Unsuccessful Cross Cultural Negotiations in Military Operations

Dr. Tim Kirk discusses an instance of an unsuccessful cross-cultural negotiation.
Video Transcript

I saw a very bad example at unfortunately the State Department, the last people I would expect to have this type of trouble, but it was absolutely disastrous. We had worked for months in the local community to put together a group of community leaders who are going to take on an operational kind of friendly force, partnered force role within an overall operational campaign plan, and we needed their support in order to make this campaign a success. Well the State Department insisted that they be involved in this because they were the experts in this particular lane. And so the military exceeded and it was agreed that the engagement would be handled by the State Department.

Well the State Department guys only have their engagements at the embassy. Okay we'll have it at the embassy. Unfortunately the day that the event was supposed to take place the embassy guys forgot to tell the front gate that these guys were coming to visit. Now these are Afghan local nationals. They pull up to the gate in their own vehicles at the embassy saying we need in. They're speaking the local language. The security guards don't speak the local language, all they know is a bunch of scary-looking Afghan guys just pulled up in a vehicle and are shouting at us. So that deteriorates, turns into them being detained. They're detained nobody knows who the contact is, none of these local guys understand how you get into an embassy. They don't understand the bureaucratic nuances of, if you just call this person they'll vouch for you and they'll come and escort you, they don't understand any of that stuff. So it turns into a 45-minute detention before anyone recognizes that these guys are not late for the meeting, we've detained them at the gate. So there's this fast and rapid intercession, a bunch of apologies we go down and get them, and we escort them and we beg their forgiveness and apologize and bring them up, and as we're sitting down in the conference room where the engagement is supposed to happen, the deputy ambassador walks in and just sits down, no greetings, no formalities, and says okay this is what we need to have happen, and starts kind of talking off, rattling off their talking points from their own agenda that nobody else knows anything about.

Well about 10 minutes into the deputy ambassador's litany of talking points, another person walks in and says I'm sorry ambassador but somebody else has the conference room at ten o'clock, you've got to break this up, and the ambassador says oh sorry, seems we've lost the conference room, maybe we can do this some other time, it was very nice talking with you, and leaves the room. Doesn't shake any hands, doesn't say anything at all.

Now from an Afghan cultural standpoint you have fallen out of the bad culture tree and hit every branch on the way down. You did not prepare to welcome these guys as guests, the ultimate disrespect. Then when you brought him in, there was no food, there were no refreshments, there, there was no welcoming by the senior person, the ultimate disrespect. And then when you talk for ten minutes and got up and left and suddenly ended the meeting, you just heaped disrespect on top of disrespect. More damage was done in that single engagement with the local community than the Taliban could have ever hoped to accomplish through their means. It was just a disaster. And it was simply because of very understandable realities from our bureaucratic perspective. Deputy ambassador, he's a busy guy. He's not going to, you know, be involved in day-to-day decision-makings like who's coming through the gate. He's got a schedule to hold to. Conference rooms. Everyone wants a conference room, of course. That makes sense. That makes sense to us. It makes no sense to the people that you're working with. And so unless you're able to leverage your bureaucratic system to demonstrate the kind of respect and hospitality that the locals need, you'll never accomplish anything in negotiation. And true to form, that initiative died that day. All the things that the ambassador had hoped to accomplish, all the things that the military had hoped to accomplish, completely evaporated when they brought those people in and showed that kind of disrespect.