A minor theme of my forthcoming history of U.S. diplomacy with rogue regimes and terrorist groups is that the State Department undercuts the effectiveness of its diplomacy by always looking forward but seldom considering the past. Self-criticism and the study of past mistakes are the best ways to avoid repeating mistakes. The inability of Arab militaries to self-criticize for cultural and political reasons was a major factor in Col. Norvell B. De Atkine’s seminal article “Why Arabs Lose Wars.”

The State Department, however, has seldom if ever conducted a lessons-learned exercise about why some of its previous initiatives have failed. Enter Donald Bishop, a retired Foreign Service officer and public diplomacy specialist, who served as the policy advisor to General James Conway (U.S. Marine Corps) between 2006 and 2008. Writing recently for the Public Diplomacy Council, Bishop recalled his service in an article entitled, “Learning from the Marines: Schoolhouses, Debate, Public Affairs, and Recognition,” and provides a useful comparison between the culture of the Foreign Service and that of the U.S. Marine Corps and finds that diplomats might learn a great deal from Marines.

He observes, “Anyone who thinks the Marines are all brawn and no brain should visit The Basic School with its emphasis on decision making; the Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning, which trains Marines to understand how they will encounter people from different cultures; and the Marine Corps Command and Staff College for its emphasis on planning and integration of all the elements of national power.” While the Foreign Service provides supplementary training and has embraced specialized language institutes, it has no corollary to the Marines when it comes to expanding the academic self. 

He continues, “The Marine Corps cultivates professional debate and even dissent, using the Marine Corps Gazette as a vehicle for the expression of opinion and new ideas. It so values contention over ideas, responsibly stated, that contributors to that journal are honored even when junior opinions make senior eyes roll, or when opinions are strongly contrary.” Much depends on any particular unit’s command environment, but I have heard far more rigorous debate openly among military personnel, with and in the presence of their superiors, than I have in embassies. And woe to any diplomat who uses the established dissent channel, for that would be a career killer.

Bishop makes other apt comparisons as well, and his whole short article is worth reading. That the cultural divide between military and non-military spheres has widened ever since the end of the draft is undeniable. Few diplomats and even fewer in academe have much understanding of who the military is and how they operate. That such a divide remains might be inevitable. That bureaucratic cultures in practice do not learn from each other’s best practices, however, is unfortunate.

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