By Ms Alex Seagar, MAJOR | Australian Army Legal Corps | Ottawa, Canada
Winston Churchill allegedly said, ‘diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions’. Churchill was perhaps one of the most prominent diplomats of the modern era, effortlessly bridging the gap between public office and military dialogue. He was unapologetically pragmatic yet decidedly cordial in a way only the British tend to be.
Military diplomacy is, as demonstrated by Churchill, both an art and a science. Within the profession of arms, modern warfare is taught through doctrine: military techniques, tactics and procedures evolved over centuries. In fact, when it comes to the science of modern warfare, much is drawn from the conduct and experience of our adversaries. It was Sun Tzu who said, ‘the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting’. That is the central feature of military diplomacy. Although we may be professional soldiers, this job is unique. Our core business, of breaking things and killing the enemy, may never actually be realized: it is possible to spend an entire career rehearsing for a moment that never eventuates. It can be a disappointing realization for some, yet as a military legal officer, I would prefer if it stayed this way. War is an option of last resort: if it comes to that, diplomacy in all its forms has failed.
The operational environment in a warzone is an odd place. It’s a mixture of military personnel, civilian government employees, diplomats, NGO staff and, of course, the local civilian population. I have a friend, Gigi, a civilian employee that I met on operations in Iraq in 2019, who represents the diversity of skills and backgrounds found in such an environment. I was deployed to Baghdad as a legal advisor with the Coalition operation to defeat Da’esh in Iraq and Syria. My friend, Gigi, is an American citizen, born in Iraq, who worked for the Coalition as an Arabic translator. Gigi left Iraq as a teenager and her perfect command of both Arabic and English made her indispensable to the mission. The thing that strikes you about Gigi, besides her impressive language skillset, is how fierce, feminine and flawlessly put together she is. Not only were we in a warzone, but Iraq is unbearably hot for the majority of the year, which for most means you present as a sweaty mess. Besides doing my job, staying hydrated was about the extent of my ability over there. Gigi, however, came across as a woman on a mission, and the heat was certainly not going to stop her.
Diplomacy in all its forms is multidimensional. Military diplomacy is just one means of advancing foreign policy interests under the broader framework of public diplomacy. The way one military interacts with another is very often predetermined, based on the relationship the respective forces have to one another. That relationship could be identified as partner force, fellow coalition force, strategic or geographic partner force, or the diametrically opposed relationship of enemy force. The reality of professional soldiers from backgrounds akin to my own - that is, western states with largely peacetime armies - is less about the conduct of hostilities and more about collaboration. Every day, soldiers from all over the world come together to train, strategize, and prepare for a range of scenarios, from peace keeping, peace building, prevention and intervention to the defence of each other. Militaries worldwide conduct a variety of engagements including daily exercises for the common goal of interoperability – the ability to function together successfully in any of the aforementioned scenarios. Military diplomacy may also be demonstrated through military-to-military discussions and key leadership engagements, particularly between senior ranking officers. While military diplomacy previously focused on conflict-centric concepts such as ‘winning hearts and minds’, these days it’s concentrated on alliance building and geographical partnerships in an age of major power competition.
Military diplomacy also involves a large element of personal diplomacy, illustrated by deep bonds of friendship and close personal networks that develop as a result of this interoperability. People you may never have crossed paths with become not only unlikely comrades, but your best mates. It’s an unforgettable experience to be surrounded by a group of brave and selfless individuals, within a melting pot of nations, working together to bring about an end to hostilities in a country a million miles from home. I fell in love with the people around me – French, Canadian, Iraqi, American, Italian, Kiwi, British, Belgian, Spanish and Portuguese to name but a few. These relationships illuminated the strange feeling, the juxtaposition, that arises from the contrast between the unity within that team versus the disharmony of a destructive war just outside camp. It’s those relationships that begin to build international bridges, that form the network that encompasses both military diplomacy and strategic actions within the broader public diplomacy framework.
Which brings me back to Gigi. This woman was indeed on a mission. It is not the easiest thing to be a woman in uniform in a warzone. Despite your best efforts, you will stand out, especially if you look different to the local population. For personal security reasons, I was advised to wear a wedding ring while I was deployed. Women do not serve in a uniformed capacity in Iraq. There is no such thing as a female officer; an unmarried, female officer is simply unheard of.
Gigi, however, ignored this. She wasn’t in uniform but because of that, it meant her job was significantly more difficult than mine. She translated for a commander whose job it was to interact with Iraqi forces daily. She was surrounded by soldiers who did not understand her or her role. When I asked why she went to the trouble to present herself so impeccably, properly made up but conservatively dressed, she responded that she wasn’t going to stop, simply because it drew attention to her. In fact, she was adamant that the only way to generate change was to stand her ground and continue to show up, every day, to normalize her presence. This is particularly important in light of UNSCR 1325, and the vital need for women to be involved in all stages of the peace process. As soldiers and officers, we are taught that we must lead by example, to inspire and persuade; in essence, to command respect through doing. Gigi was the exemplifier.
Gigi still works in Iraq, her presence promoting both peacebuilding and women’s equality. While a Coalition force of thousands defended a rule-based global order, Gigi was one woman standing in solidarity of the rights of women everywhere. My point is military diplomacy is a wonderful tool but so too is personal diplomacy, exhibited by Gigi. Gigi’s fierce attitude demands change from those around her: she can direct you to go to hell whilst giving you the bilingual directions to get there. Gigi will conquer more than I ever will in support of equality, peacebuilding and diplomacy. As Churchill championed, diplomacy works best in combination: the branches are not mutually exclusive, and we must employ all forms if we are to collaborate for peace.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Professional Development Institute of the University of Ottawa.