Let's assume that policymakers have chosen to construct a genuinely multilateral coalition to address a common challenge. So far, so good. Yet political will is necessary – but not sufficient – to build a truly effective multinational force. Cultural differences among coalition partners are often significant enough to challenge a multilateral force’s ability to achieve its military objectives. Questions of cultural frictions in coalitions are not new, although they appear to have received insufficient academic scrutiny thus far.
Back to the Napoleonic Wars and the sixth coalition. Riley obliquely observes the importance of culture in the formation and maintenance of coalitions. In 1813, the overwhelming majority of his forces were not French. This was due to the losses incurred in Russia; the only manner in which Napoleon could reconstitute his forces was through conscription of annexed territories including Italy and Spain. Napoleon did his best to mitigate this dynamic through constructing multinational units led by French officers. Indeed, the only unit that was non-French led was that of the Polish Brigade, whose anti-Imperial instincts were on par with those of their French counterparts.
On the whole, non-French soldiers from annexed territories do not appear to have shared the same esprit de corps and love for Napoleon’s leadership of most French conscripts, which did not help Napoleon’s cause as his opponents grew in strength. This may be in large part due to the functions that Napoleon assigned his non-French forces. Comparing British-led versus French-led coalitions, Riley (2000) notes, ‘Wellington always used his best British troops to cover a withdrawal, but in central Europe, as the campaign of 1813 drew to a close, we find the French client contingents being used, cynically, as rearguards’ (p. 29).
On the Allied side, the formation of multinational units led to significant language barriers that complicated operational effectiveness. ‘Such [multinational] formations may be highly desirable in terms of solidarity but they an bring some significant practical problems to the field commander. Among these is likely to be language; most of the allies’ business in Central Europe seems to have been conducted in the language of the enemy … [f]rench’ (Riley, 2000, p. 443).
Were these complications unique to the Napoleonic Wars? Gal Luft in his book ‘Beer, Bacon and Bullets: Culture in Coalition Warfare from Gallipoli to Iraq’ asks the question whether cultural differences among coalition partners can have a negative impact on military effectiveness when not carefully managed. Through an examination of several twentieth-century coalitions, he convincingly argues that the answer is yes. Culture shapes perceptions, which in turn affect decisions by coalition partners – for better or worse. Maintaining coalition cohesion therefore requires a fair degree of cultural sensitivity toward one’s own allies at all levels.
It is in many ways a brave study, as scholars and practitioners alike often bristle against the notion that culture can help determine behavior. Yet just because the subject can be somewhat uncomfortable does not mean that the phenomenon – tension among allies – does not exist. The reason Luft’s work is so accessible is that he treats culture (and its manifestations) as just one of the many variables that needs to be managed by military coalition leaders. Differences are a fact of life; failure to appreciate and carefully manage those differences can lead to battlefield failure. And Luft credibly backs up his assertions; through case studies of five coalitions during the twentieth century, he shows the operational impact of successful – and unsuccessful – management of cultural dynamics.
What are the forms that these cultural differences can take? First, and perhaps most obvious, is language. Much as Riley points out with respect to the sixth coalition, the lack of shared language makes the transmission of battle orders across a multinational force a significant challenge. For example, despite the fact that Germany had invested considerable time and effort in bolstering its relationship with the Ottomans (including establishing German language schools in Turkey), the majority of those few Turkish officers who were bilingual spoke French. Another: the Austro-Hungarian army. The respective regiments within that military communicated in at least ten different languages, making it very difficult for officers to communicate orders to their subordinates. In some instances, troops could barely talk to each other (Luft, 2009).
Referencing literature associated with business and multicultural workforce management, Luft also delves into the differences between monochronic versus polychronic cultures. The former is associated with being highly organized and attentive to detail; it ‘stresses scheduling, concentration on one thing at a time, and an elaborate code of behavior built around promptness in meeting obligations and appointments. Schedules in this culture are sacred and time commitments are taken very seriously’ Luft, 2009, p. 17). Polychronic cultures, by contrast, are less focused on time management and more focused on building relationships and human interaction. This obviously becomes extremely significant in a military context, as precision of timing is often a prerequisite for battlefield success. Once again, Luft’s exploration of the German-Ottoman coalition is instructive; both sides became extremely frustrated with the other due to failure to appreciate these fundamentally different approaches to time management.
Another interesting aspect of culture and its impact on the battlefield: religiousity and a nation’s appetite for risk. ‘Militaries from societies that value martyrdom and self-sacrifice usually enjoy greater freedom of operation than those from societies where individual life is sacred’ (Luft, 2009, p. 23). It is, of course, disputable whether religiosity is the cause – or the expression – of this kind of risk tolerance. But differences in risk tolerance can have important operational- and tactical-level impacts on issues such as: prisoner treatment, rules of engagement, attitudes toward civilian casualties, torture and abuse and so on. Luft explores this dynamic in more detail as he examines the coalition between the US and the Chinese Army under Chiang Kai-shek. After detailing some horrific anecdotes pointing toward a callous approach to human life at the time, Luft (2009) goes on to argue that Chinese ‘[o]fficers had no problem sacrificing their troops as long as they knew hat they would be replaced. Nor were Chinese commanders concerned at all with the welfare of their soldiers’ (p. 135). Another source of difference that is somewhat related to religiosity: attitudes toward the future. Individuals hailing from cultures that tend to believe in one’s own power to shape the future are more likely to engage in careful, detailed planning. By contrast, those cultures (or perhaps, more precisely, military leaders) that believe that fate is predetermined – and therefore so are battle outcomes – will have less incentive to spend considerable effort planning an operation.
But differences do not necessarily equate to frictions. Indeed, there are a number of examples of reasonably effective coalition partnerships – notably the Japanese and British before World War II. Seeking to illuminate the sources – and symptoms – of cultural friction, Luft offers three hypotheses that can help explain the emergence of culture-oriented tensions between coalition partners. First, ‘the level of exposure of military organizations to other cultures in the pre-coalition stage determines their ability to minimize cross-cultural tension with other coalition partners’ (Luft, 2009, p. xvii). Second, ‘the disparity of power between the partners can cause the senior partner to show less cultural sensitivity toward the junior partner’ (Luft, 2009, p. xviii), And finally (and, as Luft admits, the most problematic), ‘ the general attitudes of the home society toward the culture of the coalition partner could percolate into the collective consciousness of military personnel and hence affect their ability to tolerate the cultural differences of their allies’ (Luft, 2009, p. xviii). Simply put, it seems that frictions emerge when one or another coalition partner fails to appreciate and respect the other’s cultural norms and taboos.
So how has NATO ISAF fared on this count? ISAF has invested significant time and energy into understanding its Afghan counterparts through initiative such as the Human Terrain Teams. Rightly so. And on balance (and despite the snarky comments that are a fact of life in any coalition operation) leaders have done reasonably well when it comes to understanding the cultural differences among coalition partners. This is not without reason. Luckily, the NATO allies have spent the past 60 years working on improving the interoperability of their forces through joint training, exercising and the establishment of multinational commands. However, it must be noted that in the wake of budget cuts associated with the ‘peace dividend’ at the end of the Cold War, the priority that was once placed on joint and multinational exercises has diminished. Some infrastructure remains, but it can certainly be expanded upon and improved. And indeed, there are promising signs that the NATO allies have every intention of doing so. A recent proposal to rotate US Army Brigade Combat Teams through Europe in order to conduct joint operational-level training is one such initiative, although one wonders if it will survive budget cuts.
Throughout Luft’s discussion of culture and its impact on coalition operations, one is reminded of relatively recent initiatives within the US Department of Defense to ‘Build Partnership Capacity’, or ‘BPC’. Faced with global interests and diminishing resources, the concept as currently configured is to train foreign forces in peacetime for three purposes: (i) build military-to-military relationships in order to build trust among individuals from each nation’s armed forces; (ii) help ensure that host nation forces are best prepared to manage security threats within their borders; and (iii) improve interoperability to facilitate the easier operation of military coalitions. Luft’s book certainly highlights the need to become more culturally savvy – and BPC is one mechanism through which US armed forces can become more so. However, Luft’s exploration of the German-Ottoman coalition gives one some pause when compared with contemporary BPC efforts. Essentially, German forces engaged in a program that had many similarities to our own BPC initiatives; they had officer exchanges, invested in infrastructure, and trained Ottoman forces to understand and implement German military planning practices. Yet on the whole, these efforts were not particularly successful. Despite the fact that Ataturk spent time on an exchange in Berlin, he did not feel any particular sympathy or affinity with his German colleagues. Indeed, the Ottomans grew resentful of their patron, and in many instances could not effectively collaborate on the battlefield. Indeed, as Luft (2009) notes, ‘in fact, there is no correlation between the length of peacetime cooperation and the quality of the cooperation [among coalition partners]’ (p. 240).
It is therefore the quality of cross-cultural interaction that matters, not the quantity. And if that is the case, how should a nation with global interests like the United States prepare its military for working with coalition partners? Among other recommendations, Luft suggests a combination of joint exercises, training and – crucially – selecting general and flag officers with the patience and savvy (and one assumes a high degree of intestinal fortitude) for coalition leadership positions. Indeed, those leaders who have been able to comprehend and patiently work through cultural differences among partners are usually able to successfully prosecute coalition operations. And interestingly, this is a lesson that rings true across history. As Riley (2000) points out, ‘[a]t the end of the day, the personal qualities of the allied field commander may well be the major factor in determining the success or failure of a coalition force at the operational level’ (p. 443).