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What Messages should NATO Communicate?

06 Feb 2020 - 14:05
Bron: Pre-ministerial Press Conference by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg © NATO / Flickr

Recently, I participated in a conference on NATO’s approach to communications. Apart from NATO officials, the meeting involved academics, think tankers, representatives from PR and social media companies as well as members from the various Atlantic Associations that promote the Alliance in their home countries. It goes without saying that the event took place against the backdrop of mounting tensions within the organisation, caused by serious doubts about American leadership and Turkey’s independent behaviour, to name but two of the most pressing issues.

Surely, throughout its history NATO has had its fair share of internal divisions (think of Suez, Vietnam, France withdrawing from military structures in the 1960s or the nuclear debate in the early 1980s) but during the Cold War geopolitical circumstances ensured its integrity. That founding conflict has been over now for 30 years.

"In a low-trust situation, also within the Atlantic community, it is difficult for NATO to get its message out."

At the conference, many speakers agreed that in a low-trust situation, also within the Atlantic community, it is difficult for NATO to get its message out. Partly because the public space for deliberation is suffering from pillarization, fueled by social media that may be employed to reach target audiences (as the industry’s spokespersons stressed) but at the same time increase our constituencies’ vulnerability to manipulation. But, as various participants suggested, messaging is also hampered by ‘complacency’; interpreted by some American panelists as Europe’s belief in eternal peace but by others as the Alliance’s propensity to overly rely on its superior values and qualities.

In that sense it was remarkable that a number of NATO officials were doing just that, reiterating phrases about the most successful alliance in world history, expressing the conviction that open societies will always prevail and even tying NATO’s existence to human progress. A high dose of, as the French would say, on se félicite. Besides, there were the usual exchanges about ‘storytelling’, the ‘power of narratives’ and ‘reaching out to ordinary people’.

While some of the more self-congratulatory assessments may be debatable (in terms of values, for instance, NATO has always been a very pragmatic organisation, judging from the fact that Salazar’s Portugal was among its founders and instances of military rule in Turkey and Greece, who both joined in 1952, never called their membership into question), they certainly will not suffice to remedy current problems and to successfully rebrand the Alliance. ‘No public diplomacy is going to compensate for bad policy’, as someone remarked. Indeed, the key question is whether this bad policy, or rather the lack of a common purpose, can be repaired.

"NATO’s original roles were as a deterrent and an internal balancer."

NATO’s original role has been twofold: to act as a deterrent to Soviet expansionism and to keep a precarious peace in post-war Western Europe by, crucially, embedding Germany in a US guaranteed security framework. It seems NATO managed this first task (although this is difficult to verify), but it is beyond doubt that the second undertaking has been a great accomplishment. After the Cold War, however, these twin roles have become less self-evident. Crisis management in the Balkans, partnerships, enlargement and even deploying to Afghanistan kept NATO going, but the question is whether a return to self-defense and deterrence, primarily focused on Russia, will provide enough substance for longevity – even if this task is a priority for some Eastern-European members. US requests for more active engagement in the Middle East or a tougher stance on China are likely to be politely rejected. And with regard to NATO’s ‘internal balancing’ role, it seems current US policies are rather aimed at diluting than strengthening intra-allied cohesion.

NATO is a product of the special circumstances following the Second World War, when the US acted as a benign hegemon and crafted a multilateral order supported by military alliances with European and Asian partners. For some time now, the US has been relinquishing this exceptional role and is bracing for competition with China. In this process, it will increasingly try to shed distracting obligations and partnerships that serve no direct purposes to this end. As US diplomacy is changing (and diverging from the agendas of some of Europe’s leading countries) so will NATO, as one of America’s foreign policy instruments. In itself, this development should not come as a big surprise after 75 years of unique Atlantic partnership and, one may add, three decades after the end of the Cold War.

"It will be the US as its founding father and unparalleled lead-nation who determines the fate of the Alliance."

Of course, in an uncertain world you don’t throw away old shoes before you get yourselves a new pair. In other words, for the time being NATO isn’t going anywhere, if only for reasons of unimaginative diplomacy or bureaucratic inertia (or the mundane fact that the organisation just moved into sumptuous new headquarters). Ultimately, however, it will be the US as its founding father and unparalleled lead-nation who determines the fate of the Alliance. The impetuses for change are unlikely to come from its divided European member-states, although the latter (or at least some of them) better start preparing for that day lest they be caught unawares. Maybe it is too much asked from NATO officials to start questioning the Alliance’s fundamentals. But if it is true that, as was stated during the conference, NATO is more agile and adapts faster to new circumstances than others, allied governments should start anticipating the future and think of ways how to manage upcoming change. The fact that preparations have started for Defender 2020, the largest exercise in Europe by US forces in 25 years, should not beguile us into believing things will stay the same.   

"NATO is strong because it is united - such mantras will no longer do."

The short London Declaration, issued last December by NATO Leaders to mark the Alliance’s nervously celebrated 70th anniversary, contains a proposal for a ‘forward-looking reflection process’. Actually, one would have expected NATO to update its 10-year old Strategic Concept (the last decade has seen no lack of turbulence) but, tellingly, nobody fancies such an endeavor now. Despite the cautious wording of this surrogate proposal (apparently not tabled by the US who argues that spending more on defence would be forward-looking enough), capitals should seize this opportunity to openly discuss their ‘evolving strategic environment’, not shying away from addressing internal business. This introspection should dig deeper than one of the conference’s concluding remarks that NATO is strong because it is united. Such mantras will no longer do.

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