Small Wars Journal

Things Americans Need to Know: How to Be Better Partners

Tue, 06/25/2013 - 3:30am

Military partnerships today are more important than ever before.  America’s current national strategy, coupled with global fiscal and political problems, makes it unlikely Americans will deploy unilaterally to address the security challenges of the 21st century.  Yet, we consistently seem surprised by the presence of partners.  These partnerships may be with individual allies or host nations, or as part of a military coalition or alliance within a broader interagency group.  While we pay lip service to ‘partnership’, the US military is still used to being the dominant player… the 600 pound gorilla in the room that expects everyone else to conform to how we do business, use our terminology and commit to our priorities. This  ‘reality’ is changing.  Increasingly, we fall in on someone else’s operation; no longer is it a given that we will be the lead nation.  More and more, our role today is to provide a unique niche or support capability that our partners lack, such as our intelligence support, aerial refueling and strategic lift in the Libya and Mali interventions.  How we do business with our partners must mature and evolve to be effective in this environment. We must learn to be better partners.

Over the past decade I have had the opportunity to work with thousands of America’s partners from nearly a hundred countries.  During my tours in Iraq I supported and worked alongside members of the “Coalition of the Willing” in combat situations.   I mentored and taught hundreds of our partners from Eastern Europe and Eurasia while serving on the faculty of the George Marshall Center for European Security Studies.  For the past four years I have worked with America’s European and African partners to create intelligence to guide ongoing multinational military operations throughout the globe from Afghanistan to Mali.   I have had many frank discussions with our partners about serving with Americans. I have asked them to share their thoughts about what it is like to work with Americans. How can we be better partners?   I offer a dozen insights from our partners’ perspectives, listed below in the form of their statements and suggestions to us:

1. You Americans Often Think it All Started When You Showed Up

As Americans, you need to invest the time to learn the conflict’s background. Places you go with partners have often been trouble spots or have known instability for a long time, so learn the history of the region. For instance, you should learn how instability and conflict have been dealt with locally for the past 5-500 years.  Post-colonial objectives and long histories of involvement may mean that your allies and partners have insights and perspectives that you have not picked up in your limited preparation and study.  How does local culture reflect power sharing and decision-making norms and methods that evolved because of the historical instability?  While you may bring new technologies and tools; the problems and concerns are often the modern expression of old issues.  You need to continually remind yourself and those you lead that you are not the first to fight in this place.    

2. Americans over simplify and pick sides

You Americans tend to look for simple explanations and simple answers.  You try to make everything fit on a power point slide, when the reality is that the issues are often quite complex, interrelated and dynamic.  You want a black and white depiction of the issues with obvious good and bad guys.  Once you have decided on your good guy, you publicly back him unconditionally against the faction or individual you have labeled as bad. You underestimate the impact of your backing and fail to appreciate that often there are no good guys; just bad guys and worse guys.  Then, when your unit leaves and a new unit comes in, you often throw away the relationships you have built and  the personal investments you have made, and leave it to the new troops to start over again.   

3. Short-Term Solutions and Lack of Patience

You tend to focus on short-term solutions: selecting goals that can be achieved in a limited period of time.   This phenomenon may be partly because of the short electoral cycle in the US which leads to perpetual campaigning, which adds to the pressure for short-term solutions.  Another part of this problem may be your lack of patience as a society. You grow up in a world with instant access and instant gratification.  You want immediate, measurable and quantifiable results – data points that can make graphs or pie charts on a power point slide.   American propensity for short tours and frequent command turnover is not lost on your partners. Commanders from platoon to province level seem to have a requirement to demonstrate that things improved during their term of duty.  Is that driven by your focus on ‘bullets’ for promotion boards and end of tour awards?  It often looks that way from the actions in which you choose to invest your time and money. Keep in mind the bigger mission. 

4. Listen Better 

Rather than going in with your predetermined strategy developed in a distant headquarters, go in with an open mind and listen very closely rather than doing all the talking.  Be quiet and sit still, then walk around and observe.  Listen more. Slow down.  Drink the chai.  Eat the meals.  This is hard to do in a short deployment, but essential.  Give people ways to provide input indirectly, too – anonymously.  Get to those who are too shy to speak, or for whom social convention does not allow it. Find a way to talk to people within their culture rather than expecting them to adapt to yours. 

5. Understand your Impact 

Be better guests.  Observe local customs and traditions more graciously in order to lighten the impacts of your presence.  You Americans can be quite brash going into situations, thinking you have cornered the market on the ultimate way to live.  You come in with a heavy footprint and don't pay enough attention to how a culture has operated for thousands of years. Showing common courtesies, paying respect and slowing down to catch the nuances and subtleties are important.  

6. Overconfidence

Americans are accustomed to being a superpower and having unlimited resources at your disposal. The American military is made up of “can do” action-oriented people who are taught to solve problems and confront issues. While this is a great trait, it also causes problems.  You tend to be over confident in your abilities to solve issues or problems; sometimes a bit more humility is in order. No one in the US military likes to say that something can’t be done. It is seen as a sign of weakness. Americans are by nature confident people who think that anything and everything can be fixed if enough effort and resources are brought to bear.  Well, some problems can’t be fixed and you have a difficult time dealing with that.  Keep in mind, if this were an easy fix, you probably wouldn’t be there.

7. The Inability to Say ‘No’ 

You Americans are by nature generous and helpful. You like to do things for people and hate to say no.  You don’t like to turn down requests for assistance or support; instead you hedge or make commitments that you have no ability or intention to fulfill.  Sometimes a straight no or “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer.  If you frequently mislead us by saying “maybe” when you mean “no”, it causes confusion and mistrust.  If I know your reply is no, then I can go elsewhere for answers or adapt another course of action.   

8. Differing Levels of Intensity

Just because we are allies and partners doesn’t necessarily mean we all care about the issues with the same intensity that you do. Our nations have different motivations and reasons to get involved in a particular problem. Your American global view will often be different from our regional perspective.  Perhaps intervention is a vital interest because it is in our ‘geopolitical neighborhood’ - or maybe we are just involved with you because we want to demonstrate our value as a partner or NATO member.   

Our expectations of the outcome may be different too.  You may be striving to fix an issue, while we may just be trying to ‘do no harm’ and stabilize a region.   So don’t be surprised if we aren’t willing to risk life and limb on issues we see to be of limited importance. On the other hand, we sometimes have concerns about your staying power and focus. Will we be abandoned down the road in a crisis situation because America’s attention as a global power has been drawn elsewhere or inward?  

9. Build Personal Relationships

Please remember that organizations and operations are made up of people. Do not underestimate the human aspect of our partnership.  Personal interaction and relationships are what get things done.  We do things for people we know, like and trust, not for faceless organizations or nations - especially when under pressure.    Don’t underestimate the importance of getting to know your partners on an enduring personal basis.  Realize that for us there is a difference between being a friend and an acquaintance.  Don’t always dive into business or have a specific agenda when we meet; take time to build rapport and establish   trust and confidence between us. When you ask me “How are you doing?” – mean it.  I will take it as a serious, sincere question.  I might respond in more detail than you expect, so please stop and devote the time to listen to me answer your question.  Make time to have coffee together.  Ask me about the floods in my country, how my kids are doing in school and my nation’s chances next month in the World Cup.  Stop in to see me and talk face to face about issues rather than sending me an email or calling me on the phone. And don’t forget the important role of humor, it’s a great icebreaker. A little self-deprecating humor goes a long way in breaking down national stereotypes and opening doors.

10. Over -Classification

You Americans needlessly and wantonly over classify information to the point that you handcuff yourself and create mistrust and animosity among your allies, partners and friends.  Intelligence gathered but not shared causes friction.  Remember, according to your US Executive Order 13526, classifying information is intended to protect intelligence sources and methods and safeguard information that could “reasonably be assumed to cause identifiable damage to your national security”.  If it really does meet these criteria, fine, by all means classify it and limit distribution - we all understand that and do it ourselves.  But your widespread, ingrained tendency is to reflexively classify everything you create as Secret/NOFORN, prohibiting distribution to us foreigners.  Do some realistic risk assessment and ‘dare to share’.  Foreigners are partners when we fight and die with you, but not when it comes to sharing operational information and intelligence? Remember, partnerships work both ways, if you want information from me that may protect your folks, take the calculated risk and share with your partners. 

11. The Unique Role of Senior Enlisted

There is a disconnect between how you Americans and most of us partners understand the role of enlisted men and women.  You are quite proud of how you encourage and grow enlisted soldiers to have increasing levels of responsibility and authority throughout their career.   Most of the other militaries of the world, your partners included, do not use enlisted men and women in this way.  For us, there is a wide gap between the skills and responsibilities of officers and enlisted. Enlisted most often serve a single tour in uniform or are retained to serve because of their expertise in a narrow technical field. 

Perhaps you are trying to demonstrate the value of your approach by sending a senior sergeant to serve alongside our Majors, but realize that it comes at a cost.    A senior sergeant, sent to serve as a liaison officer, advisor or mentor, may have the required technical skills to be successful - but he or she will most likely not be effective or accepted because of his rank or gender.  This is reality. You may not like it, but our military traditions differ from yours.

12. Speak to be Understood

Keep in mind that the reason you speak to us is to communicate thoughts, ideas and information. Realize that your English language is most likely only one of several foreign languages that we partners have inside our brains.  When you speak to me, my brain takes your English words and searches for my native equivalents. Please slow down. Use simple, widely understood words. The NATO standard for English proficiency involves two thousand words.  I know several thousand English words, not every single one.   For instance, I probably don’t know what taxonomy means, arrangement or organization are more likely to be among the words in my English vocabulary. Please don’t talk down to me, but also realize that using large, four or five syllable words doesn’t impress me. It doesn’t make you seem more intelligent. It just makes it hard for me to understand you.  Similarly, using American cultural references and slang makes it tough for us to follow your thoughts. Since no one else in the world plays your American version of the game of “football”, I have no idea what a “Monday morning quarterback” is.  Most of the world doesn’t play baseball.  I don’t know if “hitting one out of the park” or something “coming out of left field” is a good thing or a bad thing.    

Remember that acronyms are intended as a shorthand or code to make communication easier. But like most codes, if you don’t share the key, it’s nearly impossible to understand the intended message.  Don’t use acronyms unless you explain them and you are sure that everyone knows what they mean. By the way, if we are NATO partners, remember that NATO has a glossary of agreed upon terms and acronyms - chances are better that I will know those. In today’s international, interagency environment, where products and statements have instant global reach, acronyms are usually an impediment to understanding.  If you have to explain what an acronym means, what are you gaining from using that acronym? Telling a partner that “The DCOS will chair a VTC in the TOC following the BUB to discuss the MOEs of the OPLAN’s LOEs against the INS” isn’t helpful, it is frustrating and annoying.         

There is Good Stuff Too

Having noted a number of ways Americans could be better partners, please don’t get the impression that working with you Americans is a negative experience. Americans are widely perceived by your partners as open-minded, tolerant and positive people.  The importance you put on openly evaluating your operations, gathering lessons learned and best practices and then rapidly implementing new techniques and procedures is great.   Your decentralized decision-making and the authority and responsibility you push down to junior leaders is enviable.  Wanting to be helpful and your generosity are notable American attributes.  Of course it is always great to have Americans nearby because of your wonderful support structure that can provide everything from tactical transportation to ice cream to satellite communications.  

And lastly, in our eyes, America is a great nation with great people who usually try to do the right thing.  Sometimes you do the wrong thing.  Partners have an obligation to point out these failings to each other. Sometimes the truth hurts, but don’t shoot the messenger.  Being a global leader means your actions are always under scrutiny and held to a higher standard.  And yes, perhaps sometime we allies take the US for granted. But we are profoundly grateful that the US is the most world’s powerful nation. We wouldn’t want Russia, China or some other country to be in this position.  

About the Author(s)

James Howcroft serves as the Director of the Program on Terrorism and Security Studies at the George C. Marshall Center. Professor Howcroft retired as a Colonel after 30 years as an Intelligence Officer in the United States Marine Corps. He served in a wide range of Marine Corps tactical and operational intelligence billets, from Infantry Battalion up to the Marine Expeditionary Force level. His combat tours include duty with the 2nd Marine Division in Operation Desert Storm and tours of duty as the Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence (G2) with both the 1st Marine Division and then the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force in Iraq.


Thus, the basic rules of using an abbreviation must be observed, otherwise, you can fundamentally change the main idea of ​​the statement unintentionally. I believe that it is desirable to even periodically repeat the interpretation, it will help to understand. I find so many interesting ideas on the resource  For example, essays on stereotypes, as a relatively stable and simplified image of a social group, person, event or phenomenon.


Thu, 09/12/2013 - 9:44am

Howcroft has it right. Moreover, his experience gives him the credibility to speak as one who has heard allies and "partners" at their most sincere. In contrast, when a US 3-star military officer draws his conclusions about "partnership" after his 30 minutes of office call with his international counterpart, too often US military leaders think they get the picture. They don't realize they're doing their job with only a fraction of what they need to succeed. But then it may not matter to the US officer because he assesses success by cultural measures little appreciated by those with whom he deals.

Vitesse et Puissance

Thu, 06/27/2013 - 1:37pm

While these are valid criticisms, one thing you learn when doing international collaboration and international programs is that the other side of the relationship consists of flawed human beings with the same foibles our own people have. They have ambitious and crafty bureaucratic warriors, true heroes, competent staffers who get pushed aside by the alpha males, just normal party hearty guys who would rather be at a soccer game or out hiking/hunting/fishing with the family. Once you get past the cultural stereotypes and cliches, the basic humanity of all humankind - and its innate diversity - begin to stand out. Don't assume that we are less culturally competent just because we are spread much too thin to master all the cultures with which we come into contact. Everyone thinks they understand Americans, because Americans present the most visible cultural target. And yet, hardly anyone, much less ourselves, is truly able to understand this complex, contradictory, amnesiac society of ours. Even the stereotypes cited in this article betray the same pragmatic flaw. Admitting our ignorance would be too much like philosophizing, and as men and women of action, we can't have any of that sort of thing here.

If we were to focus, for example, on the fact that:

a. While our military is designed, primarily, to defeat the conventional military forces of other great nations,

b. Their military must be ordered along such lines as to, primarily, defeat and hold down their own people -- and the people of similar states and societies -- both of whom are resisting, via unconventional means, fundamental and unwanted state and societal change.


a. While our military, police and intelligence forces are designed and employed (with the support of our population) to protect and defend our own way of life and our own way of governance,

b. Their military, police and intelligence forces have an entirely different role; wherein, they must be organized and employed (against the will of many of their people) to protect and defend what is, essentially, an alien way of life and an alien way of governance.

Would this understanding -- as to the differing role, design and purpose of "our" versus "their" military, police and intelligence forces -- would this understanding help us to make the necessary adjustments as to how we do business as partners?

Does this understanding also beg the question as to what knowledge, skills, abilities (if any) might we actually have and, thus, what expertise, experience and assistance (if any) might we actually be able to offer re: (1) defeating and holding down one's own population so as to (2) introduce and permanently install (again within one's own country and against the will of many of one's own countrymen) what is, essentially, (3) a foreign way of life and a foreign way of governance?

Do we have any recent experience in such matters? Or have we, in fact and in our own country, not done anything like this since the American Civil War?

A good article on an important topic, but obviously much more to discuss. I strongly concur with items 1 through 6 and don't believe there is a need to expand upon them, other than ask how do we mitigate these cultural shortfalls?

I do want to expand on item 11 a little. The point is well taken and I don't take it as a slight against our NCOs, but see it as just one indicator of our cultural arrogance when it comes to working with our partners that sometimes gets us cross-ways unintentionally. In many cases it is a stated goal of our capacity building efforts to assist our partners develop a professional NCO Corp. It is too often simply assumed that this is what our partners want, so we often simply skip over the step that starts with a discussion that continues over time in an attempt to change our partner's perception of their NCOs and see the value of the idea. At that point one approach "may" be to recommend starting with one unit as a test bed to see how it works. All too often we just assume they want to mirror us, so we request their NCOs or equivalents attend our NCO leader courses with no real thought on how they'll fit back into their ranks when they return and use their training. In many cases if their NCOs speak English well enough to attend our courses they'll be officer material in their country. This all ties into points 3 through 5.

We take this approach with multiple issues when attempting to build partner capacity and then wonder why we're not effective. Very few partners, especially in the developing world, have the ability to mirror our military, and in some cases it isn't culturally appropriate to do so, but we only seem to have one speed and fail to recognize that the failure of our efforts to increase partner capacity is ours, not theirs, so we don't adjust our approach. This challenge is likely to become more a challenge as our technological gap increases beyond the information age, while many of our partners are still using technology we consider long outdated.

This is one reason the Army's regionally orientated BDEs are at risk for not being as successful as they could be. There is perception we have the answer now based on our experience (not success) in Iraq and Afghanistan. Assuming we did learn how to adjust in these locations, that isn't the same answer for Mexico, Bangladesh, Georgia, or Jordan. We can't afford to show up with our doctrine thinking that is the answer. Instead we should show up with a clear understanding of our strategic and operational objectives and then take the time with our partners to learn how we can effectively collaborate to pursue common ends. Top down guidance, bottom up planning and execution based on that guidance, which is simply mission command, which really isn't a new concept.

We all too often approach counterterrorism the same, we think a country doesn't have a CT capability unless they have large and well equipped commando unit capable of conducting high end raids, yet this capacity is seldom needed in the majority of the world, while a good intelligence and police capability is critical to keep the terrorism problem contained. Each situation is different, it requires slowing the train down, seriously considering what we need to accomplish (instead of want to accomplish), and then gaining a mutual understanding with our partners before proposing a course of action.

Success in much of the world will probably look more like the famous photo of our Green Beret on horses in Afghanistan shortly after 9/11, than an Afghanistan Army Tactical Operation Center with flat screen T.V.s. More often than not we create unneeded complexity because we fail to adapt appropriately to the situation.

This is a great article, and one that needs to go into a lot of read-books. I'm currently assigned to the NATO Intelligence Fusion Center, and the US holds the commander's billet. We have a change of command in a few weeks, and I'll be forwarding this to our new CO.