• Valentina Koumoulou

Cultural Mediation in Negotiations; Cross-Cultural Expertise in the Military

“Cultural understanding doesn’t just help you achieve your objectives — it helps you discover what your objectives should be”.

— General Anthony Zinni[1]

Culture plays an important role in any kind of negotiation, from negotiating a business deal to negotiating a hostage’s life. The knowledge of a speaker’s cultural background could be a key element of success. Every culture has its differences be it verbal or non-verbal language. The field that encompasses all aspects of culture is termed as “cross-cultural competence”[2] and it is a valuable tool in international negotiations. In fact, cross-cultural experts are needed in a variety of other fields, such as humanitarian missions, and military operations, both of which occupy a large number of personnel with different cultural backgrounds. It is also worth mentioning that it was the U.S. involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq that prompted a significant surge of interest in culture within these fields[3].

Attribution to US Army Africa from Vicenza, Italy CC BY 2.0

Definition of Cross-Cultural Competence

Academics have tried to give a definition of culture but something is always left out. There are multiple interpretations, such as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”, given by anthropologist, Edward Tylor[4]. Another interesting view of culture would be that culture is “a historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols”, introduced by Geertz[5].

It is important to understand culture in order to grasp the notion of cross-cultural competence. The following definition is the one closer to the aspect that will be analysed throughout this piece, given that this term is also a challenging one. According to Louise J. Rasmussen and Winston R. Sieck, authors of the paper on “Strategies for Developing and Practicing Cross-Cultural Expertise in the Military”, cross-cultural competence is “the ability to quickly and accurately comprehend, then appropriately and effectively engage individuals from distinct cultural backgrounds to achieve the desired effect, despite not having an in-depth knowledge of the other culture”[6]. In addition, “cross-cultural competence refers to the knowledge, affect/motivation, and skills that enable individuals to adapt effectively in cross-cultural environments”[7].

Using cross-cultural competence, it will be easier for negotiators, ranging from diplomats to military personnel, to widen their horizons when having a dialogue with parties from different areas of the world. When you understand the cultural background your interlocutor comes from, it is more manageable to find a common understanding without surpassing any boundaries. This is quite crucial in diplomacy.

Cross-Cultural Competence Areas

As seen in the definition above, cross-cultural competence does not signify the in-depth knowledge of a foreign culture. Nevertheless, it offers tools for adaptability in different areas of social life. These could be among others, language, religious customs, gender behaviour. The important thing is to respect and show interest in these aspects of social life. In addition, empathy is key in order to understand behavioural changes[8].


This is a fundamental tool, especially when military, humanitarian, or NGO personnel are bound to change stations in a small amount of time. Learning to speak the local language means to learn a few everyday phrases or specific terminology in order to be able to blend in with the native population as much as possible[9]. Sometimes even a simple greeting in the target-language can show respect towards native speakers.

Religious customs

Some cultures are more deeply linked to a specific religion and abide strictly by its rules. Therefore, it is important to have studied about religious customs and behaviours towards other members of community, such as respect towards the elderly, the place of women in society, children’s relationship with parents.

Gender behaviour

This is mostly linked to religion due to the austerity of different religions towards women in particular. Women are not treated equally to men in some areas where more rigid religious customs are observed. For example, female personnel are specifically used for searching and questioning Muslim women in Afghanistan in order not to offend the locals. More specifically, understanding that a society’s gender roles may impact societal actors’ behaviour is very important[10]. A good example of culture-specific knowledge would be the awareness that Pashtun women play a subservient role to men[11].

Military Operations

Today, more and more military operations are taking place in different areas of the world, mostly through exercises involving multiple ethnicities[12]. NATO is currently leading operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo and the Mediterranean[13], thus many people within the personnel have colleagues from completely different cultures. The situation gets more complicated bearing in mind that not only do the soldiers come from a variety of countries but are also supposed to communicate and negotiate with civilians.

Therefore, military forces may be challenged by more diverse, complex environments than ever before, environments which include many other actors such as representatives of the United Nations, the media, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)[14]. As a result, there is a high degree of intercultural competence in dealing with the ethnic cultural and linguistic diversity of the local population, the cultures of other militaries, and the cultures within international organizations[15].

“The best-equipped Army in the world can still lose a war if it doesn’t understand the people it's fighting.”

– General Raymond Odierno[16]

Training in Cross-Cultural Communication

Due to the constant rise of co-operative missions in foreign grounds, it seems quite essential properly train the personnel on cross-cultural communication. It is them who will need to manage crises and coordinate procedures. The ability to combine social, emotional, and cultural intelligence is something that needs to be taught to everyone working in this kind of delicate situations. During a crisis there is not enough time to form trust relationships. Crises usually demand the establishment of swift trust relationships among individuals, teams, agencies, organizations, or institutions that are strangers to one another[17].

There is a need for a more specific training which will reflect the local population’s way of life, everyday phrases, social roles, and behaviour towards members of the community. The question is, who would be not only capable but also suitable to train the personnel?


A warrior-diplomat is the one who will most likely be suitable for the job. Moreover, the term warrior-diplomat characterizes someone who has spent years interacting and building relationships with their foreign counterparts in different areas of the world[18]. It also describes a person who has developed mental strategies or habits that help them learn about new cultures quickly. Rasmussen and Winston also refer to warrior-diplomats as “cross-cultural experts” [19].

People who hold such a position are mostly army leaders with years of experience working in the military who have shown significant abilities in mediation, conflict resolution, negotiation, diplomacy, cultural sensibility, and behavioural flexibility[20]. They have to be able to view things from a different prism than their own. These abilities are of great importance when leading a multinational peacekeeping force. Due to the unpredictable nature and location of military operations[21], it is essential to remain stable and calm in challenging situations.


The cases of Iraq and Afghanistan are good examples of the need for cross-cultural experts, such as warrior-diplomats[22]. The cultural differences between US soldiers and the locals created a critical issue for the peacekeeping forces. More importantly, there was the barrier of religion, which did not allow men to talk with women, therefore augmenting the need for women personnel in the armed forces[23]. Moreover, these cultures had to deal with authoritative regimes for the most part of their existence.

Furthermore, given that today it is not only the military personnel on the ground in conflict areas but also people from NGOs, journalists, interpreters, etc. proper behaviour could create problems even amongst professionals. All these people also hail from different parts of the world and could be proved very useful in handling negotiations. However, they also have to communicate with the military personnel in order to avoid mistakes. For example, there are journalists in Iraq who have their “fixers”, people usually from the local population who handle their meetings with interviewees, are essential to their moving plans so that they will not be attacked by an opposing party nor be kidnapped by someone who would want to use them as a bargaining chip[24]. The journalists, though, also need the soldiers to keep them safe, because sometimes the fixer could be endangering their handler by allying with the terrorists in the region. Trust is not easily gained, especially when people from completely opposite parts of the worlds and ideologies.

In conclusion, negotiations need delicate handling and attention, especially concerning military operations. In conflict situations, it is very important to be able to communicate not only with compatriots but also with the locals, or colleagues from different parts of the world. To that end, respect of foreign cultures as well as open-mindedness is essential tools in understanding the unknown. The training in cross-cultural competency finding its place in the military section constitutes a great advancement in the history of military training. Warrior-diplomats teaching soldiers how to swiftly adapt in new settings with regards to foreign cultural backgrounds helps them widen their way of thinking and horizons. Last but not least, diplomacy is an art that needs to be taught to people within the military.


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