How NATO Can Reach Tomorrow’s Leaders Today

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets with students at Oslo University, June 4, 2015A few months ago, I confronted NATO’s greatest threat. It wasn’t a line of Russian tanks or insidious cyber-code. It was a group of students at my high school alma mater, Deerfield Academy.

I paid a visit to the campus in May, and my gracious host, Director of Global Studies David Miller, invited me to a student meal. Intros went around. But before we tucked into our turkey, I had a question. Who is the NATO Secretary General?

No one had a clue. From their looks, I feared I had spoiled their appetites. Neither did they know much about the Alliance’s operations, structure or purpose. They’re not to blame. It’s not their job to know anything about NATO, but NATO’s job to make sure they do.

It’s hard to gauge how much American youth know about the Alliance. The definitive accounting of transatlantic opinion, the German Marshall Fund’s Transatlantic Trends report, only surveys adults over 18. Members of NATO support clubs, such as the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association, tend to be post-grads in their twenties and thirties. But at NATO’s civilian headquarters in Brussels, anecdotes abound. An official traveling in the US found that few students had any conception of what NATO is, or does. One opined that the United States should never join the North American Trade Organization.

As a former speechwriter for the NATO Secretary General, I often gave briefings on NATO to visiting student groups, including many Americans. The students were always enthusiastic. Most were also surprised and intrigued by the notion that every week Ambassadors from all 28 Allies gather to make collective decisions at the North Atlantic Council.

This American ignorance is not trivial. It’s fundamental. An organization’s long-run potential is only as strong as the attraction it holds for the young. These days, the Alliance feels like a habit, getting by on the strength of an old promise made by a generation of World War II soldiers that is quickly disappearing. I fear what will happen when the memory of their sacrifice fades. NATO probably wouldn’t disband. Decrepit institutions are notoriously hard to kill – mere momentum keeps them staggering forward, like zombies. But without the fire of youthful enthusiasm, our old soldier of an Alliance could simply fade away.

The problem runs deep. NATO is full of smart, capable professionals who could produce great work. But NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division – or ‘PDD’ – tries to appeal to two very different audiences. The first, the general public, responds to new ideas about the Alliance creatively and authentically expressed. The second audience is comprised of high-level NATO insiders who favor careful, institutional language to which none of the 28 Allies could conceivably object. In current practice, the only audience that really matters is the internal one. The resulting language and tone is cautious, colorless, and usually uninteresting to anyone beyond a tiny pool of Alliance enthusiasts. The massive reality is that no self-respecting teenager wants to listen to a message like that.

To be fair, PDD deserves some credit. Its ‘fact sheet‘ on Russian myths concerning NATO and the Ukraine crisis is a necessary and thorough rebuttal. And the Division’s recent documentary on Afghanistan, Return to Hope, contains some remarkable personal stories. But the fact sheet is purely reactive, and the documentary is backward looking. Today’s youth are pro-active and forward-looking. I suggest three ways that NATO could appeal to them.

First, exploit the current Secretary General, Jens Stoltenberg. He’s funny, friendly, and engaging. Don’t imprison him behind a podium where he can praise Luxembourg’s contributions to our shared security and don’t send him off to dull-sounding places like Allied Command Transformation, at least not all the time. Give him more direct contact with future leaders by visiting as many US high schools and universities as he can. He can’t reach all teenagers. But he can reach those likely to respond to his manner and his message.

Second, empower more NATO staffers to talk about the Alliance, and send them around. Since the 2008 economic crisis, travel budgets for staff – never large enough – have been reduced to a pittance. During three years as a speechwriter, I never went on a single mission. Staring at the office walls was not the best way to spread the word about NATO. Delivering a compelling message to students face-to-face would, in my view, have a far greater impact than spending thousands of euros making and promoting online videos that, too often, few people watch.

Finally, NATO has to sound authentic, like it means what it says. That Hipsterian task must involve allowing an amount of creativity and risk-taking in PDD projects that is now effectively verboten.

We have an example of how this could work. One publication in PDD reaches a broad audience. That’s NATO Review. Last fall, the Review’s editor hit upon an idea regarding Ukraine. The Russians say the country’s full of fascists? Fine. Let’s go look for them! A team traveled to Lviv and searched for fascist gangs. They couldn’t find any. The video racked up 100,000 views on YouTube at minimal cost. In NATO terms, that’s a Beyoncé hit.

The secret to the Review’s success is simple: its content does not necessarily represent official Allied opinion or policy. Some parts of PDD could adopt this disclaimer, providing platforms that young people could use to advance provocative opinions. NATO has a great story to tell, but teenagers abhor orthodoxy and they want to retell NATO’s story in a way that’s relevant for them. So throw out the onerous edict for total consensus, and youthful enthusiasm might come flying in through the bright glass windows of the Alliance’s new Headquarters. That sounds like a great way to re-launch NATO for the 21st century.

Patrick Stephenson was a speechwriter for the NATO Secretary General from 2011 to 2015.

Image: Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg meets with students at Oslo University, June 4, 2015 (photo: NATO)