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On Monday, June 27, 2016, The Institute of World Politics hosted an event to discuss Special Operations Forces in Diplomacy. The speakers included former U.S. Ambassador to Zimbabwe and Cambodia, Ambassador Charlie Ray, along with Glenn Pangelinan, founder of the Reliance Project, and Jesse Lee, Principal at the Institute for the Management of Conflict. Together, they explained the relationship between Special Operations Forces and the U.S. diplomatic corps, described the roles and importance of special operations, and shared personal testimonies about their daily tasks and experiences in these fields.
Ambassador Ray opened with discussing the relationship between traditional military units and diplomacy. Most embassies prefer to work with Special Operation Forces because they have a better understanding of how to deal with diplomatic missions as opposed to traditional military units. Civilians in embassies abroad and in foreign affairs programs in D.C. generally do not know how to communicate with the military in a way that allows for their communications to be translated into operational planning. He also explained that the media do not cover many issues Special Operations Forces address in addition to terrorism, such as international crime, transnational diseases, child slavery, and trafficking.
Glenn Pangelinan described his work with helping halt the practice of child soldiering and human trafficking. Mr. Pangelinan stated his view that most insurgencies are formed due to lack of political or economic representation, or some combination thereof. Once such concerns are mitigated, teams can consolidate and improve efforts to reduce conflict. Mr. Pangelinan further emphasized that there is no single infallible route to developing a country or region, and it is misleading and harmful to assume that there is a “one size fits all” model to development. There is in other words, no Western panacea for Developing World problems. And Special Operation Forces are an essential node that ensures mutual understanding and respect between the U.S. government and foreign audiences.
Mr. Lee discussed his experience working in West Africa for the Ebola response, as well as improving several countries’ healthcare systems in preparation for the next outbreak. He noted that Special Operations Forces do much more than how they are normally portrayed in the movies. An example of this is how Special Forces also provide healthcare to marginalized communities during many of their operations.
The speakers noted that a majority of the work of Special Operations forces involves building trust between communities. Ambassador Ray concluded with the observation that while the Diplomatic corps’ foremost priority is the safety of U.S. citizens overseas, it also is charged with broadening its relationship with foreign audiences and fostering new connections.