8 Oct. 2007


by NATO Secretary General, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
at the Seminar on
"Public Diplomacy in NATO-led Operations"

Let me begin by thanking the Danish Government, and in particular Per Stig Møller and Søren Gade, for taking the initiative to host this conference on public diplomacy.

They have recognised three basic facts that I think are clear to us all:

First, that we need to speak clearly and effectively to our public and Parliaments, not just to explain what we do, but to succeed at what we do.

Second, that the information environment has changed profoundly from what it was just ten years ago – not just in terms of technology, but speed, access, audience and in fact who is generating news.

Unfortunately, the third fact is that we in NATO are not doing nearly well enough at communicating in this new information environment. And we are paying a price for it, not least over Afghanistan.

Let me just expand briefly on each of these points, and then I’ll offer some ideas on the way forward.

The importance of engaging with our publics and Parliaments is almost a truism. As Governments, as NATO, we have an obligation to be as open, as truthful, as transparent as possible about what we are doing and why.

But the truth is that NATO is not Reuters. It is not my job simply to explain what we are doing, as if I was reporting the weather. Like elected leaders in all NATO countries – and I have some knowledge of the joys of that job – I have to continually make the case for why we are doing what we do. Why it is important. Why it is working. And why we need to stay the course. If not, we will face the consequences, by the way.

Now we all realise that Public Diplomacy is not just about Afghanistan – but Afghanistan helps to illustrate what I mean.

I believe firmly, and so does I know the Danish Government, that there is an airtight argument for our operations in Afghanistan.

We are there on a strong UN mandate.

We are defending human rights against perhaps the worst human rights abusers in the world – and if anyone might doubt that, let them look at the 15-year old boy kidnapped last week by the Taliban, beaten and hanged with US dollars stuffed in his mouth for supposedly “collaborating” with Western forces.

We are in the front line of the fight against terrorism. If we leave, Al Qaida will be back, festering in the dark until they attack us here in Copenhagen, or in The Hague, or anywhere else. This is not theory – this is perfect hindsight, with which no one can argue.

So, as I said, an airtight case. But despite all of that, in quite a few countries, the opinion polls show slipping support for our operation there. Support we absolutely need to sustain the ISAF mission certainly for the coming few years.

Why is support slipping in some countries? To my mind, for a few simple reasons.

Because September 11th was more than six years ago, and memories fade.

Because Afghanistan is far away, and people have trouble making the connection between security there and security here.

Because for many countries, we spent decades with our forces only in the savings account – ready for battle, but never called upon to fight, and never coming home in body bags. Now they do. Denmark has, just last week, suffered two more, and I have expressed my condolences to the Government. I do so again here today.

What does this tell me? Not that we should pack up and go home. But that we must make the argument more clearly, more effectively and more consistently why this operation remains important. Because 9/11 was six years ago, but AQ is still a menace today. Because security in Afghanistan does affect security here in Copenhagen. And because abandoning people to brutality is not only wrong – it has a cost for us as well as for them.

Making these arguments effectively today, however, is a lot more complicated than it used to be. Because the media environment is changing in fundamental ways.

The change is obviously driven by technology.

First, the vast majority of people get their news from TV. Which means if you don’t have video, you are not being seen or heard.

The web is also becoming an information source, and an information battleground. Weblogs, chatrooms, YouTube and Facebook are having a huge impact.

Information gathering has also been democratised. Every soldier in the field has a videophone and a webpage. Bloggers were revealing what was happening in Burma more effectively than BBC, which could not get in. Governments and media no longer control information.

Finally – and this is critical for NATO – the speed has increased exponentially. When there is an incident in Afghanistan, the Taliban are quick to say there have been high numbers of civilian casualties. The wires pick it up – then the TV stations – then the web. This goes around the world in minutes. By the time we have sent a team to investigate, checked the results, and put them through the approval system, our response comes days later – if we are lucky. By that time, we have totally lost the media battle.

So, the question of course is: how are we doing in this new media landscape, to explain what we do – and why – effectively?

Let me focus on NATO, which is my responsibility. In general, I think we are not doing too badly. But we are fighting with one arm behind our back.

When it comes to video, we are frankly in the stone age. NATO has no ability to gather video from the field, to show people what is happening. We are also barely on the field when it comes to the web. And on the military side, only 5 NATO Allies have public affairs as a military function, with training and a career path for officers. Which means artillery officers are suddenly stuck in front of a microphone.

As I said – one arm tied behind our back. And the other arm is pretty weak too.

The other challenge is what you might call the “straw syndrome”. Almost every troop contributing country in Afghanistan, for understandable reasons, runs a purely national media program. The Netherlands, for example, focuses on Uruzgan. Journalist speak to Dutch politicians; take Dutch planes straight to Uruzgan; embed with Dutch soldiers; and report in Dutch media. The same is true of Canadians, British, etc. Media programs are run through a straw.

The result? The population in Canada thinks Canadian soldiers are fighting alone. So do the British, and the Dutch that undermines solidarity, diminishes the multilateral nature of the operation, and as a result, makes it harder to sustain.

So what’s the solution? How can we do better – not just on Afghanistan, but to be more effective at public diplomacy in general?

That is what you are here to discuss today. Let me give you a few quick thoughts.

First: NATO needs to step up its game. We are finally moving forward with an Action Plan to give NATO the capability to be on the field when it comes to video and the web. It will also hopefully trigger within our militaries a program to create public affairs as a military function. All the nations represented here should support it.

Second: we need to show the public what we are doing, and what is being done by those who oppose our operations. I have seen video of a man walking in a crowd of women and children, carrying an AK-47, and just before firing on NATO troops, pulling a burkha over his head. That video is classified because it was filmed from a military platform. We need to declassify that video, show it to the people so they know what is happening.

Third: nations need to multilateralise their media campaigns. Canadians need to see Danish soldiers in the South, and Romanians, and Poles, as well as Dutch and British and Estonians and Americans. Which means that nations need to structure their media efforts, including their embed programs, to take that into account.

Fourth: we need to move much faster. We can never sacrifice truth for speed; our credibility is priceless. But we can do much better. We can investigate incidents much more quickly. We can offer an initial assessment of events, rather than waiting until each and every fact is confirmed. We could consider rapid reaction response teams for media operations, to hit back when falsehoods hit the press.

Fifth, and finally: we need to have the stamina to keep making the case. After three years plus as Secretary General, and innumerable interviews, I confess that at times, I wouldn’t mind a few more questions on subjects other than Afghanistan. But this is our priority number 1 operation and it is a worthy cause. It must be sustained. And a critical part of making that happen is making the case, as long and as loud as necessary.

Let me, therefore, thank Ministers Per Stig Møller and Søren Gade once again for hosting this conference. I think it is important. It is timely. And there is a lot of work to do. I look forward to hearing the results of your discussions over the next two days . For the sustainability of the NATO operation in Afghanistan it is crucial to have the sustained support of Parliament and public opinion.