To Know the World

Charlemange said that "to know another language is to have a second soul." In this rapidly globalizing 21st century world, that simple statement summarizes the gift of regional expertise, cultural understanding, and the ability to communicate directly in the language of an ally, partner or colleague.

EUCOM image Afghan Soldiers stand in formation and receive certificates after completing literacy training. The U.S. Department of Defence is a massive organization with the widest imaginable set of skills represented among its 3.2 million military and civilian shipmates. Yet less than 10% of us speak a second language -- an obvious capability gap in an organization that operates globally to accomplish its mission.

And it is more than simple linguistics that matter in this regard. In order to operate in a world that relies more and more on coalition action to succeed, we must develop the attendant skills of regional expertise and cultural understanding.

In my current job as Supreme Allied Commander for global operations at NATO, I face this daily. Let me give you a few concrete examples of situations where this helps deeply, both in holding the coalition together and in understanding the operating environment:

  • Afghanistan has 50 troop-contributing nations operating together -- in a nation with incredibly complex language, cultural and historical challenges. We are embarked on the largest single security mission in the world today.
  • In the Balkans, the NATO mission in Kosovo includes not only the 28 NATO countries, but additional partners from Finland, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and Morocco to name a few. And they operate in a largely Muslim country with historical connections to Albania -- and an extraordinary history dating back centuries.
  • At sea in counter-piracy off the Horn of Africa, NATO ships from a dozen different allied nations operate alongside Chinese, Russian, Indian, and even Iranian military vessels, all involved in the same globally recognized and sanctioned mission.

EUCOM image Commodore Bekkering with Rear Admiral Yang Jun-fei aboard the HNLMS Evertsen In terms of our planning process in NATO, we often use the strong language and cultural knowledge of allies in preparing for complex operations. Libya is a good example, where our Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperative Initiative brought in partners from across the Arab world.

So back to the United States military: this is an area in which we have much work to do. As opposed to many of our European partners, who effortlessly speak four or five languages and have a deep knowledge of each other's background and culture, we in the U.S. are failing to fully train and prepare for this kind of international work.

In particular, the U.S. Department of Defence should consider whether we should:

  • Strengthen our various language programs, perhaps requiring all officers to know a second language at a minimum; provide incentives and training to support this; and study at what level in the enlisted career pattern this should occur as well.
  • Build stronger Foreign Affairs Officers by providing a path to Flag/General Officer rank in each of the services for FAOs, recruiting our best and brightest into these specialties, and ensuring appropriate graduate education.
  • Have not only "Afghan-Pakistan" Hands, but likewise "Asia Pacific" Hands, as well as comparably rigorous programs for Latin America-Caribbean, Africa, and other regions. These individuals would be the equivalent of "special forces" in the world of global engagement, with truly deep, repetitive tours in the region, utter fluency in the language, and graduate level knowledge of history, literature, geography, economics and the like: think Lawrence of Arabia level of engagement.

In the Geographic Combatant Commands today, we see a mixed bag of officers and enlisted arriving. Some are very deep and skilled in the language, culture, and history of the region; others have a "dusting" of linguistic skills and perhaps a single previous tour; too many are inexperienced, although willing to learn and improve. We can do better.

EUCOM image SACEUR, Admiral James Stavridis speaks to Afghan police students during his visit to NPTC in Wardak, Afghanistan. Throughout my seven years as a Combatant Commander, both at Southern and European Command, and with NATO operating in Afghanistan, I've learned that the shipmates who truly have the language, culture, and regional skills are often "silver bullets" that can transform a difficult challenge into a success.

For me personally, working with Russian colleagues has been far easier because I've worked hard to read deeply in Russian literature and history, and consciously learned the culture. Working in Latin America was made vastly easier by developing a reasonable ability to hold my meetings in Spanish. I was lucky to learn French as a child while living in Europe, and that facility in the second official language of NATO has been very helpful.

All of this requires investment -- not huge amounts, but smart money spent on smart programs -- and more importantly, a belief that part of providing security in this turbulent 21st century will mean we must "know the world" so much better than we do today.

Let's get to it.


Admiral, USN
Supreme Allied Commander, Europe
Commander, US European Command
"Stronger Together" 

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Comments: 6

by Douglas on February 6, 2013 :

I think you are spot on sir. I am struggling to learn German, but am committed to doing it. At age 38, it has been difficult to learn a second language, but I see from my limited Deutsch that it does enhance relationships.

by 2LT Mardari on February 7, 2013 :

Very good point Sir, I hope more people would think and be flexible like you are. I have recently commissioned and looking for some interesting opportunities as a Foreign Affairs Officer, but unfortunately those schools and positions are available for higher rank officers only. I fluently speak Russian and Romanian (both DLPT tested)and have strong knowledge of those cultures as well. Hopefully, during my military career I will come across a leader like you and contribute as much as I can to make our forces stronger and more effective.

by Kurt E Müller on February 8, 2013 :

For LT Mardari, keep following that interest, as it may take a while to find access to an assignment using the skill or recognition by superiors of its value. I had 5 yrs in the military before I found such an opportunity. For Douglas, it does get more difficult to learn a new language as we age, but I started Dari at age 63, after German, French, Creole, and Italian (and informally Spanish and Turkish). The biggest help is starting multiple languages early, because then encountering a new one is less strange. COL, Civil Affairs (ret.)

by Chaplain Andrew Shriver on February 9, 2013 :

Sir, I am grateful for your commitment to encouraging the study of language in order to understand our fellow allies and their cultures. I have been on many engagements throughout Europe and even learning basic greetings and something of cultural protocols can make for a great engagement and fostering stronger ties with partner Chaplains.

by Col Dan Dagher on February 13, 2013 :

On target, sir. One more efficiency we could capture, and make it a smarter program, is to keep IASs (Air Force) or FAOs (Army/Navy) in the same region/target language, if they desire. There are too many examples of personnel who have spent years learning one language/partner-nation/region or built extensive networks in one partner-nation, only to be assigned to a different COCOM for a follow-on assignment. Keeping personnel who desire to remain in the same language, region or partner-nation, may prevent an atrophy of language skills and cultural knowledge.

by Jeff Wieringa on March 4, 2013 :

Admiral- I think all of your points are valid. In particular, DoD needs to embrace your FAO strategy now.

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