Confessions of a NATO Speechwriter

Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, April 23, 2013Despite Russian pressure on the alliance’s eastern borders and extremist pressure from within and without, our publics often wonder why NATO still exists. Since 2013, slightly less than half of Americans have viewed it favorably, four points down from 2009. This downward trend — more than any massed army — is NATO’s existential threat. Skepticism about its value is percolating into our politics. Two major presidential candidates — Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump — are either critical of the organization or advocate its elimination outright.

NATO has a worthy mission: defending allies and the liberties that their citizens enjoy. Collective, transnational threats such as terrorism and cyberwarfare demand a collective response. Even a superpower can’t address them alone. So NATO isn’t obsolete. It’s more important than ever, and its secretary-general should be a big part of the global conversation. But his speeches are mostly greeted with indifference, and the alliance’s biggest media products are largely ignored. It’s time to confront NATO’s failures head on and adopt reforms that will allow its voice to be heard….

In the private sector, a product isn’t a success until it sells. At NATO, a product is considered a success simply because it is produced. And the audience? The numbers can always be optimistically interpreted, and a degree of victory claimed — and an antiquated compensation structure ensures that staffers are paid the same regardless, whether their work is good, bad, late, or nonexistent. Insiders have a phrase for the process: Any project is “doomed to succeed….”

Look closely, and you’ll also detect a pathological optimism that infects much of NATO writing. Even well-known alliance weaknesses must be portrayed as strengths that merely need strengthening. The idea is, everything’s perfect. Now let’s make it perfect-er. Ultimately, this farce is self-defeating because, more often than not, few outside the organization care. It’s as if the alliance is a man who fancies himself a brilliant tenor, meticulously crafting a beautiful aria that he will deliver to an adoring crowd, when he’s really just singing to himself in the shower….

So what is to be done? How can NATO better communicate its message and better prove its utility to skeptical allied audiences?

For one thing, the secretary-general and his deputy don’t need three speechwriters. Take it from me: We often twiddled our thumbs. When it comes to communicating, less is more. So cut the team down. Allow the secretary-general and his deputy to choose one speechwriter each. Give these speechwriters the explicit right to hold the pen without others wrestling it away. Stakeholders can comment, but the speechwriter should hand the speech to the speaker.

Above all, allow speechwriters more time with the people they’re writing for. Before trust can be built between an audience and a speaker, trust must exist between a speaker and a speechwriter, as the example of [former White House speechwriter Jon] Favreau and Obama demonstrates. At NATO, such trust is not allowed to develop. During my time, speechwriters were allowed a meeting with the secretary-general once or twice a month and almost always in large groups.

Beyond the speechwriting section, NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division must become more transparent and accountable. In a way, the bureaucracy depends upon the fact that its products don’t generate much attention. Otherwise, greater public scrutiny could upset delicate structures of bureaucratic patronage that have ossified over time. The result is that NATO’s public diplomacy paradigm is neatly reversed. Projects that could reach our publics are effectively discouraged, while projects that hew closely to an internal and uninteresting canon of “acceptable language” are promoted….

While a certain degree of institutional messaging is inevitable, don’t let it muzzle creativity. Allow staffers more autonomy to propose their own projects, and allow them to take greater credit for what they do. Perhaps even give them a bonus if a video reaches a coveted audience, such as young people not in the military. Yes, mistakes will be made. But the result would be a louder conversation about NATO.

Finally, if the alliance can’t reach its publics, let others do it. Organizations like the Atlantic Council, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and Carnegie Europe often make NATO’s case better than the alliance does. For example, the Atlantic Council’s NATOSource blog is often far more informative about NATO than the alliance’s own home page. So let them in — literally. The new headquarters should be open sometime next year. Its high ceilings and massive corridors should allow plenty of space for others to help in formulating NATO’s message. Let them hold the debates inside NATO that the alliance can’t, or won’t, encourage.

I believe in NATO. It has great value as a cost-saving device, but more than anything, the alliance is an idea: that allies defend not just our territories but also our values and that among those values is the right to say what you want, and you won’t go to jail for it.

But today, freedom of expression is under attack — not only in ascendant autocracies outside the alliance, but in certain allied states that have taken steps to curtail freedom of the press. More than ever, NATO’s mission matters, but the alliance is bankrupt of ideas. It’s a geopolitical habit, getting by on a promise of perpetual Western peace made by a generation of World War II soldiers who are nearly gone. When the memory of their sacrifice fades, what will justify NATO? “Capacity building”? Gimme a break.

People rarely support something they don’t understand, and it’s clear they do not understand NATO as well as they should. NATO should admit its failure and work to correct the problem. The first step is the humblest. Just try to become part of the conversation.

Image: Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, April 23, 2013 (photo: NATO)