Today's NATO suffers from a public diplomacy overload rather than an image problem. Far from being a panacea to its democratic deficit, the dominant influence of public diplomacy strategies and their advocates on Allied decision-making is arguably part of the problem.
The irony is sublime. NATO is "a unique community of values," according to the New Strategic Concept. But it is also the most successful military alliance in modern history, and one committed to supporting its liberal-democratic values beyond its borders, for example by helping the Arab Spring "to well and truly blossom," as Secretary General Rasmussen put it. Many citizens of NATO countries, including this author, would fight to the death to defend their democratic way of life. However, when NATO leaders speak about helping to spread those very values - through the threat and use of force, as in Kosovo, Libya and Afghanistan - their citizens cannot be expected to simply click their heels and identify positively with televised footage of air strikes on Gaddafi convoys, or daily headlines of NATO soldiers dying in Afghanistan to protect Karzai's questionable brand of democracy. Resorting to force to defend your values is one thing; killing to spread them to others is another altogether.
But what, if anything, can the Alliance do to encourage closer identification among NATO members, and between respective national publics and the Alliance as a whole? At least three steps can help to increase public identification with NATO, none of which will be easy.
Firstly, NATO policy-makers need to review their overreliance on the public diplomacy instrument, to be sure that this Janus-faced policy enabler does not itself become a policy substitute. In dealing with the many issues on the NATO agenda, Allied ambassadors often reach reflexively for the public diplomacy tool before others. Their guiding premise appears to be that NATO can prevail by creating a winning narrative, agreeing on coherent media lines, and communicating the right message to domestic and foreign audiences. It sounds straight-forward enough, and the influential Public Diplomacy Division at NATO Headquarters is successful at selling its own solutions. Too often, however, public diplomacy can replace the need for more substantive and effective policies, by encouraging the illusion that nations which shape the media message can control the outcome of an issue or crisis.
Secondly, the rhetorical balance of official NATO pronouncements between soft, values-based statements and hard power expressions of interest needs to be reexamined in favor of a blunter use of language. Paradoxically, appealing to the higher moral ground and untarnished liberal-democratic values at the same time as its fighter jets are incinerating enemy troops on the ground, as NATO did in Libya for example, is counter-productive to put it mildly. This dualism creates a deep chasm in what public diplomacy experts call the "say-do gap", exposing NATO to charges of double-standards, hypocrisy, and even Orwellian double-speak, as the Russian state media exemplified in its propaganda campaign during Operation Unified Protector. Hence, for its own interests, NATO should strip the values talk to a bare minimum, and adopt a leaner and meaner vocabulary of Realpolitik and self-interest. The publics to whom NATO is accountable should not be patronized by sanitized mission statements for their more pleasant consumption. Some Allied policy-makers rightfully criticize what they see as the "warm and fuzzy" feeling which public diplomacy attempts to foster in peoples' hearts and minds. NATO is a politico-military organization and the custodian of a collective defense treaty, not a book club. If member states conclude that it is in the self-interest of their publics to build missile defenses against potentially hostile states, such as Iran, or to fight to protect their vital interests in cyber and resource security, then Alliance spokespeople should explain it in those crude, politico-military terms.
Finally, if NATO is serious about its espoused liberal-democratic values, then the Public Diplomacy Division should act concretely on these by persuading the Allied ambassadors of the North Atlantic Council to accept the introduction of regular (perhaps weekly) live sessions of Council meetings. The United Nations does something similar with its full-length webcasts of General Assembly as well as select Security Council sessions. This is not revolutionary, although it will presumably meet with resistance from some nations and their representatives. If member-states are genuinely committed to NATO connecting more successfully to its constituents, and to informing them and international journalists more accurately about what NATO's agenda entails, then this is the only effective option. Any public diplomacy initiative short of this bold display of transparency and democratic accountability is just recycling old wines in new bottles - nobody will buy it. The democratic assemblies of Ancient Greece met in full public view. NATO does not need any more public diplomacy cosmetic changes or facelifts; it needs genuine openness and transparency.
Daryl Morini is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland, specializing in preventive diplomacy.