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Opinion : NATO Dispatch: On sausages and Summits

Jonathan Parish invites us into NATO's kitchen, where he shares his recipes for preparing declarations, communiqués and other rhetorical hors d'oeuvres.

Working together: NATO summit declarations are the result of many hours of negotiation and consensus-building(© NATO)

Otto von Bismarck is reputed to have once remarked that "Laws are like sausages - it is better not to see them being made". The perfect sausage is a skilfully prepared and carefully chosen combination of ingredients brought together in the right proportion to produce a delectable morsel that is to everyone's taste. Peering into the kitchen before the sausage is finished would reveal a chaotic and unappetising mess. The refining continues right to the very last moment, and it is only when the sausage appears on your plate that you should judge it. For these reasons, I feel that Bismarck's comment about laws should also apply to NATO Summit declarations.

To be perfectly truthful, when I had read Summit Declarations in the past, I had never given too much thought to the process behind them. Somewhat naively, I had a vague notion that these declarations were produced by a high-powered team who had sat through the relevant meeting, followed the discussions attentively, and then assiduously distilled the key elements of the discussion into a document that could be produced at a time-warp pace and be distributed to the world's press the moment the meeting concluded. How wrong can one be!

Summit Declarations have a tremendous political value in communicating Allies' views and intentions to third parties, who scrutinise them avidly and dissect the meaning behind every word and punctuation mark

That naivety has now been drowned by the cold shower of reality. Let me explain: in November 2006, most of my time was spent supporting the development of the Riga Summit declaration. I now know how the Riga Declaration "sausage" was produced, and to continue the metaphor, although there was not a huge amount of blood spilled during the process, there was certainly a lot of mixing, mashing and squeezing, with some of the expected content remaining unused on the floor, and some of the final content being somewhat surprising.

So what was this process, and who was involved?

The genesis of the Riga Declaration was a "Food for Thought" paper produced by the Secretary General's speechwriters in close cooperation with the staff across the NATO Headquarters. This paper identified the subjects that should ideally be addressed by Heads of State and Government at Riga, as well as the desired outcomes. NATO nations' Permanent Representatives then discussed this paper and gave their views on the Declaration's desired structure and content. Naturally, when 26 parties are involved, there were some seemingly mutually exclusive and incompatible comments. But with firm direction from the Secretary General and the Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy (ASG/PASP) we were able to produce the first draft of the Riga Declaration.

A major challenge in Declaration drafting is getting the message right. Who is going to consume this Declaration "sausage"? I would suggest that there are a number of target audiences for these Declarations, and the message needs to be worded accordingly. First, there is the individual Ally's own national public audience. The Declaration can be most useful in explaining the reasons for Allies taking a particular course of action. Secondly, there are the external audiences. Summit Declarations have a tremendous political value in communicating Allies' views and intentions to third parties, who scrutinise them avidly and dissect the meaning behind every word and punctuation mark. There might be messages of support and encouragement to countries aspiring to NATO membership as well as to other partner nations. Or, certain messages might be directed at groups who seem intent on attacking or undermining Allies' security interests and values. Finally, there is the NATO community itself. A Summit Declaration is a public expression of the Allies' agreed views on key subjects and lays down the framework for activity by the NATO community over the coming months and years.

It was with these different audiences firmly in mind that the first draft of the Riga Declaration and the innumerable versions that followed were discussed by NATO's Senior Political Committee. Chaired by the ASG/PASP, the Committee consists of the Deputy Permanent Representatives, as well as a representative from the NATO Military Authorities. Morning, afternoon, and frequently well into the evening, as well as at weekends, the Committee met throughout November and nations' representatives would relay the instructions they had received from their capitals: add this, delete that, amend something else. These discussions would prompt frantic activity in the speechwriters' office as we tried to reflect all the comments and then produce a new draft in time for it to be studied by capitals prior to the next meeting.

Invariably, in the early stages of drafting discussions, nations appeared to concentrate on ensuring that their own particular favourite ingredients were added into the mix, and the seven double-spaced pages and 23 paragraphs of the first draft quickly swelled at one point to 23 pages and 41 paragraphs!

However, as the Summit date approached, discussions became far more focused. The different views on certain subjects that had been so manifest in earlier meetings began to coalesce around a particular position - the result of feverish diplomatic activity between capitals as well as between committee members in the NATO Headquarters' coffee bar. But key differences remained over a couple of contentious issues and these, ultimately, were only resolved in Riga on the morning of the Summit, following informal discussions between certain Foreign Ministers.

So, what were the contentious decisions? Well, I feel like a psychologist who has listened to twenty-six patients open up their souls and reveal their deepest inner feelings on the subjects that they hold most dear. And the covenant of medical secrecy prevents me from revealing those intimate moments. However, I do not feel it would be indiscrete to say that some of the more animated discussions centred on the very structure of the declaration and the section on partnerships.

The overall layout of the document, and the order in which subjects were addressed, might imply an element of priority in NATO's work. But a simple listing of topics in a perceived priority order would not convey the interaction and interdependence of some of those key subjects. Should the new and the innovative come before the established and routine? Would it be easier to follow the precedence set by the sequence established in earlier declarations? How would external readers, who had not followed the process from inside, interpret the document if their particular subject had changed position relative to previous declarations, or perhaps even disappeared altogether? Yes, to some, these might appear trivial considerations, but in the context of the Riga Declaration, getting the sequence right allowed other tricky issues to be resolved.

In terms of subject matter, it is widely known that the section on partnerships was one of the most difficult. How should NATO's cooperation programmes be enhanced? What should NATO do to address the desire of those countries who share NATO's interests and values, seek closer contacts and closer cooperation with NATO, and demonstrate a willingness to contribute to NATO-led operations? And how should NATO make best use of its extensive experience in training and education?

Finally, as I alluded to earlier, some of the content of the published Declaration was surprising and caught many NATO-watchers completely unaware. The decision to invite Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia to join Partnership for Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council was taken very late in the negotiating process and reflected a last-minute change of position by some Allies. But thankfully, by the time the Heads of State and Government were finishing their meeting in Riga, the Declaration that would be issued under their authority was ready for publication to the world's press.

To the cynics, a Declaration is merely proof that all decisions are "pre-cooked" and that Summit meetings are nothing more than expensive photo opportunities. I would counter this argument by suggesting that they have a real utility.

First of all, the Declaration drafting procedure and, for that matter, the Communiqué drafting procedure* are essential parts of the NATO policy-making process. Yes, there are the high-profile announcements that can be trumpeted, but just as importantly, there are key policy decisions that move NATO forward in a particular direction. The "pre-cooked" nature of these decisions means that they have been thoroughly prepared and are not simply whims of the moment. They have been coordinated across all relevant government departments in capitals and they carry the seal of approval of the Head of State and Government. This provides a real impetus during the implementation phase, although I am the first to admit that even with such impetus, the decision-making process frequently looks effortless when compared to the implementation process.

Secondly, a prepared Declaration permits Heads of State and Government to focus their interventions on the priority issues. In the limited time available at Summit meetings, it would be impossible for all of them to comment on every issue on the Alliance agenda. The Declaration drafting process, however, provides an excellent medium for addressing all the issues, ensuring that all Allies have the opportunity to make their views heard and that these views are reflected in the final document.

Looking back at Riga, there is no doubt that it was a successful Summit for the Alliance and a very important milestone on the Alliance's transformation journey. Key decisions were taken relating to NATO's operations, defence transformation and partnerships. These decisions consolidated, and built upon, those taken at recent Summits in Prague and Istanbul. And they laid out a very clear path to take the Alliance further forward. The Summit Declaration provides the official record of those decisions and is the mandate for their implementation. And that is where the real job starts - in converting those decisions on paper into reality on the ground.

Like a high-quality sausage, the Riga Declaration went through a time consuming and unsightly production process. And because every Ally was involved in the preparation, it is to everyone's taste. So it is now being eagerly digested within NATO and will provide the Alliance with plenty of energy until the next Summit sausage feast in the spring of 2008 and NATO's 60th anniversary celebrations in 2009.

Read more: summit meetings, Riga
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