Learning from the Marines: Schoolhouses, Debate, Public Affairs, and Recognition

Wednesday, December 11th 2013

I am increasingly persuaded that the effectiveness of U.S. official Public Diplomacy depends not just on messages, programs, or technology, but also on the strength and health of the Foreign Service.  This article is more about the Foreign Service than about Public Diplomacy per se, but these factors need to be part of the whole picture.

In one of her President's columns last year, Susan Johnson of the American Foreign Service Association wrote about "Marine Corps Culture and Institutional Success."  Let me pick up on the general theme.  After a career in Public Diplomacy, the State Department detailed me to be the Foreign Policy Advisor (POLAD) to the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General James Conway, from 2006 to 2008.  It gave me a chance to see the Marines "up close and personal."  The Foreign Service is not the Marine Corps, for sure, but there are lessons we can learn from the Corps. 

Here are a few:

·        The Marine Corps is zealous for continual professional learning over a full career, and it values and invests in its "schoolhouses" to institutionalize its professionalism and its lessons learned.  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.  Here's the point.  Compared to the Marine Corps, how does the Foreign Service Institute measure up?  Does the Department provide continual professional education and development over a career? 

·        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.  Compared to the Marine Corps, I submit that the culture of the State Department, and even the daily use of language, mutes debate and vigorous discussion.  We have no professional forum quite like the Marine Corps Gazette.

·        Any department or agency can learn lessons from how the Marine Corps cultivates Congress and the public using smart public affairs.  The State Department deploys Public Diplomacy overseas, and it communicates foreign policy decisions at the daily briefings, but does it really use Public Affairs to promote itself and its mission to the American people?

·        Units of the Corps always pause to welcome new members, honor those who have done well, and give a proper farewell to those who retire.  In the Marine Corps, medals are awarded one-on-one, or to a few individuals at a time.  Contrast this with Embassy award ceremonies, which have become too large, too impersonal, and too hurried.  To my mind, this shows the Department's low regard for recognition.  Here's one more story:  I attended the presentation of a military medal by a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to his POLAD at the Pentagon.  The general said in passing, "and I know the Department of State will do the same as you retire."  The POLAD quipped, "if they do give me an award, I'll receive it in the mail."  He didn't mention that the Department no longer provides medals with its awards, in the interest of economy. 

Again, the Foreign Service is not the Marine Corps.  A-100 is not boot camp.  Our internal culture is civilian, not military.  If we regard diplomacy and Public Diplomacy as professions, however, there's much to be learned from the professionals who wear the globe and anchor.


8 people have commented on this article so far

A Minister-Counselor in the State Department's Senior Foreign Service when he finished his federal career, Donald M. Bishop was recently elected as President of the Public Diplomacy Council. He is a trainer, speaker, and mentor in Public Diplomacy and Communication. He also speaks on history and leadership.

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Author: Donald M. Bishop

We welcome comments from our readers that advocate and shed light on the subject of public diplomacy. We avoid discussion that is politically partisan, commercial in nature or offensive. To prevent inappropriate comments and spam we screen each comment before publishing it, so please excuse us if you do not see your remark right away.

Learning from The Marines: Thank you, Don Bishop

Mr. Bishop's article is succinct and accurate. After many years of working with both the Foreign Service and the Marine Corps, I also would suggest that the Foreign Service could learn a lot from those who in uniform man the embassies. The Corps' culture of continued education and training, its great tradition of projecting the image of a squared-away and focused Marine to the world, and its use of pomp and ceremony to reward its courageous and dedicated are proven methods that have created the finest military the world has ever seen. Mr. Bishop is right in saying that the men and women who wear the uniform of our country are professionals, by every definition of the word. But, be careful about sharing what you learn! Your children may want to become Marines!

Professionalizaton of public diplomacy

I would like to see further comparative work done between other institutions as well, including those working at the subnational level where public diplomacy resides in the realm of the everyday citizen. I saw a (post Gulf War) report once on the difficult relationship between the military and media. One element of the report was the acknowledgement that media - in the expression of their freedom - lack the centralized control the military enjoys - as it seeks to also protect freedom. The decentralization of the media community makes institutionalization exceedingly more difficult to direct. Applying this observation to public diplomacy, the collection of private citizens engaging in public diplomacy of all kinds face a similar decentralization of effort. Can that be institutionalized? I like that this article implies the State Department could be a possible role model in that regard.

The Marines and Public Diplomacy

Donald: Then Commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen.Charles C. Krulak, introduced his concept of "The Strategic Corporal: Leadership in the Three Block War" in the January 1999 issue of Marines Magazine.

Krulak pointed out that technology is leveling the playing field between adversaries, thus creating "amorphous conflicts" as the three block war. Such contingencies required today's Marines to engage a broad range of tactical of challenges "in the span of a few hours and within the space of three contiguous city blocks."

Krulak recognized that the basics taught in recruit training would have to be augmented by a life of continuous professional training and education to equip the Corps' strategic corporals to operate in such a modern environment where micro management would not work. He called for future leaders to implement proactive mentoring.

"Most importantly, we must aggressively empower our NCO's, hold them strictly accountable for their actions, and allow the leadership potential within each of them to flourish."

What followed was a intense effort to expand personal education at all levels from private to general. Of course, the warrior ethos remained. But cultural sensitivity, language skills, and a greater reliance on creative soft power rather than destructive combat became the norm.

Throughout that process Krulak demanded one constant: "We must remember [one] simple fact...that leaders are judged, ultimately, by the quality of the leadership reflected in their subordinates. We must also remember that the Strategic Corporal will be, above all else ... a leader of Marines."

A Lesson from the Marines about Leadership

Excellent point. The Marines could teach all of us about leadership. A few years ago, I had the good fortune to have, as my Senior Enlisted Advisor, a Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant when I served as the Director of Defense Media Activity, the organization responsible for the Defense Department’s internal communications on radio, television, print, and the Internet. I remember our first visit to one of our overseas detachments.

Just before we arrived, “Master Guns” told me that when it’s time for lunch, the officers will save a place for me next to them at the head of the table, as a sign of respect. Don’t sit there, he advised. You’ll have plenty of time to visit with them later. Instead, he suggested I head to the other end of the table where the lowest-ranking service members usually sat; they don’t get many chances to chat informally with a senior leader, and it’ll make a big impression on them. Plus, he said, you’ll learn a lot about who they are, what they do, and how they see their jobs.

It was, of course, great advice, and in every case the officers we visited immediately understood and appreciated the gesture.


SImilarities and Differences in Diplomacy and the Military

Don Bishop is certainly qualified to comment on the Diplomacy versus Military field (he does not mention his experience as an instructor at the United States Air Force Academy) and his points are accurate and well expressed. My former boss, he was a great source of information about the US military to diplomats like myself who found ourselves working for extended periods in military environments. If one finds herself in such a situation, there is no better guide than Don and no better exemplar of the Foreign Service Officer as an altruistic leader. He is one of a handful of exceptions that prove the rule I discuss below.

Those readers who are not so experienced with characteristics of State Department leadership may not realize how stark the contrasts between the two institutions often are. Civilian political superiors and the public in general expect the military to be the final voice on military issues and accordingly recognize military expertise at least until events give them reason to doubt it. US diplomats do not enjoy the benefit of the doubt for their expertise among elected officials or the public. Furthermore, the basic measurements for military success are much more SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and timely). Maintaining a stable bilateral diplomatic relationship is difficult and too often reflects tradeoffs which are seen as failures by US constituencies who feel their interests have been sacrificed and blame the diplomatic corps rather than Washington-based policy makers for their perceived slight.

Thus military officers who are effective may question authority though proper channels because they get measurable results and consistently prove themselves loyal followers and concerned commanders.

State Department Officers have few SMART goals, and where the last thirty years of management reforms have provided opportunities to establish such leadership measurements, the Department has ignored them. Unlike the military, each new boss at almost all levels of the State Department believes she must correct the mistakes of her predecessor and prove herself a better officer. As bosses change, subordinates (and all bosses are also subordinates) must anticipate the need for the newest superior to believe that she is indeed fixing the mess left by the predecessor. This attitude, the amorphous nature of goals and complex set of intra- and inter-institutional relations within the State Department and between State and the White House and Pentagon, result in rewarding sycophancy and the professional equivalence of social treachery within the State Department in ways that would hurt the leadership potential of a military officer.

A result is that, in general, military officers appear more forthright than their Foreign Service colleagues. Loyalty is rewarded and tradition revered. This contrasts with the attitude toward recently departed colleagues in the State Department, where mistakes must be corrected. In Foggy Bottom loyalty is situational and transient. Success requires skillful navigation of a sea of suspicious and ill-intentioned rivals, and where possible colleagues must be converted into at least temporary allies in self-promotion.

Rather than bemoan this negative view of the predominant Diplomatic work ethic, I now have come to believe it reflects both the conditions under which the professional diplomat must deal with his political superiors and the milieu in which the professionals must engage foreign governments who also often have conflicting and complex interests when working with the United States.

In effect, as a former diplomat I believe that the military is a better place for developing the personality traits that make one a good person. But that is to be expected for a group that is sent overseas to "lie for their country."

Learning from the Marines

Let me preface my comments by stating that I am the father of two career Marine Corps Officers.

Mr. Bishop's comments, based on his official experience, parallel what I have observed from a personal point of view. The Corps calls upon tradition to enhance esprit and pride in organization to a degree that I seldom saw in my Foreign Service career. Marines also manifest a display a greater level of respect that flows from the top down, as well as from the bottom up.

I believe that the Corps' careful and considered selection, not only for promotions and training, but of equal importance, in the selection of those who will make those determinations is not, at least, was not, matched by the FS. As the article implies, there is much to be learned and more to be gained.

Outstanding Article and Threads

Let me first off start by saying "thank you" to Don Bishop for his article that certainly echoes my experiences as both a Marine and someone who has worked with the Diplomatic Corps on more than one occasion. I firmly believe that greater opportunity to teach young Foreign Service Officer's the mechanics of the different levels of diplomacy and leadership would definitely serve the State Department in the future. In fact, any organization (especially larger ones) would benefit from structured education and training and recurring professional development (self-learning and mentorship) the way the Marine Corps (and the other services) do it.

A couple of thoughts -- we all probably think our experience was the "norm" and give credit to the changes and innovation we experience in our tenure to the first leaders we experience. Commissioned in 1988, I give personnally feel the lion's share of credit should go to our 29th Commandant, Gen. Al Gray, who instituted (or at least formalized and/or re-energized) the professional military education program for the Marine Corps in the late 80's. In my mind, he is one of the reasons the Marine Corps has performed so remarkably in the varied challenges of the last 25 years. A saying I first heard only a few years ago is quite appropriate -- "you train for the certainty of combat (gun drills, marksmanship, etc) but you educate for the uncertainty of combat" (by teaching a mind set and core principles that one can adapt to any situation).

And I am not sure the essence of the differences between the Marines (or the other services)and the State Dept is as much anchored in the application SMART goals (which has an inherently quantitative feel to me) as compared to our focus on the fundamentals of leadership. Whether it is the fourteen leadership traits (JJDIDTIEBUCKLE) or the eleven leadership principles or the myriad of other leadership mantras -- such as “officers eat last”, “leadership by walking around”, “sharing common hardship, and “continuous professional development so you are always the expert in your field” -- that we learned along the way and live by as Marines, I believe it is the basis of our success and quite honestly the biggest challenge to the FSO community that I saw firsthand in Kosovo over an extended period of time. The good FSOs understood the importance of the entire team-- the logistics support officer, the diplomatic security officer and the locally hired employees -- and talked with them and helped them on a routine basis. And, as one can find in any organization, the not-so-good ones treated them with little or no respect or camaraderie.

Finally, for Mr Bligh – I think I worked with your son Ed at Camp Lejeune a few years ago and let me say two things – 1) you definitely should be proud of your contribution to the nation with your service and caliber of officer you have “loaned” to the Marines and 2) you are spot on – that spirit of respect up and down the chain is something I am proud to say the Marine Corps “gets” and I am not always sure the FSOs I saw did. I think the a critical lesson for young officers in the Military and young FSOs is that one of the most important role as a leader is to always try to serve the men and women who work with you regardless of their “rank”. Serving others will almost always result in greater service to our nation.

What Diplomats Can Learn from Marines

I find myself in full agreement with Don Bishop's comments here, as have a number of other senior officials and observers.  One, Michael Rubin, has written a brief article in Commentary Magazine under the title "What Diplomats Can Learn From Marines."  Worth a read...

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