The Long-Term Impact of U.S. Peace Corps

A friend from Afghanistan tells me that if it weren’t for the Peace Corps, he wouldn’t be in the U.S. today pursuing a master’s degree at Georgetown.

My friend—we’ll call him Ahmad—grew up in the early 90’s, a time of savage internecine warfare in Afghanistan.  Ahmad doesn’t like to talk about this time. Of the 30 or so people he shared a classroom with at his Lycée (high school), he can’t name a single one who was still alive when the Taliban consolidated control in 1996, bringing the civil war to an end.

U.S. Peace Corps volunteers were last in Afghanistan in the 1970’s, before the Soviet invasion, a time of relative peace that the country hasn’t regained since. Four or five volunteers, men and women, worked at the Lycée in Ahmad’s town, where they taught math and English. They also wrote curriculum and trained local teachers, including women who would later teach Ahmad.  Ahmad’s father sought out and befriended the volunteers.  He became a local guide and interpreter for them.

Ahmad’s father was astounded that these volunteers had come from so far to such an obscure place–and that they had learned the local Pashto–with no other motive than to try to make a difference in people’s lives.  He remembered them as going beyond their professional commitment, visiting a family’s home to help a struggling student for example.  He committed himself to studying and learning English, and to training as an educator himself.  He became an English instructor after study at the University in Kabul.  Years later he would press his son Ahmad to study English, not the Russian that was pushed in the Lycée under Soviet influence.

Ahmad went on to work for the United Nations in Afghanistan, and eventually achieved his dream of coming to the U.S., serving as a culture and language instructor for U.S. personnel deploying to stabilize and build his home country.  His dream now is to reopen the U.S. Peace Corps mission in Afghanistan, a dream that won’t become a reality until the country emerges from decades of continuous warfare.

This story is unique in its particulars, but there are any number of stories like it.  Ahmad and his father achieved their goals because of their own efforts, but they credit Peace Corps with opening up new possibilities in their lives.  The Peace Corps is a foreign policy tool with a diffuse but deep effect. We can’t leverage the Peace Corps to accomplish a given task next week, but the long-term effects, though unplanned and unforeseeable, can be profound.

U.S. Special Forces – a variety of tools under one vague name

The U.S. Department of Defense is an ecosystem.  It’s constituent parts–the four Services, the Unified Commands, the myriad agencies and field activities, the Joint Staff, the enormous Office of the Secretary of Defense–are not the result of a purposeful design to achieve the ideal arrangement.  The organisms in the DoD jungle have evolved over 240 years to reach their present state, competing with each other, sometimes consuming each other, combining, breaking apart, developing new capabilities and losing old ones.  The ecosystem contains 1.4 million active duty personnel, over 700,000 civilian employees, and millions more reservists, national guard, and defense contractors, nourished by a yearly budget of over $600 billion.

One class of creatures in the DoD jungle fall under the vague term of Special Operations Forces or SOF.   The most famous SOF units are known by their nicknames—SEAL Team Six and Delta Force for example.  We know them as the small stealthy teams that go deep behind enemy lines and kick in doors in the middle of the night to capture or kill terrorists.    They go to places we aren’t supposed to be in and do things it’s best we don’t know about.  Like so many other things in the SOF world, these adventuresome missions are called by a bland military euphemism–“direct action.”

SOF wasn’t always famous—its practitioners lived for decades in the margins of the DoD jungle.  The evolutionary ancestor of American SOF was the vaguely named Office of Strategic Services (OSS), born during World War II and deriving most of its DNA from the British spy agencies.   The OSS engaged in direct action, but its chief function after the war was to organize, train, and direct indigenous guerilla forces in Europe to oppose the spread and influence of Soviet-friendly regimes.  It also secretly set up and ran radio stations for what might have been called propaganda, but instead went by “psychological operations.”  This term, not vague enough by SOF standards, has since been replaced by “mission information support operations.”

A boost for SOF came in 1961 when President Kennedy authorized the green beret as the official headgear of U.S. Army special forces, thereby establishing a brand.  The Green Berets were described as “force multipliers,” – a team of 12 men could train up a battalion of 800 nationals.   In addition to combat skills, the job required cross-cultural savvy to build advising relationships with locals.  In Vietnam, special forces teams formed and trained fighting units among the montagnard tribes, as well as engaging in long range reconnaissance, rescue operations, sabotage of enemy supply lines, and other direct action.  U.S. Army Rangers, famous for their grueling ten-week training program in which starved and exhausted soldiers are brought to the limits of their endurance,  developed a specialty for overrunning and capturing enemy airfields by dropping from low flying aircraft in specially outfitted trucks and motorcycles.

A SOF friend who served as part of the vaguely (and misleadingly) named Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observation Group (MACV-SOG) told me a story on a topic that many Peace Corps volunteers would find familiar—the dread of being offered a local delicacy as the guest of honor of an indigenous tribal leader.   In this case the dish was a slab of pure pig fat.  Naturally he couldn’t refuse.  He finished it off by hiding the morsels in the dirt around his seat.   He describes a characteristic looseness with protocol among the SOF cadre.  Soldiers called each other by first name rather than “sir” or by rank.  An especially admired officer might simply be called “boss.”

Over the years SOF has grown in stature in the DoD and in the American consciousness.  Today SOF units play key roles in U.S. conflicts in places like Afghanistan, Syria, Yemen, and Pakistan.  They have helped partner countries contain insurgencies and criminal networks in Colombia, the Philippines, and Uganda.  They operate in 80 countries worldwide, mostly as trainers of host-country forces.  Army General Stanley McChrystal came out of the SOF world to lead the U.S. counterinsurgency strategy in Iraq and Afghanistan before a lapse in protocol brought his career to an end.  Special forces have grown in numbers and funding in recent years even as the rest of the military has been cut back.  It may be no surprise that they attract some resentment from the rest of the military, as well as criticism that the U.S. depends too much on their capabilities to pursue its national aims.

The brief story provided here only scratches the surface.  It is meant to show that direct action is only one of the tools that special forces bring to the foreign policy toolbox.


His Excellency George Michael, Ambassador to China

Here is an old story that I heard just recently:

Thirty years ago,  rock music manager Simon Napier-Bell traveled to Beijing on a mission to open the Chinese market for Wham!.  He did not have any gunboats, nor even a point of contact inside the government.  He started cold calling officials, offering lunch at the upscale expat restaurants.   Being careful not to phrase his proposal in terms that would demand a yes or no answer, he suggested in an indirect way that wouldn’t it be great if a major Western pop music act could come to China…   and wouldn’t that demonstrate China’s openness to other cooperation–foreign investment for example.  Over many lunches he worked his way up the official chain until he was making his pitch to the Minister of Culture.

It took 18 months to pave the way for Wham! to make global news by being the first Western pop music act to play in communist China.  Napier-Bell tells the story in his 2006 book.

The impact of this concert on the Chinese people is impossible to measure beyond the anecdotes of those who were there, or wished they had been.  It probably did not affect the rate of foreign direct investment in China, though it did help Wham! break into the U.S. pop music market.  For me, the story speaks to the potential for enterprising private individuals to take initiative in building new bridges between cultures.

The Stories We Tell

In training for service abroad, Americans are often taught that the people of this or that traditional culture learn, argue, and decide based on stories.  This is a society of oral tradition, the instructor says with no condescension intended, and they are swayed by a good story more than by evidence.

It is true that traditional peoples live by their stories.  But so do Americans.  It’s a human thing.

Business and management consultancies have picked up on the importance of story to leadership and organizations.  Sometimes they will use the word “narrative” when a more technical- and scholarly-sounding term is called for.  Educators, preachers, politicians, salespeople all know the power of a well-placed anecdote to make an enduring impression.

Americans tell stories to understand their place in the world, and the role their country plays among other countries.  Some stories, like the role Americans played in fighting back despotic world powers in the second World War, loom large in our imagination of who we are.  Others, like the story of the 11th of September 2001 when we were attacked by foreign fanatics, color our understanding of the world in ways we’ll probably never fully comprehend.

I have a special appetite for stories that are obscure and surprising, like that of the decades-long series of conferences and workshops organized by physicists from the U.S., Soviet Union, and other nations at Pugwash, Nova Scotia, beginning in the 1950s.  They met throughout the Cold War with the ultimate purpose of eliminating the threat of weapons of mass destruction.  Over the years they would serve as a back channel that the American and Soviet governments could use to communicate when official diplomatic channels froze over.  This phenomenon of non-governmental organizations forging trans-national ties, especially as a means to resolve conflicts or prevent war, has since become known as “track II diplomacy.”

This website will need your stories.  The important foreign affairs issues of our time are starving for fresh, rich stories to feed malnourished debates.  The best stories, the truest stories, don’t fit neatly into an ideological framework.  They invite curiosity and inspire action for deeper engagement with the world.   My hope is that by exploring the multiple meanings of stories that readers provide to this site, we will discover the significance of more of the tools in our foreign policy tool box.



A Box of Hammers

Someone said that if the only tool you have is a hammer, you will treat every problem as if it were a nail.  Many Americans would be forgiven for thinking that the U.S. foreign policy tool box contains only hammers.  When confronted with realities in the world that we object to, we are tempted to choose between the extremes of crushing the problem with military force or else turning away.

The truth about U.S. engagement in the world is much more complex.  We interact with foreign peoples constantly through commerce, diplomacy, aid, and cultural exchange.  When we have a conflict with a foreign nation–or other foreign entity–we may employ a wide range of approaches to resolve it.  We have many tools in our tool box.

This site is dedicated to stories and perspectives on everything that falls between non-engagement with the world and hitting it with the hammer.  The goal is to present stories that didn’t find their way  to the Washington Post or cable news, perspectives that may be too nuanced for politicians to make use of.  The stories will be short, clear, honest, and free of jargon.

Above all I hope the site will prompt you to read, comment, and involve yourself in the way Americans act abroad.