June 19, 2024

U.S. organizations that engage in relationship-building efforts with other nations … provide major advantages in advancing U.S. interests across the globe.

While dining with an Eastern European officer in his capital some years ago, I listened to him tell of an Iraq deployment he was on for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). It happened to fall over Thanksgiving. One day, in the joint dining facility, a U.S. colleague walked by, carrying a frozen turkey. The European officer made some now-forgotten joke. The American, furious at being deployed for the feast, hurled the turkey into his comrade’s ribcage, leaving a permanent, concave deformity in it. The toll: three crushed ribs and permanent damage to an ally’s perception of Americans.

In throwing that turkey – ironically an American symbol of gratitude and goodwill between peoples of different cultures – that particular soldier violated the first rule of relationships by putting his own needs over others.’ If he had taken just a moment to think and calm down, he might have learned how humor had helped his Eastern European colleague to overcome Soviet-era suffering. Jokes, banter, good-natured ribbing are all designed to say “we’re all in this together; let’s make the best of it.” The joke was an opportunity to make more of a bad situation. But no, in that one American’s mind, the inconvenience of a deployment apparently justified lashing out against a comrade in arms.

“It’s all about relationships,” said one of my former bosses at NATO headquarters, at our first meeting. He was referring to the daily U.S. engagements within the Alliance. He was a three-star general equivalent Foreign Service officer and a future U.S. ambassador. He told me his first NATO mentor, another future ambassador, passed that same maxim to him years earlier. It’s a classic hit among the leadership and ranks of the U.S. State Department. Yet, the value of funding opportunities and agencies designed primarily for relationship-building (and their maintenance) seems not yet to have gone viral across the whole of government.

One soldier’s relationship to another can set a symbolic context for future interactions between bigger polities when the stakes are far greater. Think of a victorious Ulysses S. Grant, tipping his hat to a bemused Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House, just after the Confederate forces’ surrender. Union soldiers waited outside McLean House and got to their feet as General Lee emerged. They doffed their hats too as he passed, in a moving gesture of respect and budding reconciliation. Contrast those simple, genteel overtures with Otto von Bismarck’s 1871 proclamation following the Franco-Prussian War. His declaration of the German Empire at Versailles was a further snub to the already-defeated French – an insult which flung its shadow over two world wars.

Enter General and later Secretary of State and Defense, George C. Marshall. After Europe’s devastation in the Second World War, rather than punish West Germany, his Marshall Plan helped to integrate that former adversary into the community of liberal nations. Eventually, the whole of Western Europe rose from the rubble, protected by NATO, one of the greatest military alliances in human history. Its success and values attracted many former adversaries to join it. It relies, however, on the power of relationships. Every day at NATO, representatives of not just allied states, but also of dozens of partners and affiliates, gather in its headquarters to relate: person to person, delegation to delegation, nation to nation.

The Department of Defense’s (DoD) desire for strategic success in an increasingly complex environment belies its resourcing of agencies and activities centered on relationship-building. These strategic arts are largely misunderstood and undervalued, and agencies that focus on them are often threatened with elimination, especially when budget crises hit. Thus, for example, the Army has once again sought to eliminate its Peacekeeping and Stability Operations Institute (PKSOI).

The reason is clear: the value of relationships cannot be tallied like people, tanks, planes, or ships. How does one quantify the goodwill done for U.S. national interests by cultivating friendly relations? Training done here or there for some country that is in no one’s operations plan, or a beer with a key leader there, and a few conference invitations… these are small, quiet, people-to-people opportunities which arise daily somewhere around the globe and which have the potential to bolster civil-military engagement and exchange. However, to the “bang-bang, boom-boom”-minded force managers, relationship-building efforts can be derided as both time- and money-wasters.

Budget priorities are necessary, of course. A military force must indeed prioritize lethality over legation to perform its hard power function; but in doing so, it should not forget the significance of its political capabilities. Something is much more than nothing, and even low budgets (PKSOI’s is about $3 million a year) can produce significant effects.

Furthermore, the U.S. should not perpetrate the military or diplomatic equivalent of flinging frozen turkeys at those who upset us. Allies and partners inevitably disagree, but minor misunderstandings should not endanger crucial strategic relationships. To develop and sustain resilience in managing such relationships, formal relationship-building ability is an important asset for the U.S. military in any theater, but especially in a post-conflict setting. Military-minded “diplomats” can send strategic signals by forming key relationships, in the same way that the President can send them, by stationing an armored brigade combat team forward: they just communicate at different levels, in different ways, to different audiences.

U.S. organizations that engage in relationship-building efforts with other nations from Georgia to Ghana and beyond, and with international organizations such as the United Nations, NATO, the African Union, the European Union, and others, provide major advantages in advancing U.S. interests across the globe. At NATO, for example, much of the alliance’s most valuable work occurs in numerous meetings between NATO member nations’ civilian and military delegations, or with nations that may not even be official partner nations, building relationships before a crisis hits.

Think of relationship-building in a context we can all grasp: neighborhoods. Gathering socially is relaxing but it also serves the important purpose of relationship-building. Friendships form as hospitality is exchanged. Good will grows toward one another. On my street, I am fortunate to have some of the best neighbors anyone could ask for. We get together regularly, and share a sense of community and trust. Thus, when that inevitable hard day comes, we know whom we can call. When a basement floods and you need a hand to get your stuff up to the lawn, or your dog needs a sitter, you feel at ease to ask a neighbor for help – a friend. And help comes. We don’t know when, where, or how we might need assistance, but we can count on it to be there. The un-quantifiable value of having friends is a both a force multiplier and a source of security.

One soldier’s relationship to another can set a symbolic context for future interactions between bigger polities when the stakes are far greater

The U.S. Department of State clearly understands this; but it does not have to own it. The U.S. military can also reap the benefits of forging friendly relationships with a wide variety of global actors, even if that is not its primary function. A simple act, such as funding the dispatch of a handful of U.S. service members to observe or assist with a partner’s military exercises, for example, can be meaningful to the host nation. Such acts show respect for others’ contributions to maintaining global peace and stability. Meetings, conferences, or exchanges are not as sexy as planes, ships, or tanks, but they have value in strategic-level intercourse. The U.S. built the current international system, and remains the leader of it, presiding over a period of great stability and prosperity. U.S. strategy seeks to maintain that system and avoid war. If we succeed, we will avoid using all that military hardware, and that success will be built on the strength of the relationships we built (at a low cost) with allies from Japan, to the U.K., to Colombia.

The military has its own exceedingly important mission – to defend the nation. This entails proficiency in applying violence and protecting forces. But that does not mean the military cannot carpet bomb and chew gum at the same time, if need be. The strategic environment is far too complex today to bank on a stockpile of weapons as go-to “peacemakers.” Dialogue must complement defense objectives. According to Christopher Paul’s book, Strategic Communication: Origins, Concepts, and Current Debates, every word, every act that we say or do (or don’t do) sends a message. Therefore, the military is always “speaking,” even when it’s not saying a word.

Neglecting to fund agencies that support outreach to allies and partners, or that coordinate and advise intergovernmental initiatives, are forfeitures of influence that send their own kinds of signals. DoD communicates its priorities with every organization it funds or eliminates, every weapons system it develops or drops. If DoD fails to support its own stated priorities, such as Secretary of Defense James Mattis’ recent emphasis upon strengthening alliances and partnerships, for example, it opens itself to doubt about its true intentions. A “say-do gap” results when actions do not match words and this erodes trust and credibility. Closing the gap matters, because trust is the bedrock of all good relationships. But the outputs of military members’ labors to forge relationship bridges, which no tank can cross, remain difficult to capture in real cost accounting. Agencies or activities that build them are not therefore consistently supported.

“Actions speak louder than words,” goes the well-known aphorism. This is why it is vital that U.S. allies and partners see the American military speaking the language of relationship-building worldwide, whether on a training range in Poland, or aboard a ship off the coast of Japan, or across various conference tables, in India, Ghana, Egypt, and the like. Though much of what political leaders may say has more to do with securing votes from their domestic audiences, it is what the military and other government agencies do in the field, and what the government funds, that tells a truer tale of national interests and priorities. Our allies seem to understand this. Do we?

In allocating limited funds, it seems only logical for the services and DoD to cut funds to activities that do not help put “warheads on foreheads.” It takes enlightened, strategically-minded planners and decision makers to account for the long-term potential and enduring value of intangibles such as relationships. Building relationships protects people, and that is a cause worth funding too. Yet relationships do not just happen; they have to be cultivated through sustained commitments to the organizations and activities whose core missions are to build these ties.

Thankfully, the vast majority of American service men and women in today’s military would not throw turkeys at unsuspecting allies. They are among the very best citizens this world could hope to encounter. In ways large and small, U.S. service members can speak well of America in how they perform a mission and treat others. America’s soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines have borne a heavy burden for our nation with honor and dignity. Sadly, too many know through hard experience how absence, mistrust, neglect, or miscommunication can test relationships. They know what is at stake when, in an analogous manner, the U.S. neglects its strategic relationships with allies and partners.

Good reputations, like good relationships, are easily marred by misconduct. A few people who fail to live up to the high standards of their profession and service can spoil the trust and esteem built on years of others’ impeccable conduct. Though no ally left NATO over a mangled ribcage, we must be mindful of the fragility of relationships and the dangers of neglecting them. We must see strategic relationships (and those who build them) as critical force multipliers – at every level of interaction and planning – from the fire team to the foreign ministry. Though relationships may be the un-countable beans of defense budgeting, with a value to national security that is almost impossible to quantify, they are nevertheless essential to U.S. success. When nations are free to choose where to stand, we want them to stand with us.


Mary Foster is an adjunct professor at the U.S. Army War College. The views in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo: U.S. Coast Guard Chief Maritime Enforcement Specialist Nathan Fornicola briefs Benin sailors on visit, board, search and seizure procedures in preparation for exercise Obangame Express 2017. Obangame Express, sponsored by U.S. Africa Command, is designed to improve regional cooperation, maritime domain awareness, information-sharing practices, and tactical interdiction expertise to enhance the collective capabilities of Gulf of Guinea and West African nations to counter sea-based illicit activity.

Photo Credit: U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Bill Dodge


  1. Hello Ms. Foster,

    Excellent examples of a tried and true principle!

    Your turkey “shot” and other examples remind me of the Christmas truce of 1914. In a very unlikely scenario, British and German soldiers began singing Christmas carols from their respective trenches. One note let to another and soldiers were able to retrieve bodies of dead comrades from “no man’s land” and in some cases shake hands while exchanging holiday greetings before returning to their trenches. This unofficial truce is similar to Vietnam soldiers from both sides, in occasional encounters decades later, acknowledging the common plight of the soldier. Comrades and colleagues in arms recognize that fighting for country and cause often occurs without malice felt toward the opposing forces.

    In contrast, the enemy is often vilified in order to stoke the anger and resolve necessary for battle. The Japanese were “punished” for Pearl Harbor with atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima on 6 August 1945 and on Nagasaki on 9 August 1945 (only three days later). Perhaps a truce of 30 days between bombings could have saved the estimated 40,000 civilians who died on Nagasaki. We certainly must always remember that citizens and soldiers on both sides of a war are often merely bystanders and loyal combatants, but not always as hostile or callous as they might appear. Leaders must always be cognizant of risks and focused on end results. Good relationships provide the foundation for ends, ways, and means.

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