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NATO: The Communication Challenge

NATO: The Communication Challenge

"Communicate" or "How to run a military alliance"… Source: Speech by Lord Robertson, NATO Secretary General at the Erasmus University, Rotterdam, 23rd April 2001

Thank you, Minister Van Aartsen, for your kind words of introduction.

Mr. Minister, Ladies and Gentlemen, Let me, first of all, thank the Business Week Committee and the Economic Faculty of Erasmus University for the "Business Week Award 2001".

Although the Award traditionally goes to an individual, I am accepting it on behalf of NATO. Because, as you yourself have said in your letter of invitation, it is the Alliance which shapes European security in such fundamental ways.

Now, I don't think anyone grows up thinking "One day, I want to head up the world's most powerful military Alliance". I certainly didn't. If I had, I wouldn't have got my degree in economics. I wouldn't have spent ten years as a Union official. And I most certainly would not have joined the British Labour Party! But fate does indeed work in mysterious ways, because in 1997 the Labour Party finally -- finally -- formed the Government, and I was fortunate enough to be named Minister of Defence. And then, in October of 1999, I walked through the front door of NATO Headquarters to take up my position as the Alliance's tenth Secretary General.

Now, as I said, I didn't grow up expecting this job -- so before arriving, I tried to do a little research to learn a bit more about my new position. I was hoping there might be an instruction manual somewhere: "How to run a military alliance", or "NATO for Dummies". But there wasn't any.

So I have been learning on the job. And I think it is safe to say that I have enough experience now to identify the major challenge NATO faces. The key challenge is not the Balkans, though it comes close. And it isn't defence budgets either though it is a major priority. The main challenge is the theme of this very evening: communication.

NATO is about communication -- left, right and centre. If the Secretary General could simply give orders to the United States, France, the Netherlands, and the other sixteen NATO members on what they should do, there wouldn't be much need for communication. I would simply sit at my desk and give orders to Berlin, London or Washington via e-mail. But it is not the Secretary General, but NATO's member states, who set the direction. Formally, I am the Chairman of the North Atlantic Council, but if the NATO Ambassadors get mad at me, my Chairman's gavel is about as useless as the whip of a lion tamer once the lions have selected him to be their lunch.

Again, it is the nations that run NATO. 19 very different sovereign nations. 19 different geopolitical contexts, 19 unique political traditions, 19 unique national interests. Keeping them together is about as difficult as -- as the Dutch would say -- "carrying frogs in a wheelbarrow" or "herding cats" as the French put it.

This challenge of managing diversity is most obvious simply in the area of languages. As you know, NATO has only two official languages, English and French. In principle, that should make communication easier. But having only two languages doesn't necessarily mean that these languages are always spoken the way they should be. Not everyone has the Dutch proficiency in speaking several foreign languages without an accent.

My predecessor, Javier Solana, once wondered why he and Henry Kissinger were always scheduled to sit on the same panel. His theory was that conference organisers were always keen on teaming speakers with heavy accents. That must be why I have never been on a panel with Henry. I simply don't have an accent -- though I admit that my French has a slight Scottish twist.

All this diversity means that getting agreement on almost anything can be a challenging and long-drawn-out business. Because there are so many issues on NATO's agenda, and so many countries have to agree, NATO works through Committees. And let me tell you, there are an unbelievable number of committees. We have committees for everything. The North Atlantic Council is the best-known -- but there are at least two hundred other committees, including the Committee on the Challenges of Modern Society, the Pipeline Committee, and my personal favourite, the "Shallow Water Committee".

But -- I have to admit -- these committees do have a value. They represent a venue at which all of NATO's members share their respective position on each and every security issue of interest to any or all members. Through all of these meetings at NATO, the member states of the Alliance communicate regularly, share disagreements in a structured format, develop common positions through regular negotiations, and then cooperate on their implementation. In many ways, the Committees are the fora where consensus -- the basic operating principle of the Alliance -- is developed.

All this places a heavy emphasis on communication -- on the ability to effectively make one's point, but also on the ability to listen to the points made by others. The reward of effective communication is obvious: joint decisions carry an enormous weight, because they are the decisions of the world's most powerful Alliance.

NATO's ability to communicate effectively and reach consensus has been nothing but astounding. For 52 years this Alliance has managed to bring diverging interests into line, to act as a team even in the most difficult of circumstances. Although the number of Allies has grown from 12 to 19, and although the security environment has changed dramatically, the Allies were always able to cope with any challenge that arose.

But there is more to the communications challenge than getting to "yes" at the end of a committee meeting. There is, after all, an outside world in which NATO operates. And this outside world wants -- and needs -- to know what NATO is doing, and why.

In the Cold War, explaining NATO's relevance was easy. In a way, the Soviet Union did that for us. All a NATO Secretary General needed to do was list the latest Soviet arms procurements, and no further elaborate explanation was required. The case for NATO was self-evident. Today, however, the situation is totally different. NATO's agenda ranges from our operations in the Balkans to enlargement, and from strengthening the European Allies' contribution to building new relations with Russia and Ukraine. In short, NATO has moved from simply being into doing. And doing is by definition more controversial.

Whether the issue was enlargement, Kosovo or ESDI: each policy sparked considerable public controversy. And strange things happened along the way. Old opponents of NATO were suddenly converting into NATO cheerleaders, whereas traditional NATO friends opposed some of our policies because they were afraid they would damage the Alliance they held so dear. This shows that nothing can be taken for granted and that for every major policy issue we will have to build new coalitions of support.

Simply put: NATO has to "sell" itself far more actively than ever before. And this means that we have to communicate far more than ever before -- among the Allies, with our Partner countries, and with our publics.

How well are we doing on these fronts? To be honest, not always as well as we would like. Take, for example, the European Union's efforts to develop a European Security and Defence Policy. As far as the Europeans are concerned, the message is clear: this European contribution to crisis management will strengthen the Alliance, by enabling the Europeans to shoulder a greater share of the burden and, in return, to get more roles and responsibilities in the field of security.

This initiative, one should think, makes sense for Europe and for North America: North America who is tired of bearing most of the burden in NATO and wants Europe to contribute more, and Europe who wants to play a role in the security field commensurate with its economic strength. But that is not always how the message is received. These different perceptions are not caused by a virus in our e-mail system or faulty satellite communications. They are caused by shortcomings in our ability to explain things properly. As the management guru Peter Drucker has said, communications technology is not the same as communication. Even e-mail and Internet do not eliminate the need for a clear and coherent line of argument. So, on the European Defence identity, we obviously need to communicate more, and more clearly.

The challenge of communications extends far beyond the 19 NATO members, of course. This year marks the 10th anniversary of NATO's policy of Partnership. With meanwhile 27 Partner countries on board, this policy is a resounding success - though still under-appreciated by the broader public. But it took some time to build these relationships. And it wasn't easy. Indeed, in the early days of NATO's outreach policy, our Partner countries had to suffer quite a bit from communications failures, many of them on our part.

For example, I have been told about a high-ranking NATO official who went to Lithuania and embarrassed the welcoming committee by stating how happy he was to be in Latvia. There was another NATO official who briefed a group of Albanians on crisis management in the Balkans - only to discover afterwards that they had been Armenians. No wonder they didn't ask a single question! And on top of all, there was a Head of State of a NATO country that shall remained unnamed, who didn't know the difference between Slovenia and Slovakia.

But all these little mishaps were the inevitable growing pains of a Europe in transition. Today, I can confidently state that we have mastered the challenge of communication with our Partners. The Partnership for Peace programme and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council have become focal points of European security. They have planted the seeds of a true Euro-Atlantic "security culture".

Today, meetings between NATO members and Partners are virtually indistinguishable from meetings "at 19". And today, you can go to Kosovo and listen to a briefing by a Lithuanian officer that might as well be given by an American officer - from the US accent down to the incomprehensible viewgraphs.

There is one Partner country, however, where communication has remained an uphill struggle. I am speaking, of course, about Russia. Here we have to admit that even ten years after the end of the Soviet Union we still cling to old stereotypes. These stereotypes come to the fore whenever our interests or perceptions diverge.

One such case of diverging perceptions is NATO enlargement. What for us seems a natural result of the end of Europe's division appears to some in Russia as an attempt to encircle their country. What for us is an expression of every country's right to freely choose its security arrangements appears to some in Russia as yet another attempt at undermining their interest.

Will we be able to bridge these differences? Well, maybe not to the point where Russia would wholeheartedly welcome NATO enlargement. But perhaps to the point where Russia acknowledges the benign nature of the process, as proven by the first round of enlargement which improved security in the Euro-Atlantic area as a whole. This requires, first and foremost, better communication. We must make it clear that we will respect legitimate Russian security concerns. But we must also make it clear that NATO's door will remain open. Because one half of Europe simply cannot be kept at arms' length forever.

Our communications problems with Russia are not confined to the issue of NATO enlargement. An even stronger case in point was Kosovo. For NATO Allies and for a large part of the international community, the Kosovo campaign was a struggle to avert a humanitarian tragedy, to prevent a destabilisation of the wider region, and to uphold key values on which the Europe of the 21st century should be built. Some Russians, by contrast, seemed to view NATO's actions as a sinister plot -- to eclipse the UN's authority and to establish a permanent NATO presence in the Balkans.

As a result, the Russians walked away from NATO at that critical moment. But this ice age is behind us now. We are back in business. We are exploring a whole range of practical cooperation issues, from the Balkans to search and rescue at sea -- and perhaps even theatre missile defence. But, above all, we have both learned to appreciate the value of a relationship that is crisis-resilient. After all, in a crisis one should communicate more, not less. That is why the recent opening of our Information Office in Moscow is a step in the right direction. It represents a new channel of communication -- not just among governments, but reaching to the public.

Of course, Kosovo was not only a challenge to NATO-Russia relations. It was also a communication challenge in the area that counts most: precisely in the relationship between NATO and its publics.

NATO is a democratic Alliance, and public support is crucial to its success. By public support I don't mean universal acceptance of each and every aspect of NATO's policy. But NATO is an intergovernmental institution, and it must be -- and seen to be -- accountable to the publics who pay for it. No matter how convincing your strategic rationale for a given policy may be, it must, above all, be understood by a broader public, or else it may not be politically sustainable.

It is no secret that, in Kosovo, we had considerable problems in sustaining our policy. The reasons were many. There were the unique political, military and legal circumstances of operation "Allied Force". And there was also the fact that there were no Western media on the ground in Kosovo. As a result, it looked like a propaganda contest between NATO and Belgrade -- a contest that at times it seemed we were losing. Parts of the international press seemed more concerned with the unintended damage caused by our operation than with the one million refugees caused by the brutal ethnic cleansing NATO was trying to stop.

Despite these impediments, we prevailed. Obviously, our publics had sounder instincts as to right and wrong than had some of the press. Our Partner countries, too, went along, even if some of them faced serious political challenges and severe economic hardships.

So one should hope that today, with Milosevic behind bars, with a new democratic government in Belgrade, and with a new spirit of cooperation throughout Southeast Europe, the significance of our decisions of two years ago can perhaps be appreciated more fully.

But this political success must not make us complacent. The communications problem in Kosovo was a most serious one, and we should never again be caught so unprepared. Among the many lessons of the Kosovo conflict, several relate to our information policy. I can confidently say that these lessons have been taken to heart. And that, in future crisis situations, the Alliance will be better prepared on the information front.

Minister van Aartsen, Ladies and Gentlemen, The NATO of the 21st century is an Alliance fully aware of the communication challenge -- a challenge that relates not only to the internal workings of NATO, but also to the outside world. As for myself, I spend at least two days per week "communicating", that is travelling to NATO and Partner countries, delivering speeches, and giving interviews. But even my relentless efforts pale in comparison to the output modern technology provides: the NATO Web Site, for example, is accessed 125,000 times each day, and 37,000 documents are being called up in this process. And last year, over 17,000 people visited NATO Headquarters to gain firsthand information. These are astounding numbers. They demonstrate that there is a public out there that is hungry for information.

We must provide our publics with the information they seek. Only by being responsive to the communication challenges of today can we bring home the key message of all: that NATO is about safety. Whether the issue is enlargement, NATO-Russia relations, or addressing the Balkans: each part of NATO's policy is part of shaping the wider security environment in line with more cooperation, more predictability, and hence, more safety. Safety for each and every citizen. And safety for future generations.

Thank You.

 

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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).

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