NATO must launch a major public diplomacy effort in order to reach out in a concerted effort to the Alliance’s members’ constituencies. More solidarity among NATO members is needed for the Alliance to muster the political will necessary to overcome the external and internal threats to its success in Afghanistan. The issue is crucial to the Alliance’s survival.
In a salient presentation at the Atlantic Council, NATO's Supreme Allied Commander, Admiral James Stavridis, revealed a promising strategy for victory in Afghanistan. He stressed that the Afghan people are key to its resolution and need to be regarded as a center of gravity in the conflict. While the Admiral is absolutely correct, he still misses a decisive point; namely, that the people who constitute the NATO Alliance represent a center of gravity as well.
According to the Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz, a center of gravity is "the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends" and "the point against which all our energies should be directed." While useful in offensive terms, Clausewitz failed to remind us to protect our own (defensive) center of gravity from the enemy's attack. Thus, although Admiral Stavridis correctly identified the offensive center of gravity in this conflict (depriving the al Qaeda/Taliban alliance of the support of the Afghan people), he ignored its defensive counterpart.
NATO urgently needs to protect its own center of gravity: the support of its people for the Alliance. If NATO loses the political will of the people in its member states, it will not be able to execute SACEUR's strategy and will never have the time to gain the lasting support of the Afghan people. The 2004 Madrid train bombings provide a striking example of how dangerous the lack of public support is to NATO’s mission. The bombings demonstrated that the enemy can influence public opinion and produce regime change, without ever needing to invade a NATO member country or occupying one of its national capitals.
Under the leadership of Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, NATO has made an effort to build the political will within its member states through public diplomacy. The report by the Group of Experts highlighted the need for improvement in this area. "NATO populations should be reminded that the Alliance serves their interests through the security it provides." While such emphasis is a step forward, it is hardly sufficient. NATO needs to invest the same amount of energy and attention to reinforcing its defensive center of gravity (popular support for NATO in member countries) as it is dedicating to the offensive center of gravity (winning the support of the Afghan people).
For NATO to succeed, it is simply not enough to focus on educating leaders in national capitals. All of NATO's members are democracies, and thus it is crucial to invest time and effort into conveying NATO's message to the public at large. Until the Alliance does a better job of informing the general electorate of NATO’s value, it will unwittingly allow for the rise of leaders and governments that will choose parochial interests over the benefits of the transatlantic partnership.
Public diplomacy is not an option in an alliance of democracies, it is essential. Key alliance decisions are made, sanctioned, and funded by national legislatures that pay far more attention to public opinion than to strategy seminars. NATO needs to inform the public about the very real risks to each member's welfare and stress the Alliance's contributions to their protection and prosperity.
An uninformed public may tolerate providing the resources for a vaguely benign international organization and military force in good economic times. But in times of economic crisis, voters will not support political leaders who are perceived to be wasting scarce national resources on opaque efforts beyond the nation’s borders. Voters are even more averse to sacrificing the lives of their children in conflicts that appear distant and non-threatening.
Gen. David Petreus is beginning to win the conflict in Iraq because he understands that "the human terrain is the decisive terrain." If NATO starts to lose the battle for the political will of its people, it will slowly become a hollow alliance, comprised primarily of many bureaucrats and a few warriors. In time, it will follow the WEU into the dustbin of history. If we allow that to happen, we will unsuspectingly put ourselves in great peril.
Jorge Benitez is the Director of NATOSource and a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council.
Related Material From Atlantic Community:
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- Olaf Theiler: NATO Tensions No Cause for Alarm
- Jackson Janes: Alliance Asymmetries