December 1, 2011  

Perspectives: A French idea worth stealing

The U.S. should create its own version of the military coopérant, which would furnish better understanding of local processes, dynamics, possibilities and limitations

The U.S. would do well to emulate France in at least one way: by creating an American version of the French military’s coopérant officer.Such officers would serve a tour in foreign countries, yet would be neither defense attachés nor military advisers. Instead, they would become true members of the foreign military’s chain of command, living in local neighborhoods while using local accommodations and amenities. They would instruct when asked, yet would strive to learn far more than they teach. At the end of their tours, they would return home to share their lessons.

This cadre would not only promote vital U.S. interests by providing greater understanding of regional and local perspectives, but would help foster true partnerships with friends and allies.

The concept is not unique to France, yet few nations spend the time and resources in developing as successful a coopérant program. In the French model, a coopérant is a military officer who is assigned to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Under the guidance of the ministry’s director of cooperation and defense, a coopérant is sent to work overseas as an integral part of a foreign military’s chain of command. The ministry promotes the sending of French coopérants to develop a partner nation’s military capacity.

One of the more important aspects of the coopérants is that they create networks, or réseaux, between France and its partners, allowing continued influence for both and, perhaps more importantly, better cultural, regional and local understanding of France’s partner nations. Some coopérants write end-of-tour cultural reports, which go into great depth and can help increase understanding of local power politics, networks and important cultural cues. These reports can be found and read at L’Ecole Militaire de Spécialisation de l’Outre-Mer et de l’Etranger.

The U.S. should consider developing its own cadre of coopérants. First, a note about what the coopérant is not. He is not a defense attaché, who works at the embassy for the U.S. ambassador under Defense Department supervision. Nor is he a military adviser, who is generally a subject-matter expert geared to train foreign military officials. Instead, a coopérant is an active-duty military member who works within the host nation’s chain of command. His primary purpose is to learn and understand the partner’s world-view, limitations and comparative advantages. Importantly, the coopérant seeks to understand the local and regional dynamics. This includes an understanding of formal and informal networks and institutions.

The coopérant’s chain of command would be unique. The billet should actually belong to the State Department; in military-speak, the officer would fill a State Department billet. Further, State, not DoD, would determine which countries would receive an American coopérant. Of course, State would consult with DoD, but the objective would be to further long-term diplomatic goals, not necessarily military ones. Once a coopérant’s post is created, it would remain open and filled so long as positive diplomatic ties exist between our two countries.

Once transferred to the State Department and assigned to the partner nation, the officer would report to his military supervisor within the host nation’s chain of command. The actual post would be negotiated by the partner nation and State Department, and based on interest or need of the host nation, not the U.S. A coopérant can and should come from any military specialty — ideally, a specialty chosen by the host nation — and the post could be anything: full-time faculty at a military school, an infantry officer teaching tactics to new recruits, operational or contingency planner for the host nation, active member of the chief of staff’s strategic team.

The coopérant would act according to our partner’s operational standard, living in grade-appropriate local housing, eating local cuisine and fully integrating his routine with partner nation officers. The ideal is that the coopérant becomes fully assimilated into the daily lives of our military partners and as fully as possible into host nation culture.

A coopérant’s tour would be less about teaching than learning, and still less about shaping or guiding a host nation’s decisions. This is not about expending resources to meet American standards. This is about understanding how our partners operate, letting them take the lead and supporting their operations within their institutional and regional framework. An outsider might once have thought France placed its coopérants in an ancient colony’s authority structure primarily to help guide local leadership and decision-making in favor of French policy preferences. It is clear from where some of the modern French coopérants are located that this is no longer the case.

Upon the officer’s return to the U.S., his duties would shift to a heavy emphasis on teaching — specifically, sharing lessons with the rest of the U.S. military and diplomatic community. This stands in contrast with another all-too-frequent method of information-gathering: sending U.S. leaders on whirlwind tours to countries of interest, where they are largely subjected to planned speeches and laundry list of needs, often articulated in hopes of attracting U.S. resources.

A coopérant would furnish better understanding of local processes, dynamics, possibilities and limitations, allowing us to better target our efforts to support our partners. Perhaps they would help us avoid training foreign militaries regarded by locals as predatory. That alone would serve to improve our image with friends and allies around the world.

One example

One useful place for an American coopérant would be India, and specifically, in a part of the military that is engaged in Africa.

The south Asian country has long had ties with its neighbors across the Indian Ocean. Gandhi developed his nonviolent approach during his 21 years in South Africa. Today, the ties are increasing. Trade between India and Africa is growing; by 2014, trade with South Africa alone is projected to reach $15 billion.

J. Peter Pham, a noted expert on foreign affairs, writes, “India has clearly demonstrated not only that it has extensive interest in Africa, but that it is willing to invest significant amounts of human, political, and material capital to advance those interests.” Moreover, Pham notes “the willingness of New Delhi to commit to peacekeeping, peace enforcement, and nation building efforts that Washington has largely lacked either the political will or the resources to engage in the continent.”

Finally, he says, Washington and New Delhi have similar policy preferences toward the continent.

A U.S. coopérant placed in India’s military U.N. or Africa engagement structure would be able to learn how India is engaging with African nations, and discover which networks are most likely to effect change on the ground.

Officials in New Delhi might wonder what’s in it for them. India may rightfully argue that the U.S. would have more to learn. To which I would reply: Wouldn’t a better-educated America, one whose increased global perspective you’ve helped shape, serve to promote shared policy preferences?


It is easy to envision multiple objections to the creation of an American version of the coopérant. I can readily envision DoD resisting its officers’ subordination to the State Department. Perhaps a more reasonable objection would be the waste of limited resources outside of the chain of command — indeed, outside of the military altogether. I would argue that the lessons and insights gained from a coopérant’s tour could greatly reduce resource expenditures.

But one obstacle would require change. The coopérants themselves may justly wonder whether a job outside DoD structures would hurt or even scuttle chances for future promotion. The answer will have to come from DoD itself, in the form of new incentives or cultural change.

In the meantime, the job will appeal to people who want to leave their comfort zone and immerse themselves in alternate ways of doing business, people who care less about the worn-out “think outside of the box” mantra than actually exploring true alternatives. I would be surprised if there were not more applicants than slots.

In sum, the creation of a unique officer, the coopérant, would advance U.S. policy preference by building trust and relationships with our partners, showing our full commitment and respect for our friends while, most importantly, giving us greater insight to the real concerns and conditions they face.

Lt. Col. Jean-Philippe Peltier is the deputy head of the Foreign Language Department at the Air Force Academy. A native French speaker, he was born in Fort Lamy, Chad, and was raised in Francophone Africa, specifically Madagascar, Burkina Faso, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Comoros. He received a Ph.D. in political science, with a focus on sub-Saharan Africa, from Michigan State University in 2007. The view expressed here are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Air Force Academy, the Air Force, the Defense Department or the U.S. government.