/ Published July 20, 2020
Next Mission: U.S. Defense Attaché to France; A Memoir from the Days of Punish France, Ignore Germany, Forgive Russia by Col Ralph R. “Rick” Steinke, US Army (Retired). Koehler Books, 2019, 247 pp.
Few military officers will ever have the desire to serve in an organization far removed from their military specialty. Even fewer will ever have the opportunity to do so—especially as an attaché in one of the largest US embassies abroad. Col Rick Steinke had both the desire and the opportunity. Next Mission is a book about his experiences as the US defense attaché (DATT) to France between August 2002 and June 2006. It is as much a personal memoir as it is a professional story of life as a military diplomat. These two aspects, taken together, paint a vivid tale of the unique experiences and challenges among soldiers turned statesmen.
Paris hosts one of the largest attaché corps in the world with over 180 representatives. Additionally, France was and remains a major US ally in Europe—even during times of political stress. Thus, being the senior Department of Defense representative carries immense responsibility given the geopolitical stakes and our shared history from the Revolutionary War to the present. The title of this work could have just as well been The Accidental DATT. Since political circumstances between France and the United States at the time were strained, Steinke found himself unexpectedly being elevated to the DATT position only six months after his arrival. His predecessor, Brig Gen Felix Dupré, helped smooth the transition by immersing the colonel in key issues and, more essentially, introducing him to important leaders from the beginning.
The author’s anecdotal stories demonstrate the skills and knowledge required for success in such a high-stakes position. Steinke meticulously presents examples of the planning, preparation, timing, and in some cases pure luck that led to successful outcomes. His efforts led to a greater understanding of the French military—its capabilities and limitations. Steinke was instrumental in conveying the sense of shared interests to members of the US Congress and other senior US government leaders. Although political limitations between France and the US persisted during his tenure, the book shows how he was able to maintain a strong bond between our militaries.
Personal memories in the work show the lighter side of attaché duty that make the assignment a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Many of these experiences are simply not available to the rank-and-file member of the US military or other government servants. Steinke recounts representing the US at Memorial Day ceremonies throughout France, parachuting into Normandy during a D-Day commemoration, and making a life-threatening ski trip to Mount Blanc. The personal moments of normal family life in Paris also add to the mystique and allure of attaché duty. Immersing his young children in the culture provided them a priceless education.
While Steinke does not offer a list of traits for success, one can surmise that such an offering would include preparation, confidence, moral courage, relationships, and credibility. The attaché school is but a small part of what it takes to be successful as an attaché. More applicable is having a sense of the history of the host nation and the shared history between the two nations along with a deep knowledge of current mutual geopolitical interests. Much of the preparation for attaché duty will come from professional education and operational military experience. A successful attaché must be comfortable in interacting with senior government and military leaders from multiple sources. In most cases, one will be expected to know the factual and nuanced details about the host country and to have confidence in negotiating military issues of great interest to the United States. Oftentimes, an attaché will need moral courage to back up confidence and speak truth to power.
Encounters with host nation or foreign attaché representatives can require inconvenient truths delivered with diplomatic finesse. The same moral courage will be required when US leaders persist with unfounded or uninformed opinions about the host nation. Setting the record straight is not going native as some might allege—rather it is offering an informed, reasonable approach to achieving mutual interests. Developing relationships may well be the most important criteria for success. The difficulty in diplomacy is that relationships take time to develop, and for attachés, time is limited—normally to a three-year assignment. The social settings within the attaché corps are essential to building relationships that lead to networks of leaders who can assist diplomatic efforts. As an attaché, one must focus on external relationships with host nation leaders and internal relationships with Department of State country team members. A positive relationship with the US ambassador is also critical for getting things done. Finally, an attaché must have credibility, and it comes from multiple sources. First, credibility comes from being a military representative based on your training, service expertise, and affinity. It also stems from what could best be described as stature from representing the world’s leading nation. Your credibility as an attaché can be enhanced by how you balance and support the interests of both nations and deliver mutually beneficial results. It can be destroyed by unprofessional, nondiplomatic behavior that reflects poorly on your stature as a military diplomat.
Rick Steinke possessed each of these qualities. He was imminently prepared to become the defense attaché through his professional education and deep knowledge of history and geopolitical affairs. He had confidence in his ability as an Army officer to interact with subordinates, peers, and superiors at multiple levels. On several occasions, he demonstrated moral courage and made tough political-military decisions. He built a network of relationships that helped accomplish US interests during tense US-France relations all the while maintaining tremendous credibility for the entire defense attaché office in France.
Diplomacy is not all champagne and foie gras but difficult, slow, and always constant work, as this book demonstrates. For those contemplating a radical opportunity to serve their country, attaché duty is the perfect option. Next Mission offers a glimpse of the professional and personal rewards.
W. Michael Guillot
Former Air Attaché, France
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