NATO's Biggest Mistake? Public Relations
In order to stay ahead of a changing world, NATO must increase its visibility to the public. As populist "independence" movements are on the rise, the future of the Alliance may be in jeopardy. As it stands now, NATO is failing to show the public the good it does. Allowing voters to remain ignorant of the Alliance could hamper future military capabilities.
Everyone knows the difference between war and peace, but not everyone knows their causes. As the world grew closer in the last 60 to 70 years, so too did economies and international structures, resulting in the intertwining of issues. This is where we find the causes of war and peace, in the spider web of relationships between political and economic manoeuvring, military posturing, and limited conflicts. Today's voters are presented with this web and expected to make quality decisions. NATO is failing to secure its place in the flow of information to the public. As a result, it has fallen into obscurity in the eyes of low information voters which could jeopardize its future.
A significant portion of the West's population believes NATO to be a far off, nebulous construct whose existence is entirely relegated to a few meagre chapters in history books and maybe a lecture or two. This population is virtually invisible on sites like the Atlantic-Community, but is the vast majority of the user base on social media sites like Facebook. I feel interactions based on politically charged topics are a working representation of the level of foreign policy knowledge that this group possesses. While these people have no political power in the comments section, they are able to change the course of nations from the voting booth. This reality is becoming more apparent as older generations are replaced by millennials. To allow laypersons to remain ignorant of the causes of war and the structures that guard against it constitutes a grave and critical threat to NATO members' future war-fighting capabilities. Because low information voters consume information through topical searches, news media outlets, and social media posts, the electorates of NATO members are quite vulnerable to malicious influence and persuasion.
Lessons can be drawn from the events of the last two years as there are many prominent examples where NATO was found wanting. The Ukrainian conflict shows that existing power structures do not, by themselves, deter Russian military action which has since evolved from the conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia; the Syrian civil war proves the viability of modern propaganda, and the last I will mention is Britain's recent referendum to leave the EU and how it could affect NATO. I believe all three are symptomatic of NATO's public image, or lack thereof resulting in both a one sided information war, and a one-sided flow of propaganda from east to west.
The conflict in Ukraine is a particularly useful example because it illustrates how traditional defense and deterrence do not, by themselves, prevent aggression. Using the complex narrative of domestic Ukrainian politics, Russia was able to exploit a turbulent scenario where it could achieve its presumptive goal of securing Sevastopol while maintaining it had no involvement. It shows a very specific weakness in the logic that leads to military action; ambiguous warfare places the conflict in a gray area between a breach of Article II, Section 4 of the UN Charter and the concept of Humanitarian Intervention that the UN also espouses. This is done by deploying forces with the intent of achieving plausible deniability. It creates a kind of indecision in the public of member nations where voters do not know who is to blame and why NATO acts the way it does. This falls on NATO because the de facto purpose of the Alliance was to stop Soviet aggression, but now as the successor state, Russia desires expansion into former Soviet commonwealths. The strategy employed by Vladimir Putin seems to circumvent existing logic behind the path to war, as if supporting a rebellion is less than actively engaging.
The conflict in Syria illustrates the effectiveness of a foreign state's media garnering Western support for its military operations. When Russia entered the conflict, it postured itself as a cooperative ally to the West and by extension the desire to assist in the destruction of the Islamic State. This was achieved through a handful of speeches given by Vladimir Putin as well as propaganda pieces such as the ‘Russian Soldier Calling an Airstrike on Himself' that made its rounds this April on Facebook. Traditionally, stories like this aim to generate positive sentiments toward the nation from foreign nationals, yet this one was so successful that it was reported in the West, by the Daily Mail as well as other popular news sites, all producing articles and social media posts with commenters—and voters—praising the soldier and Russia for its presence there and in some instances decrying the United States' presence there.
The last example is the recent British referendum to leave the European Union. If people can be swayed by arguments that reject super-state government, espouse greater sovereignty, among other reasons, then how easy would it be to tap into public sentiment against the EU or US military power as it exists in NATO?
My solution to these problems is three-fold. The groundwork would be done through intelligence services, who would secure information pathways to the public of an adversarial nation. Then NATO would establish a media program that would deliver a western point of view to those populations in an effort to build a greater anti-war sentiment. In conjunction with the previous two, NATO would also increase its own social media visibility to educate and create positive sentiments about the Alliance. In this way, NATO becomes the face of the West by providing the West's foreign policy perspective to the world. Imagine if the West could install a resistance to conflict in threat nations and achieve NATO's goal of peace before ever having to resort to the use or threat of military force, and Russian military activity was met with street protests like the ‘Mothers Against the War' campaign which sought to end the Soviet war in Afghanistan. My proposition is to create indecision similar to that kind that the United States experiences in politics. The end result is preventing wars by both mutually assured destruction, and mutually assured indecision.
Christopher Chappell is a student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. He studies Political Science with emphasis in International Relations and Transnational Issues.
This article has been submitted for category B "NATO's Biggest Mistake and Lesson Learned" of the competition "Shaping Our NATO: Young Voices on the NATO Summit". Comments are most appreciated. You can also read the other articles in this category. Learn more about this competition and how you can submit your own text or video in the categories C and D.
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