The Challenge of Making NATO’s Voice Heard

Written by Dr. Stefanie Babst, NATO’s Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy

NATO must continue to connect to the digital global village to make its voice heard

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. Today Twitter counts over 300 million registered users.

In 2012, the most popular social network, Facebook, reports more than 800 million active users. It is the world’s most visited website, accessible in 70 languages and consuming 700 billion minutes per month.

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.

In the past years social media outlets have increasingly demonstrated their mobilizing effect on thousands, if not millions of people. This, in turn, has changed the way people interact with each other, news is made and information and opinions are disseminated.

Meanwhile numerous compelling examples show that the digital world can also have a say on international and domestic politics. Without the growing number of Russian bloggers and their thousands of followers behind, President Medvedvev and Prime Minister Putin would perhaps not have agreed to make time to meet with them and discuss the state of democracy in Russia. But they both did already a few times.

The so-called Arab Spring is another case in point. From the very early hours Facebook, Twitter and YouTube played a crucial role in organizing public demonstrations and keeping the news content fresh, and they still do all the way from Egypt, Yemen to Syria. People use their laptops, blackberries and I phones to inform themselves, connect to like-minded friends, raise awareness of local and global events, discuss policy issues, organize public protests in support or against the national governments and wherever needed, circumvent state censorship. In particular, young activists, academics, NGOs, journalists and policymakers in the broader Middle East have come to take advantage of Facebook and other social networking sites. The Arab Social Media Report of the Dubai School of Government impressively reveals the growing impact of social networking on civic mobilization in the Arab world.

There is no doubt: in spite of efforts to ban or interrupt internet traffic in some countries, social networking is on the rise everywhere.

Unsurprisingly, public institutions and governments find it hard to adjust to the growing power of the web 2.0. communities. Although many of them now use online tools to promote their messages, governmental communications channels rank among the least trusted.

There are still considered to offer only ‘propagandistic’ information and news, which are specifically designed to support a respective policy message of a government or organisation. In addition, many official online channels are primarily used for marketing and publishing purposes and lack opportunities for the public to interact directly with the political leadership.

As the internet consumer ultimately decides where he/she wants to seek information, it does not come as a surprise that official online channels have a hard time to establish themselves as credible voices in the digital global village.

So where does NATO fit in this? How has it fared in engaging people off- and online?

The “Transatlantic Trends” carried out by the German Marshall Fund in 2011 gives us a few clues about public perceptions about the Alliance. It found that majorities (62%) in 11 European countries and the United States (62%) still believe that NATO is essential for their security. The exception is Turkey where only 37% believe NATO is essential.

But the NATO Allies would be well advised not to take public support for NATO for granted.

The NATO-led operation (ISAF) in Afghanistan remains a critical political and communications challenge. More than half of West Europeans want to see their troops withdrawn from or reduced in Afghanistan with Poland being highest (73%) and Turkey lowest (with 43%). Support for NATO’s operation in Afghanistan has also decreased in the United States, where 66% want their troops home or numbers substantially reduced.

Convincing national legislators and their constituencies that the strategy of gradually handing over security responsibility to the Afghan authorities is successful and works according to plan, poses already a critical communications challenge. But at the same time the Alliance needs to tackle another fundamental challenge. Bluntly, NATO must better explain what it stands for today and how it seeks to fulfil its missions: protecting the populations and territories of its member’s countries and enhancing international security through cooperation and partnerships with others.

This is not an easy task. 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 raison d’être, its missions and policies. While there still is a considerable degree of trust and confidence in the organisation as such, many people neither relate NATO to global security threats such as cyber defence, energy security or piracy, nor can they see a link between the Alliance and their individual security and day-to-day concerns.

The later aspect can be easily understood. Faced with the fallout of the current economic and financial crises, the publics, lawmakers and governments alike could be said to be “somewhere else”. For most of them, legitimately, NATO is not their number one concern.

The sad fact, however, remains that our connected and globalise 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 is just some of the pressing security challenges that require 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.
The Alliance remains an important organisation to do exactly this: a place, where member states discuss with partner countries, other international organisations and NGOs how to effectively protect against global and regional threats to our security and how to make a meaningful political and, if need be, military contribution to enhancing international security.

Now how does this narrative translate into NATO’s public diplomacy efforts?

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 core pillars of NATO’s public diplomacy.

More than ever, journalists, think tankers, decisions-makers and NGOs can be found in NATO’s Headquarters’ corridors or meeting with NATO civilian and military experts in public gatherings.

The Alliance 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.
And NATO does not 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. In order to give NATO’s digital programmes in proper framework, we have elaborated a dedicated Digital Strategy together with Social Media Guidelines that govern the official and personal use of social web activities for all NATO employees.

Online lectures, videos and discussions have made NATO’s interface to the outside world more transparent. There are no taboos: topics range from the new Strategic Concept, relations with Russia all the way to the challenging operation in Afghanistan. NATO Secretary General Rasmussen’s digital activities are closely aligned to those of NATO as an organization. The Facebook, Twitter and YouTube channels are fed with press statements, news stories and interesting background videos on a daily basis. All important NATO official meetings and public events are now reported on social media networks.

Nowadays nobody can claim that NATO hides behind diplomatic brick walls. What we are doing, what we are thinking and with whom we are doing business – it is all out there. Online. Accessible to whoever has the time and the interest to follow us.

But we have started to do more. We continue supporting existing online communities such as, encouraging them to have discussions on NATO’s role in Afghanistan, relations with Russia or gender issues in military operations. We even went as far as inviting the internet community to discuss our new Strategic Concept online. During the first six months of 2010 we hosted online discussions and chats with people from across the NATO family to debate how our future Strategic Concept should be shaped and which burning issues it should address. NATO’s online discussions about the new Strategic Concept found a broad echo and demonstrated that transatlantic security issues must not and should not just be discussed by a the small community of so-called ‘movers and shakers’ in defense and security.

As we move towards the NATO Summit in Chicago in May this year, digital outreach will play a prominent role in our communications campaign both during the run-up phase and on the margins of the event itself. We will design dedicated event pages on Facebook, #hashtags for Twitter and special play lists on YouTube featuring NATO videos showing what the Summit aims to achieve. Moreover, we have created a special ‘WE NATO’ platform that allows netizens to post their comments and viewpoints and engage directly with NATO representatives on Summit-related topics. In addition, a group of young people, so-called NATO I Reps, has been invited to report directly from the Chicago about the Summit, and perhaps most importantly, we will engage directly with bloggers and citizen journalists from NATO member countries, Russia, the Middle East and elsewhere. .

To be frank: not all NATO member countries have come to realize the potential power of social media. There are still quite a few in the NATO family who think Facebook and Twitter are alien to international diplomacy, but they are outnumbered by the many thousands who follow NATO’s policies and actions through the social web. For the Alliance, Facebook & co is not a question of ‘either-or’ but a useful complement to other, more traditional communications means. To use them professionally, an organization needs to put adequate staff, financial resources and more importantly, a well-defined social media strategy in place. We have done all this and we will learn and adapt as we go along. Our aim is to become a credible voice in the global village.

Ultimately, however, the Alliance’s political credibility can never be constructed through public diplomacy efforts alone, be they on- or offline. 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.

For more information about NATO’s digital outreach, please visit


Dr. Stefanie Babst is NATO’s Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy. In the past years she has been responsible for NATO’s communications strategies and has energetically driven NATO’s digital outreach. The views represented in this article are solely her own and are not NATO’s official positions.

This entry was posted in blog, Cultural Diplomacy, Featured Articles, Foreign Policy, Media/Technologies, new media, Public Diplomacy Theory and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Challenge of Making NATO’s Voice Heard

  1. In reference to NATO’s public diplomacy efforts and the potential power of social media channels, such as Facebook, Twitter and Youtube, I would like to recomend LinkedIn as a powerfull network for professionals in many activities. The group called “OTAN NATO” has at the moment a community of 3.453 members.

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