I don't know if you know this, but I am often looked to for my comments and prognostications on affairs of state: admittedly, largely by my mom and some of my younger cousins, but looked to nonetheless. So, in light of recent remarkable circumstances, I feel compelled to contemplate the formulation of a series of careful, deliberative statements on the possibility of a revised American foreign policy.
What got me thinking were the twin critical and commercial successes of "Borat: Cultural Learnings of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan," which opened to rapturous praise from movie critics, and has taken in more than 90 million smackeroos at the box office in its first three weeks. The film, for those of you who have spent the last month or so inside a packing crate, features Borat Sagdiyev's attempts to make a documentary for Kazakhstani television about his adventures in America; Borat, however, is not what philosophers might call "a real person" so much as the off-the-wall creation of the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen.
Anti-semitic, misogynist, homophobic, and on relatively distant terms with the English language, Borat is not necessarily the kind of person you'd like to invite over for dinner. But Baron Cohen's– and "Borat's" – genius is to use the character not so much to satirize the backwardness of a former Soviet republic, but to lampoon American attitudes, both towards foreigners, and in general. And that's why I think "Borat" has some intriguing lessons for our statesmen and diplomats, lessons about American power in the Gulf War II era.
I don't think anyone out there believes that Kazakhstan is happy about the way it comes off in "Borat": bad as its "representative" to America is, the country looks a lot worse. (Three words: Boltok the Rapist.) And I don't think anyone out there is in that much doubt that America's – and a lot of the world's – perspective on Kazakhstan has now been fundamentally shaped by a single satirist sporting a big mustache and an ill-fitting suit. Certainly the government of Kazakhstan doesn't doubt it, having gone into crisis PR mode by running special supplements in the New York Times, among other strategies, and, if some reports are to be believed, even bringing up the matter with governmental officials. Baron Cohen's response to the flap, brilliant as always, is to remain in character and, as Borat, blame Uzbekistan, thus bringing to two the number of countries that most Americans know best through Borat. Yes, it's clearly a joke; but – and here's the rub – in the absence of any other information, somewhere in the back of people's minds, the thought grows: mightn't there be just a teensy-weensy kernel of truth somewhere in there?
This is the sort of thing that gives people in Astana nightmares. Which is the capital city of Kazakhstan, by the way. But who knew that? I didn't; that's my point. I looked it up on Wikipedia – which, by the way, sports a warning at the time of this writing that there's been recent disruption or vandalism on the site. Very possibly from "Borat" loving types who want to turn a sober article on the world's ninth largest country into the kind of jokey travel report that fits people's Baron Cohen-shaped world view.
So let's review: Countries care very deeply about their image in the public sphere, and particularly in the most powerful country in the world. The citizens of that particular country are not, shall we say, always au courant with the real facts, and aren't particularly inclined to find them out unless they're delivered in some other entertaining package – say, in a monologue by a hot guest star on "ER." But, as "Borat" has shown so ineloquently, the facts American entertainment efficiently and powerfully delivers to the entire world don't have to be the real ones. And that, my friends, is an opportunity.
Traditionally, in American foreign policy, we've often relied on an artful (and not so artful) combination of economic and military carrots and sticks to try to get countries to do what we want them to do. Sometimes these work; sometimes these don't. But how often have we threatened to upset, or realign, or reaffirm, the balance of power with a judicious use of satire?
Just imagine Condoleezza Rice suggesting across the negotiating table that, in return for certain guarantees of liberal reform, the "Borat" sequel could be arranged to be set in, say, Turkmenistan rather than Azerbaijan. Or the stick: imagine John Bolton sidling over to a member of a certain UN delegation, slipping a screenplay into their hands, and intimating that if particular non-proliferation treaties aren't entered into, South Park's Trey Parker and Matt Stone will set "Team America II" entirely in their capital city.
I don't know if it will work, and obviously there are wrinkles to be ironed out. For example, whether the Undersecretary of Satirical Affairs who would oversee these efforts would report to the Secretary of State or Defense? But these can be answered later. For now, let me just express my small hope that, one day, we will honor Sacha Baron Cohen not only with an Academy Award, but with a Nobel Prize, for showing us a new path to peace.