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Talking Past Each Other? How Views of U.S. Power Vary between U.S. and International Military Personnel

Talking Past Each Other? How Views of U.S. Power Vary between U.S. and International Military Personnel - Cover

Authored by Colonel Richard H. M. Outzen.

January 2013

74 Pages

Brief Synopsis

The 21st century U.S. military seldom operates alone. Except for initial entry and organizational training, it works almost always with and through foreign partners. Yet over the past decade, anecdotal evidence suggests that U.S. military organizations and personnel have trouble understanding, influencing, and cooperating with international partners. This evidence includes high-profile incidents from Iraq and Afghanistan: civilian deaths, Koran burnings, blue-on-blue or green-on-blue lethal attacks. It also includes more numerous, lower profile bits of friction that follow U.S. service members around the globe in the form of protests, lawsuits, criminal cases, and difficult military-to-military relations from Iraq and Afghanistan to Turkey and Pakistan. In some instances, the U.S. military may be entirely without fault, suffering friction driven by problematic local attitudes or political dynamics. On the other hand, it is possible that certain characteristics of thought or behavior within the U.S. military culture increase the likelihood of severe friction. Against this backdrop, the gap between the U.S. military’s self-image and its image in the eyes of an international military audience is examined. When considering U.S. power, do response patterns indicate great difference between how U.S. military officers view themselves, and how they are viewed by their international peers? If so, is there anything that the United States can do about it, or does a fundamental and pathological anti-Americanism predetermine outcomes? Based on a survey administered at the National Defense University, this study offers observations and recommendations about the increasingly central question of how U.S. forces can form better and stronger ties with partners.


This Paper addresses the question of whether anecdotally observed friction between U.S. military personnel and their international partners stems from underlying bias or other factors that cannot be practically remedied. After providing a backdrop of the types of friction that have been observed, and that seem to be escalating, the Paper examines alternative theoretical explanations for such friction. The friction mirrors, in a sense, the broader sharpening of anti-U.S. sentiment observed throughout much of the globe over the past decade. There are two broad explanatory approaches: the friction and sentiment stem from who we are and are thus immutable; or they stem from discrete actions and policies, and thus may be ameliorated to some degree.

The Paper provides a method for measuring variance between U.S. military officers and their international peers, by constructing a survey comprised of questions about U.S. power and military operations overseas. A subset of the questions was constructed in such a way that the questions could not be answered objectively or based on personal experience, and thus could be used as indicators of subjective bias for or against the United States. The variation of responses to all survey questions would indicate the degree of variance between the views of the two populations, while responses to the “subjective” questions would provide the key to understanding whether the source of the variance was subjective/pathological or objective/rational.

Key Findings include:

On questions of U.S. power and influence, the responses of senior international officers differ significantly from those of their U.S. peers nearly half the time.

• Two groups of military officers similar in rank, age, and experience—one U.S. and one international—showed statistically significant variation between aggregate response patterns on 40 percent of the items on a 40-question opinion survey.

On questions of belief, opinion, and bias related to U.S. power and influence, the international group diverged from their U.S. counterparts exactly half the time, and the clustering of responses suggests that U.S. value and belief positions account for 80 percent of the variance.

• A subset of the survey questions was designed to indicate underlying bias for or against the United States in response patterns. Significant variation between U.S. and international responses within this subset was expected to indicate that strongly held opinions or beliefs, rather than differences of interpretation or evaluation, were driving variation. Statistically significant variation occurred in response to half the questions (5 of 10).

• International officer responses showed a fairly wide distribution, whereas U.S. officer responses clustered over a much narrower range, suggesting that where bias drove the variation, it was U.S. rather than international officer bias.

Response patterns to certain questions were unambiguous enough to suggest clear areas for policy focus or strategic communication. Examples include:

• Majorities in both groups thought the U.S. people and government do not understand the world well enough to exercise global leadership effectively. Agreement on that point was near-total—it had the lowest score for significant deviation in the entire survey.

• Nonetheless, both groups still believe it is in the world’s best interest for the United States to remain globally engaged, and to maintain a robust official and business presence abroad.

• The two groups strongly agree that the U.S. Government acts overseas based on hard interests rather than ideology, and that the United States is unique in how it uses its power.

• More than twice as many U.S. as international officers believe in the necessity and benefits of the missile shield program currently being deployed in Europe.

• U.S. officers are nearly unanimous in the belief that drone strikes against terror targets are necessary and justified; international respondents are deeply divided on this issue.

• U.S. officers are far more convinced than their international peers that the United States is genuinely committed to democracy, human rights, the law of war, and counterdrug policies abroad.

Survey and interview data suggest that international officer views of the United States are frequently critical, but seldom cluster in responses that are categorically anti-U.S.

• This evidence helps to refute the notion that criticism of the United States is driven by reflexive, predictable bias—sometimes referred to as “pathological” anti-Americanism. It supports interpretation of anti-U.S. sentiment or criticism as a varied, rational, and contingent.

International military personnel at U.S. commands and schools constitute a valuable resource for sampling opinion on a systematic basis.

• High-level contacts between attachés and general officers should be complemented through regular surveys and focus groups that help us understand differing views among our critical partners. Such tools, as well as the information they yield, can best be leveraged in the various Professional Military Education programs.

The research broadly supports the views of political scientist Joseph Nye, who has argued that America’s subjective attractiveness to the people of other nations, or soft power, ebbs and flows based on practical steps responsive to policy. The response data show that there is significant variation in attitudes and beliefs separating U.S. personnel from international partners, but that the variation stems from considered positions rather than reflexive bias or lack of appreciation. Where bias is a barrier, it is more frequently our bias than theirs. The salient implication is that U.S. strategists and decisionmakers must adopt approaches to systematically measure, understand, and cooperatively resolve differences of attitude and belief that can impact our missions and interests overseas.

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