Despite competing with millions of other messages, NATO still enjoys considerable public support in Europe and the United States argues Stefanie Babst, Acting Assistant Secretary General of Public Diplomacy at NATO.
Question: how many videos do you imagine are watched on YouTube each day. A few million? A couple of hundred million?
The answer is actually 2 billion – and growing.
In 2007, Twitter saw 5,000 tweets a day. The figure today? Over 90 million.
As baseball legend Yogi Berra once said: "The future ain’t what it used to be".
Nowhere is the rapid pace of change more visible than in mass communications. Thanks to digital cameras and mobile phones, photos and videos are spread within seconds across the globe, turning millions of people into information providers.
It is difficult for countries to improve their image: it is even harder for multilateral bodies
This has a number of downsides for national governments and international organisations. Put simply, it is much harder to get our messages across. The top-down communication patterns of the Cold War era are increasingly being replaced by peer-to-peer relationships and networks.
Unsurprisingly, institutional communication channels rank among the least trusted. This increases the need for well-planned public diplomacy efforts. Strategic communications, place branding and public affairs are essential tools to convince audiences that a country or organisation’s values are worth supporting. Many governments have hired PR firms to improve their image.
It is difficult for countries to improve their image: it is even harder for multilateral bodies. Most people find the workings of large international organisations too complex and removed from their every day concerns.
So where does NATO fit in this? How has it fared in conveying its messages?
The results from a recent survey carried out by the German Marshall Fund entitled ‘Transatlantic Trends’ gives us a few clues. It found that majorities (59%) in 11 European countries and the United States (60%) still believe that NATO is essential for their security. The exception is Turkey where only 30% believe NATO is essential.
Interestingly, 62% of respondents in the 11 European nations would also support a NATO role outside Europe, whereas 32% prefer NATO to focus on Europe itself. In the US support is much larger with 77% saying that NATO should act outside Europe, if need be.
Even in Russia opinions about NATO are improving. In 2009, only 24% of Russians held a positive view of NATO; currently 40% express a favorable opinion, whereas 40% still view NATO unfavourably.
But the Allies would be well advised not to take public support for NATO for granted.
National and international surveys demonstrate clearly that the public at large, and particularly the post-Cold-War generation, has only foggy ideas of the NATO’s new missions and policies
The NATO-led operation (ISAF) in Afghanistan remains a case in point. More than half of West Europeans want to see their troops withdrawn from or reduced in Afghanistan with Poland being highest (77%) and Turkey lowest (with 47%). Support for NATO’s operation in Afghanistan has also started to decrease in the United States, where 41% want their troops home or numbers substantially reduced.
Against this background, NATO Allies must do a better, more coherent job to explain their strategy in Afghanistan. We must convince parliamentarians and the public why it is important to finish the job in Afghanistan.
But at the same time the Alliance needs to tackle another fundamental challenge. Bluntly, we must better explain what the Transatlantic Alliance is all about in the 21st century.
National and international surveys demonstrate clearly that the public at large, and particularly the post-Cold-War generation, has only foggy ideas of the NATO’s new missions and policies. While there is still a considerable degree of trust and confidence in the organisation as such, many people have difficulties relating NATO to new global security threats. Others, again, question the need to invest in defence after the end of the Cold War or view NATO primarily as a protector against Russia.
But these perceptions and assumptions are wrong.
The sad fact is that our world has even become more fragile after the end of the Cold War.
Terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, regional conflicts and threats posed to our energy security, information infrastructure and commercial shipping are just some of the pressing security challenges requiring urgent responses. More than ever, governments and other players in the international arena need to work together to address these challenges, to find support for solutions and change.
No single government can tackle these expanding problems on its own. The Alliance remains the best and most effective transatlantic forum to do exactly this. But NATO’s role as a security provider has not been fully understood by our publics.
So how does NATO respond to this?
For sure, the Allies have come a long way in embracing a new and modern understanding of their common communication policies. Transparency, responsiveness, accuracy of information and direct engagement with people across Allied territory and beyond have become pillars of NATO’s public diplomacy.
More than ever, journalists, think tankers, decisions-makers and NGOs (nongovernmental organisations) can be found in
NATO’s Headquarters’ corridors or meeting with NATO civilian and military experts in public gatherings.
But NATO has also become more accessible for average citizens. Every year thousands of visitors come to the Headquarters to discuss the transatlantic security agenda with national and NATO officials and, if he is around, even with the NATO Secretary General.
NATO does not try to hide behind confidential documents, nor avoid critical questions. In recent years, we have especially reinforced our efforts to reach out to the young generation, by facilitating networks among students and young political leaders, offering summer schools and fellowships and organising seminars and workshops across NATO and partner nations
We have also overhauled our technological capabilities, bringing the NATO website and other audiovisual tools and products up to scratch. Online lectures, videos and discussions have made NATO’s interface to the outside world more transparent and interactive. There are no taboos: topics range from the new Strategic Concept all the way to the challenging operation in Afghanistan.
When it comes to the use of new media tools, NATO’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is a frontrunner
When it comes to the use of new media tools, NATO’s Secretary General, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, is a frontrunner. He runs his personal Facebook and Twitter profiles and responds directly to questions and comments from ordinary citizens in his digital "Secretary General’s Corner".
NATO has come to understand how important a modern and responsive public diplomacy strategy is for the organisation. We have grasped that NATO’s image, for good or for worse, rests in our own hands.
Ultimately, however, a strong and positive brand can never be constructed through slogans and logos alone. It needs to be earned through convincing policies and political actions – and this is exactly what the 28 Allies are trying to achieve together on a daily basis.
The Summit in Lisbon is an excellent opportunity for the Allies to demonstrate their resolve to continue building an efficient transatlantic security partnership. We will be prepared to carry our messages loudly and clearly – whether it be through new or old communication methods - to the people. Because it is them who matter most.