Small Wars Journal

Regional Expertise and Culture Education as an Agent of American Foreign Policy

Mon, 01/09/2023 - 8:44pm

Regional Expertise and Culture Education as an Agent of American Foreign Policy


By Ian Edgerly, Ph.D.


As all facets of the United States national security apparatus slowly come to terms with the implications and meaning of a policy shift towards strategic competition, albeit one that began during the Obama administration, several larger questions have become glaringly apparent. Of those larger policy level inquiries, such as a deeper identification of what “integrated deterrence” really consists of, and whether or not the geostrategic context actually resembles a Cold War environment, the one that concerns this article’s inquiry is what exactly comprises United States foreign policy as it relates to military affairs. Although this is an extremely deep question that has been pondered upon by some of the great minds in history, this article will specifically make the case that within the United States Army special operations community, education can in fact take the form of and directly impact foreign policy aims and goals. Arguably a “blip” on the radar of most organizations within the Department of Defense, regional expertise and culture education that is provided within operational and deployable Army special operations forces has the capability to directly impact the enactment of foreign policy goals for several factors that are discussed within this article. Indeed, making this type of education more robust can help to ensure the overall success within a strategic competition environment.


In order to better understand how regional expertise and culture education might, and do, directly impact, or even become an organ of foreign policy, one must first identify what foreign policy comprises and what exactly this type of education consists of. For the purposes of brevity, foreign policy with regards to the United States largely encompasses multi-faceted aspects of American strategy and support for international institutions, human rights, democracy promotion, unilateral acts of force, and military primacy. Further, over the course of the history of the United States, there have been four pronounced periods of foreign policy capabilities and objectives argued by Michael Mandelbaum which are accentuated by another critical aspect or characteristic of foreign policy, the relative power of the United States to other states in the global system. Policy documents such as the National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy interpret some of these existential goals, priorities, and underlying core characteristics of American foreign policy into digestible treatise. To that, and via the second point of defining this type of education, the operationalized regional expertise and culture program currently operating within the United States Army Special Operation Forces serves to provide for a conduit between academia, the policy documents stated above, and the warfighter by providing academically sound and rigorous pre-deployment ‘education weeks and validation exercise support so as to assist the deploying unit with getting to grips with the geostrategic and human environments they are deploying into. As the author is the senior instructor for that specific program, it must be mentioned that the description above is an extremely parsed idea of what the program provides but is a necessity for time’s sake.


With those two larger ideas in mind, what then is Army special operations’ role within this larger foreign policy apparatus? As this article is designed to highlight the role of education within this larger quandary, special operations mission sets will be kept largely in the abstract so as to avoid running afoul of any classification or security issues. Within 1st Special Forces Command, the three primary career fields (Special Forces, Civil Affairs, and Psychological Operations) all have specific operational tasks. With Special Forces, these work primarily within the Unconventional Warfare, foreign internal defense, and partner force exercise realms. For Civil Affairs, there are a few different focal points, but civil reconnaissance, civil-military relations, and governance support encompass the majority of their scope. Finally, Psychological Operations focus on all aspects of the information environment with further goals of training and educating partner forces how to conduct their own operations as well as internal goals of persuading and changing target audience behaviors or narratives. These operations are conducted largely with foreign partner forces or with host nation governments so as to better build partnerships, increase partner capacity, and to help stymie malign influence in many of these countries.


Although it is likely becoming clear how Army Special Operations activities link to larger foreign policy goals, there are further indicators that highlight that linkage. Although not easily recognizable as nested, Army special operations missions sets do in fact link to larger American foreign policy goals. This difficulty is primarily due to the different levels at which policy and small teams operate. Things such as integrated deterrence, mentioned in both the 2022 National Security Strategy and the 2022 National Defense Strategy require vast amounts of support from special operations military communities that by design are force providers required to enact a strategy of deterrence. Although similar to the Kennenite version of deterrence, integrated deterrence does have some differences; however, for the argument within this article the similarities are where we must focus. Building of relationships and allies is a major tenet of both versions of the strategy. Fundamentally, this allows for the balancing via allies to occur far from American shores, but close to many American interests around the globe.


Certainly there are issues with interpreting what these grander elements of deterrence look like to small teams of special operators that deploy forward across the spectrum of missions mentioned above, but some of the contemporary aspects of the geostrategic narratives of great power competition, or more aptly termed ‘strategic competition can be seen or interpreted by these small teams on a daily basis. More to come on this later. From the point of view of the foreign policy or international relations educator who focuses on teaching these concepts and global dynamics to the Army special operations forces, there are disconnects between deterrence and strategic competition that must be rectified prior to any sound discussion on implications towards American forces can occur in the classroom. That discussion also helps to link these grand strategic concepts and policies to the crux of this article. Strategic competition, academically, must be taught as a new form of Westphalian state level balancing within the international system and as a struggle over the oversimplified limited resources available in the international system, just with a modern twist of all countries being hyper-connected through social and economic exchanges. Granted, that can fall squarely within the international liberalism camp, but there are nuanced differences when revisionist actors and the like are thrown in. Integrated deterrence, on the other hand; cannot be taught quite so easily but does indeed base itself in the strategic competition discussion. The reason for the differentiation is that scholastically, competition makes sense and it can largely be discussed in the abstract and still match with what our special operations students see on the ground. Deterrence begins to dig more into policy, with concepts such as “deterrence by direct and collective cost imposition,” and “role[s] of information in deterrence.” It is at this point that dissonance begins to rear its ugly head and students seek to interpret their own location within this confluence of the abstract and on-ground truth. To the point of this article, this is where regional expertise and culture education takes up a role as a form of American foreign policy.


Deciphering one’s own place through the lens of special operations within this contemporary environment of both the existentially abstract competition space, and the on-ground visibility of missions that actively support one of the many ‘enemy cost-arithmetic raising’ forms of deterrence can be challenging to the most seasoned of special operations soldiers, often leading to various interpretations of the international environment. Granted, this discussion is an interesting one to have as special operations teams, like their regular Army counterparts deploy with strict mission parameters and measures of success that help to delineate their roles in the environment. So where then does interpretation factor into this, and how can rich academic discussion assist?


As an example, competition with China around the globe is a stated security goal of the United States as a whole with the Department of Defense being an integral agent of goal pursuance. Teams inevitably request classes or discussions on how China competes globally so that they may see how their stated objectives and goals align within that competition space, and so that they can tailor their mission parameters to effectively counter action being taken by China. As teams learn that China competes largely in the economic space, an area that our special operations teams are not necessarily geared to engage in, countering Chinese impacts can be seen as difficult. With regards to this reductive example, education programs that are operationally focused in nature, such as the United States Army’s Special Operations Forces’ regional expertise and culture program provide a venue through which to cognitively explore how a team that is not geared towards economic statecraft might best be able to act as an element of American foreign policy and compete with China in the global space. Some examples of these types of discussion in class would be to look at how China is perceived to be acting from the country in questions’ point of view and see if there is any information space wiggle room within that narrative. Also, discussion on how partner countries and forces see the United States politically and socially also help teams to better place themselves within the competition space cognitively, versus just mission directive-wise. Discussions on perceptions and geostrategic concepts and nuances are only part of the rigorous discussions that do and must take place. The other impactful step is the praxis, or practitioner side of the equation. How can operationalized education of this manner help with this? Via practical exercises. Each discussion must not only help the teams to better understand the environment that they are deploying into via the multifaceted lenses of international relations, sociology, and various other fields; but the teams must also be able to apply those concepts towards their own mission planning and analysis. If knowledge that China is competing only in the economic sphere, to return to our earlier example, was enough, than this entire enterprise would be fairly simple. However, it is the application more than anything else that sets education as an actor in foreign policy realms. By having teams utilize the information garnered from subject matter experts towards better defining their own mission sets within an operationalized setting, direct impacts on American foreign policy are enacted.


Granted, this impact may be lesser than most within the machinations of the American foreign policy enterprise, but there is still an impact. As interpreted by this author, this impact can be deciphered thusly: by creating active, and aware, agents of micro-applications of American foreign policy, that is Army special operations teams, the larger foreign policy enterprise can better impart intent and policy at that level. This is due to a few reasons mentioned throughout this article, but they largely coalesce into the application of agency at the lowest levels necessary to effectively build a coherent integrated deterrence ecosystem. Education plays an oversized role within that as without a sound understanding of a given political and social ecosystem within a partner country, and more importantly a sound understanding of how to specifically apply those concepts towards mission planning and execution, much of the current policy requirements would be for naught due to their abstract and existential nature.


Per the intention of this article, regional expertise and culture education within Army special operations units must be viewed as informing the application of American foreign policy, or as foreign policy itself, for two primary reasons. As mentioned above, education on how to interpret one’s own place and how to apply that interpretation within the confluence between geostrategic / intra-state contexts and American foreign policy goals is critical within a strategic competition environment as much lives in the abstract. The second reason is that Army special operations, specifically the career fields and specialties that reside within Army Special Operations Forces, work at policy levels far outside of the tactical and operational levels that they operate at while in theater. Overall, a new perspective must be taken on operationalized education within special operations units as poorly developed curricula may have larger impacts than anticipated. Finally, the American foreign policy ecosystem must also consider the education factor of its policy agents as again, it plays an oversized role as an actor in the grand geostrategic theater that we all act within.


About the Author(s)

Ian Edgerly is the Senior Regional Expertise and Culture (REC) Instructor for the US Army’s 1st Special Forces Command (A). In his role he manages and directs the 1st SFC (A) REC initiative. He is himself a prior PSYOP officer having served within their AFRICOM-oriented regional battalion. His academic focus orients his efforts towards understanding underlying drivers of extremism, nationalism and its foundations, drivers of conflict and war, geostrategy/security, and international relations writ large.