Meeting the Strategic Communications Challenge

Remarks by NATO Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow at the Public Diplomacy Forum 2015

  • 17 Feb. 2015
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  • Last updated: 18 Feb. 2015 16:56

Good Morning ladies and gentlemen,

It is a pleasure for me to open this second NATO Public Diplomacy forum.

When it was held last February, we were in a different world, and we faced a different set of challenges for NATO’s strategic communications. 

Our focus then was on the completion of the ISAF mission in Afghanistan – on demonstrating the progress made, the outstanding challenges, and ensuring that our commitment would continue in a different way.  But at the same time, the end of NATO’s largest ever combat operation prompted questions about what the Alliance would do next.

There were also wider questions about the relevance of the Alliance at a time when our publics had little sense of the challenges or threats to our values and our way of life.  So our communication efforts were focused on making it clear to our tax-payers that defence does matter, and that we have to invest in it.  It was a tough case to make.

What a difference a year can make!

In Afghanistan, NATO launched a new non-combat mission – as we said we would.  And there is renewed public interest in our continued engagement to prevent the emergence of new terrorist threats, amid the attempts by the so-called Islamic State (or ISIL) to establish a caliphate across Iraq and Syria, and the spreading turmoil across North Africa and the Middle East.

To the East, Russia has torn up the international rule book.  It has returned to a strategy of power politics, threatening Ukraine and European and global security more generally.  And it is pursuing this strategy even as the costs to its own prosperity and reputation grow. 

These are strategic game-changers, and they call for a firm and robust response by the Alliance.

That is why, at our Summit in Wales last September, NATO’s leaders agreed on a Readiness Action Plan.  It will ensure that our forces can deploy quickly to deal with any challenge, whether conventional aggression or asymmetric threats like cyber attacks.  It will increase the number, size and complexity of our exercises.  And it will enable rapid reinforcements should they be needed, facilitated by forward-based command and control and logistics units on the territory of our Eastern Allies.

This is the most significant boost to our collective defence in decades, enhancing our ability to defend our populations against threats from both the East and the South. 

Just over a week ago, our Defence Ministers put the essential building blocks of the Readiness Action Plan in place:  a new concept for an expanded NATO Response Force; a clear plan to set up the very high readiness elements of that force based on six Allies that have volunteered to serve as the framework nations for this spearhead capability; and the decision to establish six NATO Force Integration Units in Eastern Europe.  So we are well on our way to making the Readiness Action Plan a reality.

Let me stress that all these measures  are purely defensive.  They are proportionate, and fully in line with our international commitments.

And because security does not come for free, in Wales our leaders also made a Defence Investment Pledge:  to stop the cuts; to increase defence spending toward 2% of gross domestic product as our economies grow; and to spend our defence budgets more effectively.  

We also launched a Defence Capacity Building initiative, to help our partners to build stronger and more resilient defence institutions and armed forces.  The more they can handle their security problems by themselves, the less need for us to send our own troops.  And if our neighbours are stable, we will be more secure.

But the new threats we face have a significant new dimension.  Whether we look to the East or the South, they include sophisticated propaganda and disinformation. Rarely have we had to deal with such well-financed, well-orchestrated, slick and unrelenting information and media campaigns. 

These campaigns use our open societies to try to undermine our values, to confuse and demoralise us.   Fed by social media, the internet and the proliferation of new media outlets, propaganda is part and parcel of what we call hybrid warfare. 

Russia devotes an estimated 100 million Euros a year to media operations.  According to some accounts, it employs no fewer than 12 advertising agencies.  It has established new state-controlled media, such as Russia Today and the new news agency Sputnik, available in Europe, North America and around the world.
These outlets broadcast in English, French, German and other NATO languages. 

And the message?  That it is not Russia that is responsible for the violence in Ukraine, but the Ukrainian government and its western backers.   That it’s not Russia which has sent personnel, tanks, anti-aircraft missiles and weapons illegally into Eastern Ukraine, but that the Ukrainian army is some sort of mysterious “NATO legion”.  Although our measures are defensive and fully transparent, Russia describes them as an unprovoked and unjustified push to station NATO forces and infrastructure on Russia’s borders. 

Minister Lavrov treated us to a litany of all these Russian arguments just two weeks ago in Munich – although many in the audience frankly laughed when he implied that Russia’s annexation of Crimea was a popular uprising and that the Soviet Union opposed the division of Germany.

We have become used to Russian propaganda:  an endlessly changing storyline designed to obfuscate and confuse, to create the impression that there are no reliable facts and therefore no truth.  We saw this technique used after the shooting down of the Malaysian airliner last July.  We have seen it in the use of fabricated pictures and fake atrocity claims, in the constant lies and the accusations that any Western criticism of Russian leaders is “inciting anti-Russian hysteria”. 

Meanwhile, the Kremlin is also clamping down on what is left of the free media in Russia.  Access to the internet is being restricted, bloggers must register with the government, and Russians are finding it increasingly difficult to get any information other than the official government line.  Russia is not only becoming isolated economically due to the sanctions, it is isolating its people from the rest of the world.

In the South, ISIL and Al Qaeda are using social media to intimidate us with videos of grisly murders.  This type of propaganda revolts us, but it also attracts wannabe jihadists.  It encourages them to join the ranks of these terrorist organizations.  ‘Inspire,’ Al Qaeda’s online magazine, and ISIL’s equivalent journal ‘Dabiq,’ show how the new terrorists are just as comfortable in cyber space as they are handling weapons and explosives.

This is a struggle for hearts and minds, an effort to divide us, to pit one radical version of Islam against all other faiths, and to undermine trust and confidence in our values and our democracies.  

We cannot respond with more propaganda, but only with the truth and facts: by setting the record straight. While this takes time, credibility is our biggest asset to  counter hybrid communications.   And we have to stick to our values and principles, including our commitment to tolerance, diversity, and peaceful resolution of disputes. 

This is an issue which was actively debated by our Defence Ministers two weeks ago.  They agree that we need to be even more effective in addressing Russia’s propaganda and disinformation, and all other efforts to undermine public confidence in our unity and resolve.  They also agreed that NATO is not the only actor. This has to be done in close coordination with the European Union and other international organisations.  

While our Public Diplomacy and communications experts are working on how we can be more effective together, let me offer a few personal thoughts.

First, we know from the surveys carried out by our Public Diplomacy Division that NATO enjoys widespread support throughout the Alliance. 

Many national polls over the last year have also shown increased support for NATO in Europe and North America. Let me give you some examples.

In Poland, 77 percent think NATO is doing a good job. 82 percent of Lithuanians and 75 percent of Estonians support NATO membership.  In Romania, NATO is the most trusted institution.  In Germany, 89 percent say NATO is important for securing peace in Europe.  58 percent of Americans agree that NATO is still important for their security.  And for the first time, a majority of Swedes are in favour of joining NATO.  

That does not mean that our policies and activities are always well known, even among parliamentarians and opinion makers.  In every Alliance member country, in parliaments, think-tanks and the media, the post-war generation has retired.  Many of their successors focus on other aspects of security, such as police, homeland defence or the intelligence services.  We need to continue to reach out to this new generation.

Second, Allies are good at designing policies and strategies, but they have difficulty in following through when it comes to resources.  This is particularly true with the pledge to increase defence spending to 2% of GDP that we made at Wales.  And yet, if we do not meet this pledge within a decade, we will not have the resources to implement viable strategies in the east and south.  We will leave dangerous gaps in our capabilities.

And it’s not only about hardware.  One of those important capabilities for our nations is a strong cadre of professional public affairs practitioners – the people who communicate the policies and the plans. This is one of the lessons learnt from our operations in Kosovo and Libya, and it remains essential. 

The defence pledge is clearly a hard sell at a time of low growth and austerity; but eight Allies are moving in the right direction, despite facing many of the same economic challenges. The Secretary General is also making the case in his speeches and visits to Allied capitals.  His point is that keeping this pledge is not easy, it will not happen overnight, but it can be done, and it is vital for our security.

Third, we must continue to rebut Russian propaganda:  not by engaging in tit-for-tat, but by deconstructing propaganda, debunking Moscow’s false historical narrative, by exposing the reality of Russia’s actions, and by restating the international rules it is breaking.  

We must also continue to tell a compelling story about who we are, what we do, and why we do it.  And we must stand united in our actions, because actions will always speak louder than words.

At a time when media focus on NATO has become more intense than ever, this also means prioritising: focusing our limited resources where they are most effective, and coordinating even better among ourselves and with our international partners.

This brings me to my fourth and last point.  This concerns our partner countries, particularly our immediate neighbours to the east and to the south.  They are even more the targets of propaganda and media campaigns than we are.  Russia now has huge media penetration in places like Ukraine, Georgia or Moldova.  It owns many TV channels and internet sites.  This makes its narrative influential not only among Russian-speaking minorities but also among the broader population. 

Media which are not controlled by Russia can be subject to cyber attacks or deliberate distortion.  Our partners often lack the resources, skills and know-how to organize effective public communications of their own.  Effective government communications and a free media are vital if these countries are to keep their cohesion.  This is an area where I believe NATO can and should do more, obviously in conjunction with the experts and with the help of Allied capitals.

These are major challenges, which cannot be handled by NATO Headquarters alone with our limited resources and staff in the Public Diplomacy Division.  Moreover, NATO is not always the main player.

Individual Allies are taking the information challenge increasingly seriously.  For instance, there is a debate in the Baltic countries about whether to set up a joint Russian-language television station – to offer Russian speakers an alternative to the one dimensional diet of the Russian state channels and “Russia Today”. And in Germany, the government is increasing its financial support for Deutsche Welle, to allow it to broadcast in more languages and throughout Central and Eastern Europe. 

We cannot leave it to the internet or social media to identify and set out clearly what is true and false.  These new technologies are only sophisticated means to transmit whatever content people want to broadcast through them.  We also need to look at how we can better support our own media and broadcasters. 

Let me stress that I don’t mean opposing Russian propaganda with propaganda of our own, but simply ensuring that our media reflect the standards of diversity, professional journalism and a genuine quest for objectivity; and ensuring that they can reach all the peoples in our Euro-Atlantic space as the BBC World Service and Radio Free Europe did in an earlier period, and still do.  In this respect, we need to reach out in particular to the Russian- and Arab-speaking communities in Europe who are especially the targets of the propaganda I have described.

So NATO cannot do it by itself.  But we have an active part to play in strategic communications.  I know that the Public Diplomacy Division has, for some time, been rising to this challenge under its former ASG and its currently highly active DASG and NATO Spokesperson. 

We are now much more present in the media and especially the social media.  And NATO TV has been instrumental in presenting our activities.  We are far more interactive than in the past.  We reach out to far broader audiences, particularly to young people and citizen groups.  And we are rapid, open and transparent.

So, as we take up the challenge of defending and promoting our values in the new hyper-connected information space, I know that we have a good basis of expertise, professionalism and creativity on which we can build.  I know also that the NATO senior leadership, including the Secretary General, myself and other senior civilian and military officials, will be committed to the task.

For all these reasons, I welcome the decision to hold another edition of this Public Diplomacy Forum, so that we can debate our current and future challenges with several outside experts, who will present some interesting case studies throughout the day. 

I am glad to see representatives of several other international organizations, such as the United Nations, the OSCE and the EU.  A warm welcome also to the representatives from the private sector, NGOs and the media; and of course to all the representatives from our member and partner nations, whether Brussels-based or from capitals.

We have much to learn from your experience; and your different perspectives will make our conclusions more valid and relevant.  We must continue to talk to each other and to exchange ideas and experience to stay ahead of the curve.

It is not for me to say what is the most effective form of communication.  Traditional techniques, such as speeches and interviews, conferences and seminars, or visits to NATO headquarters, continue to have their place, as do Twitter, Facebook, instant messaging and social media campaigns.  The key thing is to get the balance right and to be able not just to organize robust campaigns but to measure the results and adjust as we go forward.

I’m sorry I can’t stay with you for today’s forum.  But I very much look forward to hearing of your results and conclusions.  As someone involved almost every day in NATO’s strategic communications, I can assure you that I will be one of the very first not only to learn these lessons, but also to apply them.

Thank you – and have a great forum!