Small Wars Journal

The Importance of Cross-Cultural Capabilities to Win Armed Conflicts

Mon, 03/13/2017 - 10:21pm

The Importance of Cross-Cultural Capabilities to Win Armed Conflicts

Magdalena Defort

“He [prince] should therefore never take his mind off military matters, and he should educate himself in them more in peace than in the time of war; As for the exercise, he should, apart from keeping his men well disciplined and trained, always be out hunting, and by that means accustom his bod to discomfort; and at the same time he must learn to understand geographical configurations, and see how mountains slope, how valleys open out and how plains lie…”

-- Niccolò Machiavelli[1]


This essay seeks solutions for how the Army can strengthen its landpower in terms of the comprehensible understanding and awareness of the human dimension (social, cultural and political systems) of the environment; therefore, it addresses the issues that pave the way for succeeding in every mission on foreign soil. An in-depth understanding of the diversity of cultures and their features strengthen the Army’s landpower influence.  This can make it capable of supporting the regional aligned and local forces to address contemporary asymmetric threats. These include insurgency, violent extremists, civil war, organized crime, and instability from a variety of sources including spread of infectious diseases and resource competition.


Clausewitz’s coup d’oeil (inward eye) is proven in the theatre of war, the—“quick recognition of a truth that the mind would ordinarily miss or would perceive only after long study and reflection.”[2] This effective method can be compared to a chameleon nature that slightly adapts its characteristics to fit into a different environment, although its nature remains the same. Neglecting this simple form of adaptation to the operational environment was and still is one of the causes of tactical misfortune and operational failure. As the classic military strategist, Niccolò Machiavelli, highlighted, “the army is exposed to more and greater danger while marching through an enemy’s country than on the battlefield. Thus, an exact map of the whole country…with a perfect knowledge of all the towns, their distance from each other, and all roads, mountains, rivers, woods, swamps, and their location and nature”[3] (terrain awareness) is relevant before undertaking every operation on an unknown land. 

In the twenty-first century, the failed states and regional conflicts (ethnic, tribal, and religious warfare) are home to frequent armed confrontations where the Army, as a supportive arm to the local and aligned forces (i.e. foreign internal defense/stability and support operations), is deployed to remote lands. However, a majority of expeditionary operations are compromised by the ignorance of understanding of geo-political features of the region/country and its human diversity (in terms of culture, language, religion and political system). Geo-social awareness (about a peculiarity of environment and its people) makes preparation for the operation complete. If the Army assists the local or aligned forces in a regional mission, the knowledge about their strategy, planning and modus operandi is relevant in continuing a joint mission. If these issues fail, the traditional strategic orientation results are unsuccessful. The ghost of Vietnam (and similar colonial conflicts) could return and warn of the disastrous results of that war caused by the ill-fated ambitions of policy-makers disinterested in familiarizing the Army not only about a nature of war, but also environment where the forces would be deployed. Landpower depends not only on the generalship, but also on statecraft that plays a decisive role in formation of a new generation of armed forces deployed to challenge every operation around the world.

Two arts—war and politics—possess a common style: leadership. As Machiavelli said, the “successful statesman has to be a capable general”.[4] Both arts work on modeling the human raw material in order to transform it into a new form. As the statesman does with its citizens, so does the general (and subordinate leaders) with its soldiers. To achieve success in statecraft and warfare, both need what Machiavelli refers to as qualities of virtù and organization. A good organization within the army and government is sine qua non to effective leadership. Because these two arts juxtapose one another, they need both a good organization and leadership.

A recognition of the importance of understanding the environment and the human dimension of the operation’s milieu is necessary to address both military and civil considerations before undertaking a mission. To put these in practice, investment in knowledge and training of the “nerve of army” is required to forge the success of its landpower. As Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carter’s security adviser, said, “Nothing could be worse for America than if American policy were universally observed as arrogantly imperial in a post-imperial age, mired in a colonial relapse in a postcolonial time, selfishly indifferent in face of unprecedented global inter-dependence, and culturally self-righteous in religiously diverse world. The crisis of American superpower would then become terminal.”[5]

The importance cross-cultural capability by the Army was confirmed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s statement that what his country needs is a diplomacy and not more boots on the ground. Indeed, a long-term political strategy is more needed than constant military operations and bombing.[6] A recognition of importance of the human dimension by both Army and policy-makers to continue the armed conflict is paramount. As the Prussian military strategist, Carl von Clausewitz’s said “…as Wars are in reality, they are, …only the expression or manifestation of policy itself. The subordination of political point of view to the military would be contrary to common sense…The subordination of the military point of view to the political is, therefore, the only thing which is possible.”[7] Indeed, to support its regional aligned and local forces, the US Army has to possess cross-cultural capabilities in order to be able to confront every asymmetric threat and continue the Clausewitz’s politics by other means (warfare).  

Indeed, the US Army, as the most committed armed forces involved in an array of the operations around the globe, is challenged by its international partnerships and coalitions. To carry out the war on foreign soil, a possession of accurate cross-cultural preparation and understanding about this foreign soil is required. The novel procedures and shift within the military’s culture of education and its practice will be provided to revamp the Army’s real landpower in joint regional operations. The policymakers decide about the education and training programs and, additionally, how much of the annual budget to devote to these issues.


Military and civil alliances are paramount for maintaining peace and stability in the globalized world. Understanding the residents (language, religion, culture, political system) and environment where a mission takes place is relevant to gain their trust, which facilitates intelligence gathering and collaboration. The real Army’s landpower is more about the knowledge about a region and its people than military and technological capabilities. Indeed, a respect for these elements is required for a modern and committed Army.

Success in supporting the aligned and local forces on the foreign soil requires an examination of military culture. Then, that culture should be shaped to focus attention on intensive training in a proficiency of languages and familiarity with the array of pertinent cultural components. To get the inherent vision about a region, a separate formation of small, tailored special forces, as cross-culturally competent units with diverse regional, cultural, and linguistic understanding, should form an integrated component of counterinsurgency operations. To acquire the adequate cross-cultural capabilities, an array of the specialized courses, e.g. language proficiency, cultural, social and political issues on a region, supported by native lectures, should be an important aim for forming a new generation of the qualified Army to challenge the operations. However, an in-depth knowledge and respect for the diversity of each country or region among the Army is only possible if the policymakers and military staff possess the awareness of how important it is to instill these values in a new generation of armed forces. For that, a part of the military budget should cover these education programs.

The next issue is a training in conjunction with local forces. A model for these kinds of training centers are the Department of Defense regional centers (operated by the Defense Security Cooperation Agency in coordination with the Combatant Commanders) where armed forces prepare for cooperative operations in a given region. At a strategic level, these include the Marshall Center in Europe, the Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies for the Americas, the Inouye Asia-Pacific Center for Asia and the Pacific Rim, the Near East-South Asia Center for Strategic Studies for the Near East and South Asia, and the Africa Center for Strategic Studies for Africa. These centers train foreign military leaders for defense and counterterrorism.  The optimal option would be that the Army build from these network connections and establish on-going mission/theatre specific training initiatives to sustain expeditionary operations.  This goes beyond familiarizing itself with residents and their environment and must encompass gaining trust and operating effectively with partner nations and their populations. Because what “was what mattered most; there are far more elements of U.S. power and influence we can bring to the table than boots on the ground.”[8] Indeed, the diplomacy is more powerful that the weapon to succeed in every confrontation.


To maintain the cross-cultural capability, Army personnel should be constantly enrolled in education and training programs prior to and during expeditionary operations. Continuity in learning, e.g. foreign languages maintains and strengthens the Army’s capacity in communication and gathering intelligence. Indeed, the education cost is lower than the intensive and quick courses that never work.

End Notes

[1] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, (London: One World Classic, 2009), 43-44.

[2] Carl von Clausevitz, On War, (New Jersey: University Princeton, 1984), 75.

[3] Machiavelli, op. cit., 143.

[4] Ibidem, LXXX.

[5] Zbigniew Brzezinski, Second Chance. Three Presidents and the Crisis of Superpower, (New York: Basic Books Press, 2007), 215-216.

[6] Seth Moulton, “Get ready for another Iraq War.” The Washington Post. 23 June 2016,

On web:

[7] Carl von Clausevitz, On War, (London: Kagan Paul, Trench, Trübner and CO, 1908), 124-125.

[8] Seth Moulton, op.cit.


About the Author(s)

Dr. Magdalena Defort served as an Intern Analyst at the Foundation of Defense of Democracies and as a Research Fellow at the Center for a Free and Secure Society. She recently received a master’s degree in National Security from the David Morgan Graduate School of National Security. She previously served  as a Scholar/Researcher in Latin American security issues at the University of Miami, Coral Gables where she directed an interdisiplinary research group on Latin American issues.. She holds a Ph.D. from the Universidad National Autónoma de Mexico (UNAM) and master’s degree from Universytet Wroclawski (Poland). She participated in post–doctoral studies at the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales (UNAM). Magdalena is the author of five books and various articles published in scholarly journals. Defort’s research interests include terrorism, drug trafficking, insurgencies, civil-military relations in Latin America and military collaborations in countering the new threats in the Americas. 


I agree with the comment this article lacks focus as to where in the world it is applicable.
Since Vietnam, it has been suggested that Vietnam was not understood culturally and no attempt had been made to approach cross cultural issues. A bunch of twaddle. The anti-war "Party" simply painted the Vietnamese with a broad Annamese brush and gave all the cultural gravity to Hanoi. South Vietnam was much more complicated and diverse than North Vietnam. One Vietnam, One people makes a good slogan for "revolutionaries" but it is hardly the reality and the US Army knew it as did the USMC.
The American public I believe is much more aware of the social divisions in Iraq than they were of Vietnam's diversity, In Iraq diversity breaks down into conflicts between tribal groups and attracts religious zealots to fight. Religious zealots who I believe are not waging a Jihad but more accurately, a religious Inquisition.
And the principle problem remains, why are we in a foreign country with a military presence to begin with? Does Cross Cultural "understanding" ever impede or nullify mission ends.
My personal interest is peaked because when I was deploying for Iraq I was told the Shiites would not be a problem. We had trained with survivors of a Brigade that fought Hussein post Gulf-War, we learned quite a bit from them tactically and culturally. I was skeptical, I also turned out to be correct in regarding a growing threat from the Shiites which midway in our deployment became full blown.
My observation is we can be as sensitive and aware of cultural differences as can be expected that still doesn't mean the enemy will not be able to inflame a segment of the local population to act against "The Americans".
Why was General Petreaus so successful with the Surge?
Was it an application of cultural sensitivity or simply the fact that Al-Qaeda forces and internecine warfare became so abhorrent to the populace they realized American power offered a better alternative?
My bone of contention is that the multi cultural aspect of walking a mile in their shoes has resulted in a subtle form of going native.
Just a few crude examples, soldiers polled last month as to what sorts of changes in uniforms they want voted for beards, (No mention has been made if we will be forced to buy Orthodox Jewish gas masks that will seal after all when is the last time we seriously considered an NBC or CBN attack likely?). Before 9-11 I could obtain a free copy of a Bible in some public areas on base. Prayer huddles were less contested, and the Marines could have Hoo-Ahhs. Wearing a cross was not an issue. The inroads of "Religious Freedom" groups has piggy backed on the practical of being sensitive to Islam in regions of the world Islam as it is practiced may be intolerant. And in President Obama's terms, learned lecturers and scholars were canned for addressing issues like "Radical Islam".
That was how I knew the Shiite's could become a problem that a segment of their population could be "radicalized", and the fact you were not really allowed to say so was a risk. So is it a risk derived from cultural sensitivity or submission?

From the "Introduction" above:

"This essay seeks solutions for how the Army can strengthen its landpower in terms of the comprehensible understanding and awareness of the human dimension (social, cultural and political systems) of the environment; therefore, it addresses the issues that pave the way for succeeding in every mission on foreign soil. An in-depth understanding of the diversity of cultures and their features strengthen the Army’s landpower influence. This can make it capable of supporting the regional aligned and local forces to address contemporary asymmetric threats. These include insurgency, violent extremists, civil war, organized crime, and instability from a variety of sources including spread of infectious diseases and resource competition."

Question No. One: What is it, exactly, that we want the regionally-aligned and local forces to do? What is it, thus, that our "support" to these such forces is designed to achieve/to help these forces achieve?

Answer No. One: What do we want the regionally-aligned and local forces to do is to (a) "hold down" their populations while (b) their states and societies are organized, ordered and oriented more along our, alien and profane, modern western political, economic, social and value lines. Thus, enhancing this exact such "hold down" capability is exactly what our support to these such forces is designed to achieve.

(The theory being that -- states and societies, thus organized, ordered and oriented more along modern western lines -- that these such states and societies are less prone to "asymmetric threats;" such as [from our "Introduction" paragraph above], "insurgency, violent extremists, civil war, organized crime and instability from a variety of sources including spreading of infectious diseases and resource competition." For brevity, henceforth let us call this the "Westernization = Cure for Weak, Failed and/or Failing State Problems Thesis.")

Question No. Two: Given our mission -- to support the regionally-aligned and local forces as they "hold down" their populations while "transformation" more along our, alien and profane, modern western political, economic, social and value lines is accomplished -- given our such mission, why is it that our forces need a "comprehensive understanding and awareness of the human dimension (social, cultural and political systems)" of these such conflict environments?

Answer No. Two: Because, obviously, given our such, alien and profane, "transformative" mission, the "human dimension" of the local populations (to wit: their familiar, favored and time-honored social, cultural and political systems and related institutions and beliefs); these such "human dimension" problems/matters will be (a) exactly what stands in our -- and by extension "our" regionally-aligned and local forces -- way and, thus, will be (b) exactly what we -- and "our" regionally-aligned and local forces -- together must overcome.

Bottom Line:

Thus, to understand the "Importance of Cross-Cultural Capabilities to Win Armed Conflicts" exactly as per:

a. This such "Westernization = Cure for Weak, Failed and/or Failing State Problems Thesis" and

b. Our related, and corresponding, "State and Societal Transformation Missions?"

(Both of which are outlined above.)


Wed, 03/15/2017 - 5:40pm

In reply to by J Harlan

Yes, I mean this seems like a rushed first-year undergrad piece...

J Harlan

Wed, 03/15/2017 - 11:09am

In reply to by Azor

I agree. A perusal of the end notes should give one pause. The "Clauswitzian" quote or footnote is the surest clue that an article's argument is weak.

I’m afraid I find this essay incredibly weak, and I wonder if Dr. Defort’s area of expertise is situated more in US-Latin America relations and US counter-drug and counter-insurgency initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean…

In the “background” section of the piece, Dr. Defort simply converts Machiavelli and Clausewitz’s placing of importance on terrain awareness into “human terrain” awareness: physical geography into human sociology. This conversion is unconvincing, as is the segue into 21st Century counter-insurgency/foreign internal defense as practiced by the United States and its allies.

As an analogy, this would be akin to an investment research report that starts top-down, quoting Jakob Fugger on asset allocation (i.e. 25% gold), interpreting “gold” to mean public shares of gold mining companies, and then flips to bottom-up and recommends a junior gold exploration stock.

She also quotes Brzezinski’s rather uncharacteristic quote from his book “Second Chance” (2007), which seems to imply that the United States should take pains to avoid being considered imperialist, arrogant, indifferent and selfish by the rest of the world (whoever that is). However, in a 2007 interview with C-SPAN about the book, Brzezinski lauds the Clinton/Albright foreign policy in the former Yugoslavia and with respect to NATO’s enlargement. Yet US-led NATO intervention in Yugoslavia as well as NATO’s enlargement, produced more distrust in the eyes of China and especially Russia, than the wars in Afghanistan or Iraq ever did. Therefore, this parsing of Brzezinski does not represent his overall views.

Dr. Defort also quotes former Iraqi President al-Maliki on diplomatic capability being more important than warfighting capability. However, al-Maliki wasted no time in purging the Iraqi civil service and officer corps of competent Sunni Arabs and replacing them with incompetent Shia Arabs personally loyal to him. His purges follow Mao’s maxim about political power coming from the barrel of a gun, and he strove to make sure that his Shia loyalists had the guns and the Sunnis didn’t. Is al-Maliki’s quote truly a supporting argument for Dr. Defort’s thesis? I am sure I can find a pre-1939 quote by Stalin on the importance of adhering to treaties signed in good faith…

In the “recommendations” section, Dr. Defort makes an astounding claim that ground forces’ “knowledge about a region and its people” is more important than its “military and technological capabilities”. I’m afraid nothing could be further from the truth. A state’s armed forces exist to defeat adversary forces. They are not supposed to wear several hats, such as policeman, diplomat, counselor or aid worker.

I can guarantee Dr. Defort that knowledge of the Russian language or culture (or the nuances of Soviet all-union vs. republic politics) would not have assisted the men and women who served along the Fulda Gap or in the Ohio-class submarines or in the Minuteman silos, if the Warsaw Pact had taken the decision to take West Berlin or launch a pre-emptive strike.

The United States forces had outstanding “cross-cultural” capabilities in the Civil War and in the European theater of World War II, yet it won both wars by bludgeoning and battering the enemy into surrender.

J Harlan

Wed, 03/15/2017 - 11:03am

It's obvious that the US gov would have been better off with far more Arabic speakers than people with graduate arts degrees in the occupation of Iraq. The problem of course is that learning Arabic to a functional level is far more difficult than getting a MA in War Studies etc and there is probably no chance that large numbers of NCOs could learn an Asian language well enough to teach anything. But would needing fewer interpreters have mattered? Would the fact that more US trainers could have taught basic AK in Arabic have made a difference? I don't think so and the ability of more Iraqis to actually speak to "the troops" might have made things worse.

More language ability and better regional understanding are answers to a mistaken policy. The real question is why would it be in the interests of the US to occupy another state?