Kazakhstan.” While its list was complimentary of the country in an attempt to counterbalance Borat’s insults of Kazakhstan, a more realistic list should be packaged in an even number to reflect both sides of the story. Along those lines, I offer six things Americans should know about Kazakhstan:
1) Kazakhstan is a major oil producer and is assisted by U.S.-based companies in producing 1.5 million barrels of oil a day, with ambitious to raise this production to as much as 3.5 million barrels a day by 2015;
2) In its fifteen years of independence, Kazakhstan has not held one election that European observers could reasonably call “free and fair”;
3) Since 2000, Kazakhstan’s economy has grown at an average of 9% a year, and the U.S. trade volume with the country has doubled since 2004;
4) Kazakhstan continues to arrest opposition figures for political reasons, and two of its most vocal opposition politicians were found dead within the last twelve months under suspect circumstances;
5) Kazakhstan has a majority Muslim population with pro-western orientation, and its well-financed and sophisticated banking sector has the potential to be a critical foreign investor in such fragile states as Afghanistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Georgia;
6) The Kazakhstan government regularly violates the rights to free speech and assembly by strictly controlling its media sector and by continually harassing and curtailing the activities of opposition political parties.
Kazakhstan is a complex country that defies simple characterization. It is an important country geopolitically, and the U.S. should seek to be its reliable partner for the long-term. At the same time, any U.S. strategic partnership with Kazakhstan must include a concerted effort to push the country’s government on political reform. Such a policy would serve U.S. interests in ensuring that Kazakhstan can become an anchor of stability in an extremely fragile part of the world. It would require, however, that the U.S. develop a sophisticated knowledge of Kazakhstan’s situation and undertake a long-term commitment to being involved in Central Asia. It remains far easier to address special interests as they develop and to try to paint Kazakhstan in black and white terms as needed.
In many ways, this is why Americans have been duped by the simple characterization of Kazakhstan in the guise of its fictional journalist Borat. When Borat’s film opens at multiplex theatres around the country today, it will be much easier for Americans to laugh at the satirical portrayal of a country about which they know virtually nothing than to learn a lesson about our own lack of sophistication in understanding the world around us. The film, of course, could be read in either of these ways, which is why it will likely be a success whether or not Americans really get its joke.