The sometimes negative perception of NATO throughout the world is not a new or untouched subject; it has existed since the creation of the Alliance itself, and is founded on a lack of public understanding or knowledge of the collaborative interaction between NATO and its non-member partners.
In June 2011, I was invited by the Russian Ministry of Youth to attend the annual International Seliger Forum, held in Russia, that brings together future world leaders in politics, business, and innovation to learn and debate with their Russian counterparts. Amongst other topics, I discussed military cooperation, specifically relating to transnational terrorism and combating unconventional threats. Of course, it is almost impossible to discuss these topics of global relevance without referencing NATO.
The strong, occasionally aggressive resistance to NATO and its initiatives was beyond surprising. I was barraged with accusations of endorsing a military organization which not only ideologically opposes, but, as Robert Pszczel head of NATO's Moscow office puts it, attempts to encircle the Russian Federation. This caught me completely by surprise, and worried me deeply. If these are the "future leaders" individually selected by the Russian Ministry of Youth Affairs to attend that forum, how will NATO countries, and specifically, the next generation of leaders and policy makers be able to communicate civilly, let alone collaborate in the future? I became determined to find the roots of their misconceptions, and brainstorm possible options for spreading a positive NATO image.
I believe these misconceptions, which indeed reflect those of a significant portion of Russian society, stem from the untrue belief that Rusophobia is deeply entrenched within Alliance members. And that the activities in Eastern Europe, the Black Sea, and other regions of importance to Russia demonstrate a desire to undermine Russian interests there. This is especially evident in the overly-quoted missile placement in Turkey. Russia's responses, as well as more recently in Afghanistan and Libya demonstrate the widespread belief that NATO's tools are that of American imperialism. They are also failed attempts to bring security and stability to the world, further threatening international security instead of mitigating global threats.
Social surveys indicate that Russian elites believe in two main threats, the expectation of direct military intervention from NATO and indirect national security softening as repercussion of NATO action elsewhere in the region.
Even more worrying is that these misconceptions are not just in the backs of people's minds, but are acted upon by leading Russian military advisors. After the revision of NATO's Strategic Concept, allowing joint operations outside of the member states, the Russians began considering the Alliance offensive rather than defensive, and initiated defense plans for a potential attack. The "West-99" Russian military exercise which simulated a hypothetical NATO sea, air, and land assault against Russia and Belarus, indicates that the perceived NATO threat is something taken extremely seriously.
Misconceptions such as these inhibit candid dialogue between representatives of all levels, from my experiences at the forum, to the highest ranking military officers and diplomats. The reasons for these misconceptions can be attributed to a lack of knowledge about the Alliance, a lack of publicity in Russia about positive NATO-Russia collaboration, as well as lack of cultural understanding, on Russia, the West, and where NATO fits into it all.
I propose the following recommendations, to remediate and reverse the effects of NATO's negative public opinion in Russia, and assist in moving away from the ‘"they" and "we"' problems outlined on Atlantic Community:
Firstly, fostering or developing positive NATO media coverage, traditional or electronic within Russia that will provide the general public with information on the Alliance and counter the negative press.
Secondly, urging and assisting NATO countries to sponsor further exchange programs for Russian students (like the US sponsored "Future Leaders Exchange" (FLEX) program), young professionals, academics, and military officers, to expose them to Western culture, foster cultural understanding, and build healthy connections and relationships for the future.
Thirdly, further promoting the spread and sharing of ideas, technology, and training, specifically military, between Russia and its NATO allies, thereby encouraging cooperation and information-flow while building increasing networks of communication and levels of trust.
These actions will assist not only in improving the Alliance's public opinion in Russia, but will open doors for future collaboration in all sectors, not just military and therefore benefiting the greater public. As a result, taking such steps and using the Alliance for such purposes, will generate a positive image itself, creating a positive feedback loop of success for NATO, its members, and Russia. Let these new recommendations spawn a period of greater understanding and cooperation beneficial to all parties, and replicated throughout the world.
Simon Williams, is co-founder and managing director of a security consulting firm and currently completing a degree in Politics and East European Studies at the University College London.