Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Social Capital Goes Global

"What could have been a huge problem disappeared because Denny knew the generals over there and called and said, 'Hey, we know each other, let's work this thing out,'" said Haines.

The above quote comes from today's Baltimore Sun piece titled, "Forged in the crucible of Annapolis" which notes that three members of the USNA class of 1968 (Mike Mullen, Jim Webb, and Dennis Blair) now hold, or will soon hold, key positions in the highest echelons of our government.

The potentially "huge problem" the quote refers to, though, was that little incident that occurred back in April 2001 when an EP-3E (P-3 airframe) modified to conduct certain, uh...collections, had a nasty aerial encounter with two Chinese intercept planes that wound up with one Chinese plane and pilot "buying the farm" and an expensive and sensitive U.S. airframe crash-landed on Hainan Island (just off the Chinese mainland in the South China Sea).

And just to comprehend the significance of the quote (which comes from Admiral Blair's college roommate), when he talks about Blair 'knowing the generals' he's not referring to a bunch of American flag officers over at PACOM headquarters on Oahu...he's talking about Chinese generals.

That's pretty powerful stuff.

Just through the contacts he had developed over the years, but mostly through those he had developed as a four-star in charge of our largest (geography-wise) theater command, he developed enough of a personal relationship with China's shot-callers to be able to help defuse a situation that could have gotten very ugly, very fast had a few critical indicators gone the other way.

This kind of makes you think of General Zinni back when he was CENTCOM, or about the way people describe Bush the Elder when he put the Gulf War coalition together (based on Bush's previous governmental postings, he literally knew most of the key world leaders whose support he needed to oust the Iraqi Army from Kuwait).

To me, it's also a reminder of why practitioners are often better leaders and problem solvers than are pure theoreticians. When a global crisis does erupt, I would take a Tony Zinni, a Dennis Blair, or a Colin Powell any day of the week, and twice on Sunday before all the eggheads from The Fletcher School, the Kennedy School, and SAIS put together.

Of course, like anything, too much elbow-rubbing can have a downside, as John recently pointed out on a comment to a Right-Side-of-Lowell post (https://www.blogger.com/comment.g?blogID=3046628493283608233&postID=6874853412305370328) when he mentioned how Admiral Blair's relationship with the Indonesian government didn't exactly wind up well for the East Timorese, who, I have no doubt, weren't so much concerned with Mr. Blair's level of "hard" or "soft" social capital as they were with the persecution they faced at the hands of a military dictatorship.

I'm sure many friends of the Tibetans and the Taiwanese won't be huge fans of the appointment, either.

Still, it's nice to think that anytime the proverbial three-in-the-morning phone call starts with "How are the wife and kids?" the chance that someone on one end will then try to kill the person on the other end after hanging up seems somehow diminished.

And that can't be all bad!


C R Krieger said...

Good point.

Not to diminish theory and those who have taught it, but one of the most important things to come out of a year at the National War College, or any other Senior Service School, is the contacts, real and presumed. Students from all five Services (including US Coast Guard) and the Department of State, plus the odd person from FBI or Congressional Research Service or USAID and a number of "International Fellows" rub elbows for ten months and get to know each other. This makes for good social capital and the ability to link people together.

This linkage can show how small the world is. My cousin, Dick May, was on a trip to India a few years back--working for Lockheed as I recall, after retiring from the Air Force as a Colonel. An Indian Air Force three-star asked him if he knew Cliff Krieger (me). The Indian office and I had been at Staff College together in the UK. As you can imagine, the term "my cousin" helps to break the ice in a conversation.

Regards -- Cliff

The New Englander said...


Great real-life vignette and I'm sure that the instant connection went a long way for everyone involved...

Also, after I read your comment I realized I shoulda/coulda/woulda been a little clearer in my post about theory and practice. Ideally, a mix is best. I'm sure the connections that people like General Petraeus or Admiral Mullen make at places like the Woodrow Wilson School or the Harvard Business School pay huge dividends down the road. And, as you said, the service schools are great for bringing everyone to one forum, and the jointness of it comes back to us manyfold (Having come in to the military in 2004, I sort of take jointness for granted, but as I know from the horror stories of places like Grenada, we really weren't always anywhere near the same page).

And not to pick on neocons in particular but when you look at a Richard Perle, a Paul Wolfowitz, a Dick Cheney, and start to see that none of them have been on the business end of foreign policy implementation, you can see where certain pieces of the equation get left out that people with more hands-on experience may not have missed..

happy holidays,