I’m continually surprised – well not really, I’m being sarcastic – by the way many of our Congressmen, including those in my own state, seem to want to jump headfirst into foreign conflicts. I’m not really going to rant further about that at this point but the current Russian confrontation in the Ukraine and Crimea provides a good object lesson in the value of understanding the culture, history and mind set of the individuals driving the issues from the other side. America actually has considerable experience with the Russians, perhaps the most challenging and educational dating back to the immediate post WWII period. Beyond that the Europeans, especially the French and British, have far more – and we really need to heed their advice.
Fortunately, at the moment, it seems that some folks in Washington (other than Congress) are reviewing their notes on how to deal with the Russians and in particular Mr. Putin and its certainly time for it. In my last post I recommended a book by one of our long time diplomats, someone with far more experience in strategic dealings and with the very different cultural approach the Russians have held for centuries in regard to international relations. Acheson himself, a very thoughtful and insightful man, cites others more experienced and in particular British diplomats.
The assessment that he shares is that the Russians conduct international relations based on a calculation of forces. Once they have determined on a course of action, the only way of dealing with them is to demonstrate that what they want to do is simply not possible. Neither eloquence nor rezoned agreement is effective, only a very mechanical and factual calculus of force.
— Paraphrase of Sir William Hayter’s description of Russian negotiations, the full quote is provided in Dean Acheson, “Present At The Creation : My Years in the State Department”, New York, W.W. Norton and Company 1969, 275
In other words, the Russians decide what they want to do and do it, the only way that you counter that is by demonstrating that they simply cannot do it. Its politics based on force, extremely pragmatic and has nothing to do with ideology per se. Putin behaves just as the Czarists did, and just as the Commissars who followed them.
But although the State Department may have kept its notes, it seems that other government departments never do, including the Department of Defense. I was amazed during much of the conflict in SW Asia, particularly in Iraq, to find very little sign that the troops had been briefed on the culture or the religion of the region. Many of our problems seem to have been based in the fact that they treated the local population in the same fashion – and assessed their leaders – that you would treat an American. That can lead leads to really bad misunderstandings. One example of that was the evaluation that the Northern Alliance was totally untrained, perhaps un-trainable and could not be counted on as fighters – a very, very bad assessment. Earlier senior military leadership had made the same mistake in regard to Afghanistan following 9/11; fortunately the CIA folks on the ground had a true understanding of the culture. That’s a story we review in Shadow Warfare.
But the cultural issue surfaces over and over again. In another minor, but dangerous example, when we first sent advisers covertly into Laos to work with the Hmong, everything went fine. Then after a point they were ordered to wear their rank badges and use their actual rank terminology – most were non-coms. The Hmong were terribly offended because, based on their tribal leaders, they assumed advisers would be leaders and at least officers of some type – as their own leaders were. It almost brought the whole thing to a screeching halt, fortunately the expertise of the non-com special operations guys won the respect of the Hmong regardless. But it was a mistake that never should have been made.
I’d like to say that I’ve seen some improvement over the decades but it almost seems the opposite. During WWII there was considerable training effort spent at least giving the troops some basic understanding of their allies, even if it was badly stereotype. At least the point was made that they are not all like us, don’t think like us etc, so don’t put your foot in your mouth. Its hard for me to determine how much of that happens these days, I’m hoping it does. I’m especially hoping it does becasue as we describe in the book, we are establishing extensive military support relationships between our national guard units and a number of nations in Africa. The cultural disconnects in some areas are certainly huge, hopefully the national guard command is doing a good job of preparing its troops for culture shock.