(EUCOM BLOG, Feb. 4, 2013) To Know the World
Charlemange said that "to know another language is to have a second soul." In this rapidly globalizing 21st century world, that simple statement summarizes the gift of regional expertise, cultural understanding, and the ability to communicate directly in the language of an ally, partner or colleague.
Afghan Soldiers stand in formation and receive certificates after completing literacy training. The U.S. Department of Defence is a massive organization with the widest imaginable set of skills represented among its 3.2 million military and civilian shipmates. Yet less than 10% of us speak a second language -- an obvious capability gap in an organization that operates globally to accomplish its mission.
And it is more than simple linguistics that matter in this regard. In order to operate in a world that relies more and more on coalition action to succeed, we must develop the attendant skills of regional expertise and cultural understanding.
In my current job as Supreme Allied Commander for global operations at NATO, I face this daily. Let me give you a few concrete examples of situations where this helps deeply, both in holding the coalition together and in understanding the operating environment:
- Afghanistan has 50 troop-contributing nations operating together -- in a nation with incredibly complex language, cultural and historical challenges. We are embarked on the largest single security mission in the world today.
- In the Balkans, the NATO mission in Kosovo includes not only the 28 NATO countries, but additional partners from Finland, Sweden, Austria, Switzerland, and Morocco to name a few. And they operate in a largely Muslim country with historical connections to Albania -- and an extraordinary history dating back centuries.
- At sea in counter-piracy off the Horn of Africa, NATO ships from a dozen different allied nations operate alongside Chinese, Russian, Indian, and even Iranian military vessels, all involved in the same globally recognized and sanctioned mission.