The Case for Military Diplomacy

by October 2021
Israel’s and Germany’s air force chiefs fly together over Israel to kick off the Blue Flag 2021 exercise. Photo credit: Team Luftwaffe via EYEPRESS

Is the pen truly mightier than the sword? It depends on whom you ask.

Israelis tend to perceive national security in a narrow prism of military might and downplay other fundamental pillars, such as robust democratic institutions and national resilience. Historic and cultural influences have led to a perceptional timeline with wars as milestones, and everything else either leading to or resulting from them. According to this way of thinking, there is time for diplomacy, managed by diplomats, and when diplomacy fails, warriors wage war. This makes the term military diplomacy an oxymoron. But in reality, things are not clear cut, and the military regularly uses diplomatic tools to serve both its mission and broader national goals.

It is odd that diplomacy in Israel is mostly disregarded, and military diplomacy is totally unnoticed, when, in fact, it plays a significant role in managing and shaping reality.

A New Term for Old Practices

Militaries have engaged in dialogue since the dawn of time but usually for limited military purposes. The scope and nature of these interactions gradually evolved into what we now call military (or defense) diplomacy.

In the last two centuries, defense attachés progressed from low-ranking officers who were focused on gathering intelligence and viewed as detrimental to the diplomatic mission, to their current role as senior military advisors to the ambassador, tasked with identifying and realizing multifaceted avenues of engagement.

The term defense diplomacy was first coined in the UK, in the Strategic Defense Review White Paper of 1998. The initiative was meant to “dispel hostility, build and maintain trust, and assist in the development of democratically accountable armed forces,” and called for increasing the number of defense attachés, or “ambassadors of defense diplomacy.” The paper plainly stated that defense diplomacy was “not a new idea,” and the term simply attached “greater intellectual coherence” to a collection of previously unlinked diplomatic engagements.

What Is Military Diplomacy?

An informal definition may be the pursuit of military and national objectives, by the military and defense agencies, utilizing an array of non-violent diplomatic instruments.

But why not quote the formal IDF definition? We will get to that. 

In the realm of defense, efforts may include facilitating force buildup, preparedness, signaling deterrence, resolving conflicts, and formalizing post-war mechanisms. Various venues may be used, such as strategic dialogues, mutual-learning seminars, joint exercises, senior visits, combined planning, and formulating agreements and combined operating procedures.

As a form of soft power, military diplomacy also promotes public diplomacy aimed at enhancing legitimacy and garnering support. As in the case of other countries imbued with a sense of purpose and moral calling, Israel’s military diplomacy seeks to demonstrate and instill values and contribute to the world even without having any direct benefit. An example of utilizing military diplomacy in promotion of national interests is China’s growing footprint in peacekeeping forces, overseas bases, and bilateral exercises where capabilities are brandished and messages are conveyed.

Military Diplomacy in Israeli History

Israel’s tumultuous history saw multiple instances of military diplomacy playing a vital role and even saving the day. Force buildup operations were crucial to the fledgling army, necessitating creative and stubborn diplomatic efforts. Two out of many examples are the 1948 Czechoslovakian weapon shipments to circumvent the UN arms embargo, which enabled the newly created IDF to fend off the Arab armies’ invasion; and Operation Nickel Grass 25 years later, the American strategic airlift to replenish Israel’s dwindled resources during the Yom Kippur War in 1973, which may have had a limited practical impact—as the tide of battle had already turned—but sent a powerful signal and played a role in convincing the Egyptian leadership that the chapter of wars should now be closed.

Many military campaigns have included instances of international coordination, although usually they are kept under the radar, as publicity may hinder the outcome. One example is the collaboration between the IDF with British and French forces in the Sinai campaign in 1956, following covert trilateral discussions. More recently, “according to foreign sources,”—as Israelis are fond of saying in such cases—Israel’s military cooperation with Egypt against the branch of the Islamic State terrorist organization in the Sinai Peninsula has become an important element of this vital bilateral relationship. The enemy of 1956 is now the peace partner and beneficiary of Israeli support. 

The world order is in flux. Military diplomacy will become increasingly vital in sustaining national security and promoting stability and peace.

In the 1949 armistice agreements after the War of Independence, as well as in the 1974 agreements on disengagement following the Yom Kippur War, military leaders were instrumental in forging mechanisms that stood the test of time. The peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan had significant military diplomacy aspects, and the IDF continues to serve as a dominant channel of communication with these key strategic partners. 

Truth be told, Israelis tend to scorn peacekeeping forces, some due to justified criticism and some as a result of lacking familiarity with the complexity of their missions. But those who see it up close appreciate the sensitive role these missions play. Israel has reservations as to UNIFIL’s interpretation and limited implementation of its mandate in Lebanon, but there is no doubt that the trilateral dialogue between UNIFIL, the IDF, and the Lebanese Armed Force (LAF) prevents miscommunication from turning into miscalculation.

Originally entrusted entirely to Israel’s military intelligence agency, international coordination between militaries is now shared with a separate division of the IDF focused on diplomacy and cooperation. Although each IDF service branch has its own foreign relations unit, the International Cooperation Division (ICD) oversees international cooperation throughout the IDF and leads general-staff level relationships—from handling the intricacies of cross-border cooperation, through shoulder-to-shoulder collaboration with strategic allies, to deconfliction with key players (for example, Russia in Syria).

A significant shift in the last two decades has been the decentralization from clandestine general-staff elements, to overt, service-level engagement. This has resulted in a transition from discourse via intermediates to an operator-to-operator mode. In recent years, there has been an ongoing process of cultivating a military diplomacy “community,” similar to other disciplines that are centrally guided but organizationally dispersed. It is a positive concept but not yet fully implemented.

The alignment of all military diplomacy efforts under the operational rather than the intelligence sphere has been a profound transformation. While the ICD resides in the newly established Strategic Planning and Cooperation Directorate (J5), it is subordinate to the Operations Branch (J3) during contingencies. This signifies that military diplomacy is now inherent to operational planning and execution.

Multilateral exercises—once quite rare—have become frequent and popular and take place both in Israel (such as the Blue Flag exercises every two years) and abroad (such as the IDF special forces training in Cyprus). Besides obvious operational benefits and an exceptional learning experience, these events serve as a strategic projection of unity in the face of common challenges and rivals.

Israel-United States Defense Relations

The 1981 Memorandum of Understanding between the US and Israel on strategic cooperation—frozen after the OSIRAK raid and then renewed in 1984—launched a massive, ever-growing effort, spanning multiple areas such as research and development, mutual learning, intelligence sharing, logistics, interoperability, and combined operations in counterterrorism, missile defense, air operations, and more. 

The alliance serves not only Israel’s security and qualitative military edge but also significantly contributes to US interests and capabilities. A notable example is the extensive learning following the Yom Kippur war and after every conflict since.

US Marine during Juniper Cobra, a US-Israeli joint air defense exercise. Photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen
US Marine during Juniper Cobra, a US-Israeli joint air defense exercise. Photo credit: REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Although collaboration takes place on a professional level, it also reflects camaraderie, friendship, and shared values in addition to providing opportunities for mutual learning. A recent initiative in the US Congress now calls for this interaction—specifically, in regard to the application of advanced technological solutions to operational problems—to be codified in an organizational framework.

We Shall Defend Ourselves by Ourselves? 

A “lone ranger” mentality is nevertheless deeply ingrained in the Israeli psyche, dating back to the biblical description (by an outsider, Balaam) of “a nation that dwells alone” (Numbers 39:9), and currently enhanced by metaphors describing Israel’s distinct place in the Middle East such as Ehud Barak’s famous (or infamous) phrase, “a villa in the jungle.” 

The slogan “we shall defend ourselves by ourselves,” which is voiced regularly by Israeli leaders—indeed, repeated by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in his recent discourse at the White House—reflects this narrative. It also serves another purpose of conveying to the American people that they will never be asked to shed blood on our behalf. The problem is that it comes across as haughty and fails to depict the reality of massive US assistance, not only in terms of generous foreign military financing of which Israel is the largest cumulative recipient but also with boots on the ground during contingencies, primarily for active defense against ballistic missiles as well as for the management of the emergency supply effort. True, we do not wish to have US Marines fight for us, but we should not push the stand-alone agenda too far—when thousands of US soldiers are actually scheduled to come to our assistance (judging by data published during previous exercises).

In this day and age, it is preferable to stress the need for collaborative efforts, and even admit that we can’t do everything on our own. Sure, the IDF can carry out a strike of momentous proportion if the need arises ultimately, but we still rely heavily on the backing and legitimacy accorded by our allies and the international community.

Words Don’t Come Easy

Israel is a global leader in fields such as counterterrorism, cyberwarfare, and unmanned systems, and Israelis are often eager to collaborate with other countries. On the down side, Israelis talk more than listen, teach instead of learn, and preach instead of offering perspective. But at least as far as rhetoric goes, phrases like “mutual learning” are finally gaining popularity in Israel, after decades of telling partners: “It’s only natural that you came to learn from us and we are happy to teach you.”

We are still too ethnocentric, however, and view others as foreigners instead of equal partners. Israelis lack sufficient cultural skill, and the average level of English is not where it should be.

Israelis want results here and now, while diplomacy is based on fostering long-term relations. Short terms of service in military positions add to the challenge.

But all in all, even without diplomatic finesse, Israelis are fun to befriend and engage, and they offer a wealth of know-how and motivation to share. 

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Several organizational culture attributes pose a challenge to military diplomacy:

Israelis have a “good guys, bad guys” worldview, having grown up learning that we are “a country surrounded by enemies.” But this is no longer the case, as Israel now is a significant regional player within a network of interests and power struggles. In the military, terminology has expanded to reflect allies, partners, rivals, and yes—even bitter enemies. The public has yet to catch on, however.

Lacking a constitution and characterized by flexibility and blurry jurisdictional lines, Israel has a tendency to expand areas of responsibility, especially when identifying a void. Military personnel tend to explain and justify policy even when it relates to the political echelon. There are those who see this as a necessity and an asset, but I believe it should be better balanced. 

Inconceivably, there is no written military diplomacy doctrine. Commanders come and go, each with new ideas on what should be done and how. The IDF School of Military Diplomacy trains all personnel from newly recruited soldiers to defense attachés. With no doctrine to follow, the school punches over its weight and does an amazing job of consolidating deliverable know-how and instilling core competencies, but these are still delivered according to personal experience and agenda.

Military diplomacy is not perceived as a discipline requiring systemic training and experience. Most leaders show up with little relevant experience and take over after a short handover, and defense attachés become military diplomats after a condensed training phase. Coupled with miserable organizational memory, it is a recipe for continuously reinventing the wheel. The problem is exacerbated because in diplomacy, failures are not always apparent, as partners are polite and do not tend to complain, and it is difficult to investigate unidentified opportunities.

Luckily for us, excellent officers from various professional backgrounds bring authenticity, candidness, and creativity, which are much appreciated by international partners, so the bottom line is positive, albeit not perfect.

These shortcomings should be addressed by conceptual progression and significant resources. Perhaps we cannot match our German and American counterparts who send attachés abroad after lengthy training periods, including the acquisition of language skills, but we should at least try.

The Times They Are a-Changin’

In an age of instantly-accessible information and direct connectivity, one might think that diplomacy is obsolete. Perhaps human interaction was essential for gathering information, unraveling hidden truths, and deciphering intentions, but some of this is no longer needed with endless, instant, and accessible data. Meeting in person to exchange confidential information may no longer be required with secure networks at hand. According to this narrative, embassies and missions overseas are a waste of money, as diplomats can chat via web-conferencing instead of face-to-face and fly out only for rare meetings.

But this line of thought is seriously flawed (on its civilian diplomatic counterpart and its rebuttal, see Robert Silverman’s column in The Jerusalem Strategic Tribune). The age of the internet has brought an abundance of information, but raw data does not necessarily translate into knowledge, let alone wisdom. Gleaning insights, distilling lessons learned, and establishing strategies require people getting together and looking each other in the eye. When the issues at hand are sensitive, influential, and even existential, human attributes—such as empathy, friendship, and trust—are key.

Military diplomacy is not merely about give and take; rather it generates opportunities for sharing, learning, evolving, and collaborating.


The world order is in flux, moving toward multipolar rivalries, liable to have a significant impact on the Middle East. Iran’s hegemonic aspirations threaten regional stability, while new opportunities and peaceful alliances emerge. Technological advancements transform warfare as we know it and usher in new dimensions and challenges. In this challenging strategic environment, military diplomacy will become increasingly vital in sustaining national security and promoting stability and peace. IDF leadership should, therefore, address deficiencies and advance military diplomacy as a major national asset.

Israel is a small country with people who are culturally averse to diplomacy; yet its strategic posture, unique experience, frontline innovation, and an intrinsic drive to collaborate, share, and contribute make it a great ally, partner, and friend. 

Reuven Ben-Shalom
Col. (res.) Reuven Ben-Shalom is a cross-cultural strategist, a fellow at Reichman University's International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), and lecturer at the Israel National Defense College and the IDF School of Military Diplomacy.
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