NATO developed as a strategic security alliance, but can only build a public community among its member state populations by emphasizing the role of day-to-day operational communities consisting not only of military personnel, but foreign offices, development agencies, civil society groups, and private sector partners in addressing security issues.
As international organizations (IO) go, NATO is a uniquely resilient and concrete one. Over sixty years old, it has remained relevant and active in spite of a proliferation of other IO with cross-cutting allegiances and the resolution of two of the three challenges it was created to address. Furthermore, since the end of the Cold War, NATO has taken an active role in shaping the most important security and humanitarian challenges of our time. They have been active in military engagement ranging from providing peacekeepers to end the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to taking command of ISAF Afghanistan, and conducting an aerial bombing campaign to protect civilians and facilitate the overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya.
NATO is extremely effective at what it understands itself to be: a strategic security alliance. While buzzwords like "strategy" and "security" can often obscure the topic at hand, these reveal important characteristics about the challenges it must overcome as it turns "they" into "we". Strategy implies calculated and limited mode of interaction usually oriented towards the goals of individual participating entities. Focusing solely on security issues places NATO firmly in the military sphere and isolates it form the public one. Considering the strategic nature of NATO operations and the growth in the gap between the military and civilian populations, developing a community among NATO members and their populations seems unlikely.
But exactly what type of community should NATO aim to create? It should focus primarily on developing an operational community-that is, experience with, and cooperation between, actors from different NATO member states and member state agencies working on the same missions-and public community-understanding between NATO and the populations of its member states. An operational community facilitates the day-to-day functioning of large international and inter-agency operations, while the public community ensures that the decisions NATO member populations identify with and take ownership over their membership in the organization.
Despite the abovementioned challenges to NATO community-building, there already exists significant, if under-acknowledged, progress and potential for operational and public communities in NATO. Many still consider international relations to be an arena of "thin" strategic relations, several scholars emphasize the importance of the "thick" set of social relations, consisting of social and cultural flow as well as political-military and economic interactions" that supplement and shape strategic interaction. In my own fieldwork interviewing American military officers returning from deployments to Afghanistan, and formerly Iraq, I heard much praise for personnel from other NATO militaries from both junior and senior officers.
Interviews with British military personnel returning from deployments to Afghanistan and Libya reveal similar stories about shared long-term experiences with NATO partner militaries. Day-to-day microsocial interaction and cooperation between individual actors from different NATO partner states binds and facilitates the strategic ties at higher levels. NATO member states should focus on maintaining and building this operational community by not only increasing personnel exchange programs for training junior leaders as current military engagements wind down, but also increase the prestige of these within the professional ranks of member militaries.
Furthermore, as security comes to involve more than simply ending violent conflict, and includes addressing fundamental issues in governance, economic development, and humanitarian issues, NATO should work to include personnel from foreign offices, development agencies, relevant civil society groups, and private sector partners in these exchange and rotational programs. Member states like the US have already begun implementing rotational programs that combine civil and military personnel-NATO can capitalize and expand on this trend by coordinating rotation between not only different agencies, but different governments.
In addition to building NATO's operational capacity, building operational community within the ranks of civilian personnel will lead to a positive indirect effect on public communities. Because militaries tend to be insular institutions with high barriers to entry and exit, they have less interaction with public communities. Civilian agencies and civil society groups, however, have relatively high levels of interaction and personnel fluidity with other public communities; civilian personnel would then serve as NATO ambassadors and conduits by their experience with NATO and partner states. By diversifying the institutions with a stake in its operation, NATO can spread a sense of collective ownership and identity in its mission.
Thomas Meyer is a Fox Fellow from Yale University currently at the University of Cambridge researching junior military officer decision making in counterinsurgency and networks of weapons trades.