The English language used to be an asset of the British and American democracies. Now it has become a weakness, argues the FT’s Simon Kuper:
English-speaking countries are particularly easy to hack because their enemies understand what they are saying. Being an English-speaking society is like living in a glass house: it makes you transparent. Conversely, foreign countries are opaque to mostly monolingual Britons and Americans. Foreigners know us much better than we know them. …The role of English has been changing fast. Until the 1990s Russia and China didn’t know much about what went on in western societies. …… But from the mid-1980s, the opening of China, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the coming of the internet all boosted English. Chinese and Russian elites sent their children to study in the US and UK. From 1990 through to about 2010, British and American media and films gained unprecedented global influence. In this period, the asymmetry of knowledge between English-speaking countries and their rivals became extreme.
“There are now several million Russian citizens who are essentially bilingual and intimately acquainted with anglo societies,” says Ricardo Soares de Oliveira, political scientist at Oxford University. By contrast, most anglos stopped bothering to learn foreign languages. This one reason why the west’s old practice of “democracy promotion” has been superseded by the east’s “autocracy promotion”, he adds.