Hanging Out at MILOPS

By Benjamin Wittes
Monday, June 3, 2013, 7:30 AM

Monday finds me in Bangkok---jetlagged and exhausted---at the 26th annual International Military Law and Operations (MILOPS) Conference, which is convened every year by U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM). I don't normally fly half-way around the world to give speeches, but MILOPS is a special conference. It not only brings together operational lawyers from around the military, but it also integrates representatives of a great many militaries with whom the United States has liaison relationships around the Pacific. No, the North Koreans aren't here, but representatives of a remarkable array of other countries are. Today alone, we heard from civilian or military representatives of Japan, Tonga, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Canada, and Indonesia---as well as from the ICRC and the the U.S. Justice Department. And a lot of other countries are here as well: The Thai, of course, the Chinese, the Canadians, the Australians, the Nepalis, the British, the Vietnamese, and others.

The conference thus hints at the incredible range of activities the U.S. military is involved in across the Asia-Pacific region. Because of the nature of PACOM, which is headquartered at Pearl Harbor, MILOPS always has a heavy emphasis on maritime issues. But in some ways, the most interesting thing about the conference is not the substance of the panels but the military-to-military and individual-level relationships it brings out. These militaries are here because the U.S. military either works with them on some area of mutual interest---or on many such areas---or because it wants to build relationships of a sort that would facilitate such work. In some cases, these day-to-day relationships are already incredibly close. In others, they are very much works in progress, and the conference thus serves as a kind of investment in their future development. In still others, they are more aspirational than anything else. 

Because the sessions are being conducted on a non-attribution basis, I can't describe the comments of the individual country representatives. But I do hope to post thoughts on the panels to the extent I can over the next few days, and to pull people aside---both Americans and others---and record some podcast interviews.