Best Defense

What playing pro basketball in Europe taught me about American foreign policy

In the world of overseas basketball, many American athletes struggle to adjust to life in a new country with different cultural norms and traditions, and communicating and understanding at the level necessary to contribute to a successful team can be the biggest challenge.

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By Haley Peters
Best Defense guest columnist

Last year, I spent seven months in a small city in northwestern Spain, playing professional basketball on a team composed of ten Spaniards and two Americans, led by a coach who spoke no English.

Four months earlier, I had graduated from Duke with a degree in political science, a focus in international relations, and extensive linguistic experience — in Latin. Armed with von Clausewitz and Ovid, I set off to engage with the peoples and cultures of the world that had sparked my interest in foreign policy.

On my first day, I walked off a plane onto the runway of A Coruña Airport, boots finally on the ground. I met the club’s president, whose English rivaled my Spanish. In the silence of our hour-long drive, I learned the first of many lessons in the practical world of IR: Latin really is a dead language. Larger lessons would follow, many rooted in the challenges of communication.

In the world of overseas basketball, many American athletes struggle to adjust to life in a new country with different cultural norms and traditions, and communicating and understanding at the level necessary to contribute to a successful team can be the biggest challenge. This played out on my own team at times.

In the heart of our season, my American teammate nearly left after a dispute with the coach that turned out to be little more than a quarrel based on mistranslation. It was like witnessing a scaled-down version of the breakdown of a peace talk— first miscommunication and misunderstanding, then the surfacing of more divergent interests, then outbursts of pride. There were heating disagreements and storming out from meetings reminiscent of scenes in Lawrence Wright’s Thirteen Days in September.

Former deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns wrote upon his retirement that if America is going to be successful in creating and maintaining a global order, it has to invest in a deep, complex, and complete understanding of the world. Despite what he called the “recurring habit to question [diplomacy’s] relevance and dismiss its practitioners,” alliances only work, force is only effective (see Whitney Kassel on the Army and anthropologists), and peace is only possible when we understand the people with whom we are dealing.

In all matters of strategy, the other side gets a vote too. Our ability to predict and respond depends hugely on diplomatic and cultural understanding.

Haley Peters is a recent graduate of Duke University who interned this summer at New America’s International Security Program. When not studying the future of war, she plays professional basketball in Europe. This year she is a member of C.B. Conquero Huelva.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. @tomricks1
Tag: Sports

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