Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News


A Language of Failure: Improving Cultural Awareness to Improve Nuclear Security

The threat of nuclear terrorism is the American flag lapel pin of national defense policy; you’ll never see a strategic threat assessment without it. The risk of nuclear terrorism is very real, albeit low, and failure to prevent an improvised nuclear device would be catastrophic. A nuclear terrorist attack would change the global political landscape forever. It is no surprise, then, that the U.S. spends billions each year on helping foreign partners prevent nuclear terrorism.

But the nuclear security lessons we are attempting to teach our foreign partners are not sinking in. Militaries have long recognized the value of understanding the language, values, and customs of foreign lands. Yet our nuclear security efforts often lack cultural awareness and fail to make a difference. We must improve our cultural awareness to improve our partners’ nuclear security.

Nuclear security culture in many countries is minimal or non-existent. In some cases, trainees are too low-ranking to implement real changes in their organizations. In others, our assistance may accidentally embarrass the wrong policymaker or powerful bureaucrat. It seems that our nuclear security programs suffer from a multitude of cultural misunderstandings.

The National Nuclear Security Agency claimed that in 2018 it “conducted over 100 bilateral and multilateral nuclear and radiological security workshops and participated in 67 export control workshops with foreign partners to help strengthen national systems of export control.” But according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the number of incidents related to trafficking or malicious use in the last 20 years seems to be completely devoid of any specific identifiable trends. Our security efforts are making no measurable progress.

We must address the cultural barriers that keep foreign partners from absorbing and implementing the data-driven nuclear security lessons we attempt to teach. We should redesign our training efforts around a system that starts from the top and works down, adopts a “train-the-trainer” model, and relies on cultural experts.

Engaging national leaders and obtaining their buy-in is necessary, but there are a large number of middle managers with power and agendas of their own. Once the executives have agreed to an engagement, we need to work through all of the subordinates to ensure compliance and understanding. This enables trainers and advisors to manage the various echelons of leadership in non-Western hierarchies.

Instead of teaching the lower ranks, we should certify those same middle managers to conduct the training themselves. Once they are experts in their own right, they can then train their respective organizations. This approach would help build a sense of ownership within nuclear security programs. It would put the onus on those middle managers to take the training seriously, and to ensure compliance with regulations. It would also encourage trainers to train within the framework of their own cultures.

The benefits of hiring cultural experts cannot be overstated. Just as the military has used socio-cultural analysts and advisors for decades, nuclear security programs can be more successful in the same way. The addition of a cultural expert team member allows the team to identify and resolve cultural differences in real-time. It breaks down barriers in communication and misunderstanding. It allows the U.S. to engage its partners on their own terms. Students are more receptive when they do not feel as if they are fighting just to be understood.

Obviously, a redesign of training programs will have costs. Entire new training packages will need to be created, new trainers and cultural experts will need to be hired. But the additional costs incurred will ultimately be worth it if it means the global community is safer from the increasing threat of nuclear terrorism.

We must stop assuming that just because the data backs our best practices, those practices will be absorbed quickly by non-Western countries. We must stop assuming that throwing money at a program ensures its success. Our efforts to build our foreign partners’ nuclear security cultures need reform. Engaging partners on their own cultural turf, at all levels, can strengthen our efforts to avert nuclear tragedy. If we can learn to engage our partners in their languages, we can all learn to speak the language of nuclear security.