by NATO Deputy Secretary General Mircea Geoană at NATO-Istanbul Cooperation Initiative Regional Center (NIRC) seminar
DR ALANOUD AL-SABAH: Good morning, Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen. I’m Dr Alanoud Al-Sabah, the acting director of the NATO-ICI Regional Center in Kuwait. We are delighted to welcome you to our seminar on Disinformation and Strategic Communications Responses, organised by NATO-ICI Center in cooperation with NATO HQ Political Affairs and Security Policy Division, MENA Section, and Public Diplomacy Division, in its hybrid format between Kuwait City and online. And I would like to give the floor today to His Excellency Mircea Geoană, Deputy Secretary General of NATO, who will be our honorary guest in addressing our opening session with His Excellency Sheikh Fawaz Meshal Al-Sabah, Assistant Undersecretary for Information and Security Follow Up to the National Security Bureau. Please, your Excellency, the floor is yours.
MIRCEA GEOANĂ [NATO Deputy Secretary General]: Thank you so much, Doctor. Good morning to all from Brussels, from NATO Headquarters. I’m delighted to be delivering these opening remarks of this very important seminar on Disinformation and Strategic Communication. A great many thanks to the ICI Regional Center in Kuwait and for our host nation. We visited with the Secretary General and the North Atlantic Council, the Center. It’s a vivid memory of this place of excellence. Thank you so much for hosting this event and enabling an important discussion on challenges rising from hostile information activities, including disinformation. I also seize upon this opportunity to thank the government of Kuwait for hosting the Center, as well as to His Excellency Sheikh Fawaz for his extremely important work on the matter. Thank you so much for your partnership.
A lot of ground will be covered during today’s seminar: the information environment during the COVID-19 pandemic; its consequences; online radicalisation; building societal resilience. All of these matters that are at the heart of challenges and concern, which both NATO and our partners are faced [with] on a daily basis. Because we live in unpredictable times. To respond to the many challenges we face, our Alliance and our partners, we must stay united, remain strong and ready to deal with any threat, at any time, from any direction. Last June, during the Brussels Summit, NATO leaders and Allies took bold decisions, reflecting NATO’s ambition to respond to threats to our collective security.
Let me take a minute to explain what we have done. Allies agreed on the NATO 2030 agenda – an ambitious vision and action plan for our future security. NATO 2030 paves the way for us to uphold the rules-based international order, including collaboration with our partners. And NATO leaders also called on Secretary General Stoltenberg to lead the process to develop NATO’s next Strategic Concept – NATO’s core strategic document. The last Strategic Concept, dates back to 2010 and in those days we were referring to Russia as a strategic partner. That document of 2010 does not mention China at all and only alludes to technology and climate change. This Strategic Concept that our leaders will be adopting at the Madrid Summit in late June 2022, this is something that it is so important, and I wanted to share a little bit of our ideas today at this very important event with the NATO-ICI Regional Center in Kuwait. Because what you do, what we do together at the Regional Center in Kuwait City perfectly illustrates what cooperation between NATO and its partners can, will and should look like.
Further leveraging the Center as a hub for education, for training, for public diplomacy activities will highlight the importance of NATO’s partnerships with ICI countries and the broader region. So in a nutshell, NATO is adapting. This is how we have managed to remain powerful. This is how we successfully maintain unity and strength in the fast-paced and dynamic security environment. We’ve done this for 70 years. We are considered – and we are proud of that – to be the most successful political military alliance in the history of human mankind. And it is our strong resolve to stay the same for the period ahead.
The array of challenges that NATO faces is unprecedented. From conflict spill-over to complicated political environments in the midst of challenging elections; for mercenaries creating disruptive and highly volatile security conditions; to fundamental geopolitical shifts and competing powers’ interests. The Gulf region is also heavily affected by severe security challenges. Our security depends on decisions taken to protect ourselves, but also on how the challenges are understood by our public opinions and those of our partners.
These opportunities, challenges and threats, as I have hinted at before, are not just what we have traditionally known. Now, hybrid threats and challenges – notably in the domain of communications and social media, technology, climate change and others – have found their way to the top of Allies’ concerns. In addition, China’s stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security. So there is a lot of work ahead of us on the road to the Madrid Summit next year. Our presence here today underscores the serious challenge that hostile information activities, including disinformation, poses to our countries and to our publics.
Disinformation is not new for NATO. In fact, NATO has been confronted with propaganda and disinformation efforts by hostile actors since our very first inception. However, over the years we have seen a greater sophistication, greater intensity and greater scale of these activities, directly targeting our public opinion and the fabric of our societies. Large-scale efforts are underway by foreign actors, both state and non-state actors, to polarise our societies, to weaken public trust in institutions and, ultimately, to undermine our way of life and the principles organising our democratic societies. These hostile activities aim at creating ambiguity and confusion to weaken NATO’s ability to take decisions and therefore our ability to act. We also know very well that these hostile information activities can, over time, erode nations’ resilience to domestic or international shocks.
Since 2014, NATO has increasingly become a target of professional and sophisticated disinformation efforts. In 2016 two of our Allies, the US and France, were victims of a large-scale Russian hostile information campaign in the context of national elections. There were headlines all over the world on these attempts. I can say that these experiences multiplied by the experiences of several other Allies and partners since, all this has increased our awareness of the seriousness that this threat represents.
In addition, the pandemic has unveiled a steady stream of propaganda and disinformation aimed at our publics in very difficult times, in challenging times, in moments of intense pressure: psychological, economic, social and human. There has been an increase [in] hostile narratives emanating from Russia and China, and at times combined with their narratives on COVID-19. But beyond COVID-19, both of these countries sophisticatedly exploited for disinformation purposes legitimate issues our citizens care about, such as democratic governance, immigration policies or basic human rights.
This is also true in the area arms control, disarmament and non-proliferation, where sustained disinformation campaigns have disrupted multilateral and confidence-building measures. This is why detecting, analysing and countering disinformation in a time-efficient manner is a challenge. At the click of a button, an individual piece of damaging information can be spread to an audience of thousands of millions, sometimes thousands, sometimes millions, sometimes even more, and many times far beyond our control.
So how do we intervene quickly enough to mitigate the consequences? As I mentioned, disinformation is not new for the Alliance, so we are not starting from scratch here. But we must do better. NATO and Allies are stepping up their efforts. In the 2021 NATO Brussels Summit Communiqué, Allies have recognised disinformation as a serious threat. Allies are enhancing their situational awareness and expanding the tools at their disposal to counter hybrid threats, including disinformation campaigns. We’ll continue to monitor the information environment to detect cases of hostile information and activities aimed at Allies. We’ll continue to lead on and support initiatives aimed at building societal resilience, to help defend people against disinformation.
We have repeatedly launched debunking efforts, publishing a disinformation report in July 2020, which gives concrete examples of Russian and Chinese disinformation attacks against the Alliance during the pandemic. As well as through setting up our web page, Setting the Record Straight: a portal debunking Russian myths about NATO and its mission and values. I am certain you will find those elements useful. As will be discussed today during the seminar, the nexus between disinformation, radicalisation and resilience needs to be urgently addressed.
This is a collective effort. NATO acts as a forum and as an amplifier of the work done by Allies, by nations – the 30 nations in NATO – with one billion people as our citizens in NATO. And we promote best practises in the field of debunking hostile information efforts. Our partners – and here, particularly, our Gulf and broader MENA partners – are of crucial importance in these efforts. This is why, once again, I thank our Kuwaiti partners, the NATO-ICI Regional Center, and the government of Kuwait, and all the moderators and participants in today’s seminar for addressing these timely challenges. I also thank my colleagues from our PASP and PDD divisions that are now, together with our Kuwaiti friends and partners, are going to start today – and it’s my privilege to be starting today – yet another example of our exemplary partnership with Kuwait and, through the ICI Center, with the Gulf region. Thank you so much, and I’m looking forward to finding out the results of your very important work today.