Texas is known for bluebonnets and broncos. Chile is well known for its llamas and lapis lazuli. The Czech Republic is famous for the original Budweiser and Bohemian glass. You might be wondering, what do these three places share in common? They are all proud partners in the U.S. National Guard’s State Partnership Program, which links State National Guard units from across the country with foreign militaries for exchanges, exercises, and other activities that help us work together more effectively to meet shared security challenges. I recently attended a conference where I learned more about these unique partnerships, as well as how Department of State security assistance and defense transfers help the National Guard strengthen America’s partners and allies in just about every corner of the globe.
First, a little about me: I am a diplomat who currently works as a Foreign Policy Advisor, or POLAD to Major General Clarence “K.K” Chinn, commander of U.S. Army South. I am one of about 90 State Department Foreign Service Officers embedded with U.S. military command headquarters and deployed with our troops in conflict areas around the world, to bring together diplomacy and defense. The conference, which was held at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston in Texas, brought together more than 100 National Guard senior leaders, officers, service members, and their staffs from 23 U.S. states, territories, and D.C., with many of The Adjutant Generals, or “TAGs” – senior National Guard leaders that work directly for state governors.
The State Partnership Program (SPP) dates back to the early 1990s as one way that the United States worked to build ties with new military forces from countries emerging from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Today, 79 countries take part in the program, and partner with almost every U.S. state and territory. Some larger states like Texas, California, and Florida have multiple SPPs. The National Guard calls the SPP, the “Pilot Light of Security Cooperation,” thanks to the longevity and enduring quality of relationships SPPs sustain from year-to-year, drawing on their institutional knowledge, almost like a military version of a Rotary Club or Sister City relationship.
During the conference, each SPP delegation, from Arkansas to Wyoming, gave a brief on the unique features of their exchange programs and activities they conduct year-round with partner nations. Over the years, thousands of SPP activities with the National Guard have helped foreign military units become more effective at responding to natural disasters (a National Guard specialty), conducting peacekeeping and humanitarian aid operations. Many National Guard volunteers have full-time jobs as engineers or medical practitioners that can be essential to helping train foreign partners, such as members of the Massachusetts National Guard who helped SPP partners from Paraguay to field an engineering unit that deployed to support the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti. In short, by training and working together through the State Partnership Program, more countries can join us to meet global security challenges, while American guardsmen and women benefit from scores of technical professional development opportunities, while building cultural awareness and developing foreign language skills among America’s “civilian soldiers” of the National Guard.
Each SPP is carefully coordinated with the U.S. embassy operating in the SPP partner country. U.S. Ambassadors carefully review and approve SPPs to ensure that what they do also helps contribute to our broader diplomatic relationship. I quickly also learned how TAGs are well-versed in the strategic foreign policy objectives and the many tools of U.S. security cooperation overseen by the Department of State, like Foreign Military Financing (FMF) grant assistance, that helps countries purchase U.S. equipment and training; International Military and Education Training (IMET), which helps foreign partners to attend U.S. military schools; as well as Foreign Military Sales (FMS), which allows countries to buy top-of-the-line U.S. defense equipment.
While the military benefits of SPP are pretty clear, what also struck me was how these programs also lead to building people-to-people ties, professional, and educational linkages between states and counterpart institutions or organizations. Because TAGs have a direct line to the governor and citizens from all walks of life in their states, they know where to turn to in the community to find potential matches for civil society, youth, and sports diplomacy initiatives that not only support mission goals but also additional people-to-people exchanges. For example, West Virginia and Peru have taken advantage of their excellent SPP relationship to expand goodwill, friendship, and whole-of-government relations through bilateral youth educational exchange programs and attending ministry conferences. Also, Belize and Louisiana are looking for educational opportunities for at-risk youth training through site visits and other academic exchange opportunities.
As the conference came to a close, the TAGs and their teams headed home following each direction of the weathervane, it felt good to know how much we shared in the way of values, objectives, and respect for the countries we worked with, all rooted in friendships and alliances with so many friendly foreign nations.
About the Author: Bridget F. Gersten is a Foreign Service Officer currently serving as a Foreign Policy Advisor (POLAD) at U.S. Army South, United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).
Editor's Note: This entry is also published on Medium.com/StateDept.