By Paul S. Kim
Source: U.S. Navy
The global disposition of U.S. military forces, amplified by an environment of ubiquitous
connectivity, necessitates thoughtful and deliberate socio-cultural preparation of military
personnel outbound to duty overseas, especially in an era of renewed competition among great powers.
According to the National Defense Strategy, a core strategic task of the Department of Defense is to “strengthen alliances and attract new partners.” Exceeding 200,000 service members (about 15%) in over 150 countries at any given time, overseas U.S. military presence triples the size of the entire Department of State. The U.S. military is a very visible face, if not the face, of the U.S. to countries worldwide – treaty allies, strategic partners, potential partners, and competitors.
While senior military leaders, educated and seasoned, (should) understand the strategic implications of regional relationships, they rarely receive formal, targeted geo-political, cultural, or historical preparation for their overseas assignments – it is learned on the job. Even more so, the younger and usually less educated junior ranks are especially prone to inadvertent socio-cultural or historical insensitivity, potentially robbing the United States of good will. In the modern information age, the risk probability is even greater.
During USS George Washington Carrier Strike Group’s 2017 port visit to Busan, South Korea, a U.S. sailor recorded Korean protesters with his smartphone. In this case, they were protesting the U.S. port visit because it was “a provocative show of force to North Korea, escalatory and destabilizing to South Korean safety.” True or not (author’s note: not), the protesters were acting in accordance with their democratic freedoms.
The recording also captured the sailor’s comments about Korean ungratefulness after “saving” them in the 1950-1953 Korean War. True or not (author’s note: not), the video was uploaded to social media and made its way to South Korea, where it spread virally, sparking a short-lived, but negative and inflammatory response. Though there was no lasting strategic impact to our military alliance, a generation of Koreans now have one more bad memory of the U.S. to carry with them.
Uniforms are another example of accumulated strategic relational risk due to lack of cultural thoughtfulness. What we display on our person sends a message. Members of the Navy’s Task Force 72 and Strike Fighter Squadron 192, as well as the Army’s 78th Aviation Battalion, all wear unit patches displaying the rising sun design of Imperial Japan. Although now one of our most valued allies, Japan has a long, complex, and troubled history with most nations of the Western Pacific. Only few U.S. military organizations, of the many stationed in Japan, are primarily Japan-specific, such as U.S. Forces Japan. The rest – including the three mentioned above – although physically based in Japan, actually have regional mission responsibilities, engaging regularly with Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and so on. Meanwhile, their patches emblemizing the Japan of World War II are engaging regularly with peoples that have suffered much at the hands of that Japan.
U.S. alliances-and-partnerships strategy in the Asia-Pacific necessitates careful balancing of intertwined and competing bilateral relationships. Integrating regionally provocative symbols into U.S. military uniforms clearly indicates that we do not understand – or care to understand – the histories and perspectives of those we need to be with us – including Japan. Today’s Japan is not the Japan of World War II. The Japanese people have changed their flag to signify this growth. It is unfortunate the U.S. military did not get the memo.
Inevitably, U.S. military presence overseas has always had and will continue to have an unavoidable diplomatic inertia of its own. The contest for influence is zero-sum: every alliance or partnership that is not valued and reinforced is a potential alliance or partnership for our competitors. Preventing diplomatic incidents due to ignorance is an education issue – a leadership issue – and if building strong current and future alliances makes the U.S. safer (author’s note: it does), we owe it to the American people to provide our outbound U.S. military personnel, junior and senior, with the knowledge, context, and understanding to be prepared.
Paul S. Kim is a Master of Advanced Studies in International Affairs candidate at UC San Diego’s School of Global Policy and Strategy, focusing on security in the Asia-Pacific. He spent 12 years active duty in the U.S. Navy and is currently a civil servant and Navy reserve officer.