Cross-cultural awareness and int’l cooperation

Many Israelis do understand the importance of international cooperation and value the resulting professional dividend

NATO summit (photo credit: Reuters)
NATO summit
(photo credit: Reuters)
In this week’s Torah portion, Balaam is summoned to curse the Hebrew nation but unwittingly blesses them, saying among other things: “The people shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations.” (Numbers 39:9) Whether this was indeed a blessing or a curse may be debated, but it certainly describes the Israeli psyche until this day.
It is because of our unique and sensitive regional and global position that we must embrace every opportunity for international cooperation. The international arena is vital for all national interests: doing business in the global market, augmenting defense capabilities, sharing intelligence in the fight against fundamentalism, learning from the mistakes and lessons of others, representing national interests in international forums, and of course trying (usually in vain) to explain ourselves (hasbara).
We regularly use the term “global village,” engage in international commerce, speak relatively good English and travel more than the average citizen of the world, but we still have not made the necessary quantum leap from regarding international ties as “external relations” to a mindset of multilateral and multicultural cooperation.
In 2004, I led an Israeli team in an international task force, established to secure the Olympic Games in Athens.
During one of our meetings, the American commander announced: “We are here to promote US interests and to secure the US team.” The Scotland Yard special agent was shocked, the German shook his head, and the Hellenic representative got up to leave. I clung to his sleeve and persuaded him to stay.
Since then, the Americans have begun to transform their rhetoric, which now stresses “global interests” and “partners, friends and allies.”
Make no mistake, the US is no less concerned for its own interests, but it now promotes them through partnership, cooperation and mutual learning.
A main consideration today is sharing the burden due to scarcity of resources, but it goes beyond that.
International legitimacy is crucial, which is why every effort is made to act in coalitions, under internationally accepted mandates.
Our friends and partners have made the transition, as their reality dictated: They comprise the European Union, serve in military alliances, and even serve and die together in Afghanistan.
They have learned to speak the same professional language, adopted common terminology and adapted their local cultures to a unified, international organizational culture. German and Australian officers are still very different, but they learn to collaborate effectively without allowing cultural differences to impede their progress.
In Israel, circumstances have not led us to this transition. We are still a “people that dwell alone.”
This was demonstrated during the First Gulf War, when prime minister Yitzhak Shamir (who died on Saturday) was faced with the dilemma of whether to respond to Saddam Hussein’s barrage of Scud missiles, and by doing so jeopardize the Arab-based coalition that could not tolerate Israeli involvement. I learned of the decision when called to taxi back to my squadron, after being ready for to take off for the outskirts of Bagdad. I was disappointed personally, but understood the overarching strategic ramifications.
Although we lack a broad presence in international collaborative initiatives, we definitely maintain a robust cooperation network with many partners and friends around the world.
Our strategic alliance with the US stands out in magnitude and importance, as will soon be demonstrated in the US-Israel Austere Challenge 12 military exercise. Israel is sought after as leading in an array of capabilities and wealth of experience and insight.
Cultural awareness and cultural sensitivity are essential for confronting foes (“know your enemy” – Sun Tzu) as well as for collaborating with friends. Israel mastered the cultural knowledge needed to fight fundamentalism, but unfortunately demonstrates, at times, cultural ignorance when it comes to cooperation with partners and friends.
We are comfortable being different.
Our historic success in building a prosperous state and maintaining the upper hand in every conflict has been, in a way, due to the fact that we are different. Not only in our weapons, tactics and procedures, but also in our values, code of conduct and organizational culture.
But this mentality of being different takes its toll. When it comes to allies and partners, we must try to diminish the negative aspects of our “differentness.”
I recently attended an international conference in Tel Aviv. The English-language session was surprisingly conducted in Hebrew, jokes were made about a certain country with a distinguished delegation from that country present, and simple spelling mistakes were plastered all over the entrance hall. No malicious intentions, only ignorance and lack of sensitivity.
Unfortunately, many Israelis attach little importance to the issue, and to expertise and experience in international relations. Most of our defense attachés are officers who had long and demanding careers as commanders in the field. After a relatively short training phase, they are expected to represent Israeli defense interests as “military diplomats.” Unfortunately, many attachés are on their last assignment before retirement, and their valuable acquired expertise is soon lost.
It should be noted that most of them do not fail and some even excel, due to the fact that they are bright, dedicated and adaptable officers. There are also advantages to their non-professional background. Experienced combat- proven leaders bring authenticity and candidness who are much appreciated by professional partners.
This week, I spoke to a friend from a European country, who has just been assigned to be the next defense attaché in Israel. He is a graduate of the Israel National Defense College and will assume his position in 2015 (!) after another whole year of dedicated studies, including learning Hebrew.
Now that is taking it seriously.
Naturally, organizations differ widely in this respect and within them there is great diversity in attitude and expertise. Amazingly, there are still high-ranking officials who treat international relations as an unwelcome burden, to be minimized and deflected to designated “external relations” personnel.
Due to language disabilities and basic lack of understanding of the strategic importance, they are dooming their organization to one-dimensional thinking and exclusion from the benefits of international collaboration.
What are we doing wrong? We tend to talk instead of listen, teach instead of learn, and preach instead of recommend and contribute.
We relate to other nationals as “foreigners” instead of international partners.
We tend to think our way is the right way and that the others range from different to strange.
On the positive side, you will find that Israelis are open, friendly, honest, invest in the interaction, and genuinely seek the realization of mutual goals.
It is also apparent that many Israelis do understand the importance of international cooperation and value the resulting professional dividends.
Israel and Israelis have so much to offer. We must adapt in order to more cohesively cooperate. This will further promote Israeli as well as regional and global interests. It will enhance our learning ability and position us as worthy, reliable and valuable partners.
The writer is a retired lieutenant-colonel and Israel Air Force pilot. Born in the US, he has served in various IDF General Staff positions related to international cooperation. An industrial engineer who holds a master’s degree in business administration, he is the founder of Cross-Cultural Strategies Ltd, an Israel-based company that focuses on bridging cultural gaps in promotion of international cooperation.