In the summer of 2002, I boarded a plane bound for France for a yearlong study abroad program. Although my new French friends greeted me warmly, the political disagreements between Washington and Paris leading up to the war in Iraq complicated my new relationships. On both sides of the Atlantic, policy disagreements led to mistrust, which sparked a series of cultural attacks.
Bewildered, I watched new friends pour Coca-Cola into the city sewer, just as I heard shouts of "freedom fries" from across the Atlantic. A Rasmussen Reports poll found that by June 2011, fewer than half of Americans believed that their country needed to belong to NATO. To restore transatlantic trust and to build institutional confidence, NATO must launch a bold social media-focused public diplomacy campaign to reach member state populations, not just diplomatic elites.
In an age of austerity, there is no better way to promote NATO's core mission and to forge transatlantic relationships than through the use of inexpensive social media. Seventy percent of Americans do not hold passports, meaning that most will never have the opportunity to travel to Europe where they would forge personal friendships, but more than half have Facebook accounts. A quarter of a billion Europeans are also linked into Facebook. NATO already has a Facebook page, where it releases photos and press releases. But it only has 67 thousand fans, just a mere 18.35 million fewer than the television show Glee.
NATO can truly unlock the potential of this 845-million person social platform by creating a series of online programs, such as "NATO Pen Pals" that connect member state citizens. Creating cyber friendships will increase support for the common defense when people like Janice in Wichita think about the safely and security of her new friend Judyta in Warsaw. Personal relations matter in policy, and social media can create those links.
Social media can also quickly and cheaply promote transatlantic values. Type NATO into YouTube, and you will find talking heads attached to business suits. Instead, NATO could easily attract enthusiastic interest and share transatlantic values through a series of mini-documentaries, sponsored by member state non-profit organizations or social enterprises. For instance, the NGO videos could highlight how human rights are linked to security issues or how the rule of law could create exciting new economic opportunities in the world's most deprived and dangerous corners. A compelling video of a German organization's democracy building work in Afghanistan will certainly create more goodwill than another speech from a behind a wooden podium. And, if posted on Facebook or YouTube, who knows? NATO's shared values videos could even go viral.
Social media is not the only inexpensive pubic diplomacy strategy. NATO leaders must open up to high impact public events. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's use of public town halls and appearances on talk shows has given her access to foreign audiences previously out of touch with American diplomats. Her willingness to allow the National Geographic Channel to record the "Inside the State Department" documentary has clarified the role of American diplomacy to thousands of people around the world. Even without the superstar power of Secretary Clinton, NATO leaders can connect to the publics they represent by launching similar televised appearances and behind-the-scenes documentaries that highlight their essential work. Just think of the impression that NATO's Secretary General could make if he appeared on The Daily Show. Surely, he would expose thousands, if not, millions of people who are currently out of touch with NATO to the important work its leaders conduct daily.
When confronted by my new French friends about the War in Iraq, I was able to highlight the values we share and to address our differences through frank, sincere conversations. My personal friendship facilitated the discussions and healed the differences. A decade later in the face of waning popular support for NATO, social media-led public diplomacy can immediately and inexpensively highlight the value and necessity of NATO on a massive scale. The use of social media to create real human relationships and to share core values among member state citizens will engender support for transatlantic collective security for decades. And all this can come true without even leaving the living room.
Richmond Blake is a Foreign Service Officer, focusing on human rights and legal issues, at U.S. Embassy La Paz. He is a 2011 graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School's International and Global Affairs Program. The views presented are those of the author and do not represent the positions of the U.S. Department of State.