Military officers deploying abroad and executives conducting activities overseas often receive cultural training designed to help them avoid offending host country nationals and to negotiate effectively with host country counterparts. Such cultural training usually covers the meaning of gestures in the foreign context, basic pleasantries in the foreign language, and generalities such as “Japanese will try to avoid saying no” or “Jordanians are renowned for their hospitality.” While necessary, such cultural training often falls short of meeting the needs of a person entering not only an unfamiliar culture but an unfamiliar political and historical context. A case in point is Turkey, which has a complex history of secularism, pan-Islamism, pan-Turkism, Kurdish separatism, militant leftist movements, and empire fragmentation, as well as military, political, and legal ties to the West.
Consider these scenarios:
A Risky Donation
It is October 2014. You’re a single female lawyer working for an American company in Istanbul. You become friends with a Kurdish woman who owns a coffee house on the ground floor of your apartment building. You appreciate that, like you, she is ambitious and independent. She also speaks English well, making it easy for you to understand each other. She tells you that ISIS is attacking Kobane, a Syrian city across the border from her hometown in southeastern Turkey and that her friends and relatives are sheltering many people who have fled the fighting. Other refugees are staying in camps in the area. One day she tells you she’s planning to visit the area and is collecting money from organizations and people in Istanbul to help fund services at Arin Mirxan Refugee Camp. You’re interested in making a personal donation but also wonder if you should ask your company to make a corporate donation. Most Turks you’ve met seem to care very much about the refugees, so it could be good for public relations. You think about asking your Turkish assistant at work for advice, but he doesn’t seem personally sympathetic toward refugees and has said some racist things about Kurds in front of you. You’re not sure he can be unbiased when it comes to working through your Kurdish friend to make a donation.
What you don’t know: Arin Mirxan was a female soldier fighting ISIS in northern Syria as part of the Kurdish YPJ/YPG forces there. When she was about to be captured by ISIS fighters, she killed herself and her attackers with a grenade, becoming a martyr in the eyes of many Kurds. A local municipality run by elected pro-Kurdish officials set up Arin Mirxan Camp. The Turkish national government considers the YPJ/YPG a terrorist organization because of its links to the PKK, a Kurdish separatist organization that fought a decades-long war with Turkey, and considers Arin Mirxan a terrorist. Many Turkish Kurds have joined YPG forces in northern Syria in violation of Turkish law.
In January 2015, ISIS will retreat from Kobane, and the Kurdish-run municipalities in Turkey will send construction materials and municipal vehicles across the border to help with rebuilding efforts. Turkey will bring terrorism charges against local officials who backed the aid effort and will remove them from their posts.
Coup Cold Shoulder
It’s late August 2016. You’re an American military officer training Turkish NATO officers at the NATO base in Izmir. You were here four years earlier and enjoyed the assignment. While Turkish sentiment toward the US fluctuates, you always found your Turkish students to be warm and welcoming, using their free time to show you the best of everything Turkey has to offer. During this deployment, though, things have been very different. When you try to connect with old contacts, they don’t respond. Your students are polite and diligent, but it breaks, they don’t invite you to join them for tea and none of them stays after class to talk. In July, elements in the Turkish military had attempted to overthrow the elected government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan but were defeated within 24 hours. President Erdogan claims that Fetullah Gulen, a Turkish religious leader living in the US, directed his followers in the Turkish military to conduct the coup, and he has requested Gulen’s extradition. Meanwhile, Turkey continues to be an important US ally within NATO and in the fight against ISIS in Syria. Your American colleagues don’t have prior experience in Turkey. They are seeing the same behavior from their Turkish students and are looking to you for an explanation. You wonder whether there is any relationship between your students’ strange behavior and the attempted coup.
What you don’t know: In the month after the failed coup, thousands of government employees, including schoolteachers, judges, doctors, university professors, police officers, and soldiers, were fired from their jobs and banned from public service under suspicion of being followers of Gulen. The pro-government press is promoting an anti-US narrative that claims the CIA and Gulen plotted together to overthrow Erdogan and that the elected Turkish government remains in danger until all followers of Gulen are discovered and neutralized. In this environment of distrust, a simple accusation from a colleague can destroy a Turkish military officer’s career and land him in prison. NATO officers are already under heavy suspicion because they work with foreigners. By November, most senior Turkish NATO officers will either be unable to leave Turkey or will be seeking asylum in the NATO countries where they are stationed.
What’s Up With This Hood?
As a final illustration of how basic cultural training can be inadequate for understanding a foreign environment, watch this November 2014 video of a group of Turkish youths surrounding US Navy sailors on shore leave in Istanbul. The Turks unfurl banners and record a statement as they put hoods over the sailors’ heads.
The Turks in this video belong to the Turkish Youth Union (TGB), a radical nationalist organization. While most Turks do not agree with TGB politics, the action of holding the US sailors is a powerful symbol in Turkish society. In 2003, US soldiers arrested a group of Turkish Special Forces soldiers in Sulaymaniya, Iraq. News reports of the event included images of the Turks wearing hoods while in US custody, and these images deeply offended the Turkish public. In 2006, the blockbuster Turkish film Valley of the Wolves: Iraq was released. It opens with the arrest and holding of the Turkish commandos. According to the film’s fictional plot, one of the commandos later kills himself because of the shame of the incident, which motivates the officer’s friend to travel to Iraq seeking vengeance on the US commander behind the arrests.
These imagined and real scenarios illustrate that a week’s cultural training before taking up duties abroad, even if that training includes some current political events and local sentiment, may be insufficient to maintain the trainee’s effectiveness and safety. The best course of action is to follow cultural and contextual training with continued access to experts who can answer specific questions and summarize major events in the country and their potential impact on one’s military mission or corporate goals. Such experts can better bear the time-consuming burden of analyzing and interpreting news and social media in the local language and connecting recent events to historical ones, leaving the military officer or corporate executive free to do his or her best work.