There has been, for many years, a schism in conception of NATO. Many Americans see it as outdated, an attempt by Europeans to keep Americans on their continent. Europeans often see NATO as a tool for the advancement of American foreign policy. NATO is neither. While it is a military alliance, it is also the natural outcome of shared values and beliefs held by the transatlantic community. By engaging in a concerted educational effort that seeks to teach both citizens and their leaders alike, NATO continue to build on its sixty-three year legacy of transatlantic unity.
This effort will be nothing less than monumental. The 28 member states of the alliance comprise well over 900 million people, and the various states in the Mediterranean Dialogue, the Partnership for Peace and the Istanbul Initiative push the number of people who are directly impacted by NATO well over the one billion mark. The stakes are high, and costs from disinformation are dear. If the Alliance is to ever drive home its role as the keystone of a bloc of democratic capitalist states, it has no other choice but to begin a multi-faceted effort on education.
These efforts should start at a foundational level, with students of member states. Reaching out to students when they are just beginning to formulate the ideas that they will carry with them for the the rest of their lives is important if NATO wishes to been seen as the single-most important part of transatlantic relations. The various Model NATO programs is a good start at demystifying the workings of the Alliance, but it must be expanded. By working with interested groups such as the Atlantic Council, more authoritative texts should be authored on the Alliance for use in classroom instruction at secondary and collegiate levels.
Most importantly, NATO could learn from programs like the European Union Centers of Excellence or the Chinese Hanban Confucius Institutes. Colleges and universities are the wellsprings of future discourse, and other organizations recognize the dividends of investing time and effort there. The establishment of a series of NATO-focused centers at institutions of higher learning with scholars-in-residence, a speaker series and unheralded opportunities for students to interact with NATO could result in a massive groundswell of support for the Alliance in both current and future generations.
Community engagement should be another priority for the alliance. Citizens of democracies demand to know what choices their governments are taking, and actions with the Alliance are no exception. When public debate on decisions such as NATO involvement in the Balkans or Afghanistan take a turn for the worse, the Alliance must be able to respond to the citizens of the states they represent. By having regularly-touring speakers, partnering with interested civic groups and scheduling public events, NATO can finally have its own voice. This would finally allow the Alliance to engage with the very people it defends in a manner that encourages the transparency, accountability and fosters goodwill it demands from member states.
Educating current and incoming leadership is another aspect of driving home NATO's common values and identity. In this regard, NATO already performs admirably. The Young Parliamentarian Programme in the Parliamentary Assembly and the Defense College are two examples of institutions where political and military leaders can be taught the importance and value of the transatlantic community by interacting with its most important organs. Rather than being the mainstay of education, these initiatives should be the final step in NATO's educational efforts.
Implementing these tasks is far easier than one would assume. Universities have the ability to enter into partnership with NATO on an individual basis, and a well-developed pool of speakers and resident scholars would make these centers a source of prestige for universities. For public outreach, the Alliance simply needs to make use of numerous organizations that already seek speakers. Civic groups such as the American Committees on Foreign Relations revolve around appearances by speakers and cover their necessary fees. All the Alliance has to do is make use of these opportunities. Costs and difficulty of implementation could be mitigated by both the nature of these organizations.
NATO can no longer afford to let dangerous myths of American superiority or European finagling persist. They are patent lies that show a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the alliance. NATO has succeeded because it is based on mutual defense of member states, but also a set of beliefs that member states hold in common. However, a conspicuous silence from Brussels makes it easy to question transatlantic unity. Until NATO begins an effort to educate the future elites, students and citizens of member states, these myths will persist and persist at NATO's own risk.
Daniel Green is a graduate student at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver. He is currently studying American foreign relations, alliances and international political economy.