NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue has a serious cultural diplomacy problem in the Arab Middle East. By overemphasizing the importance of state actors it has failed to engage the Arab Spring's most important non-state actor: the youth. It has yet to send diplomats proficient in cultural and religious diplomacy, regional and national histories, sociology and psychology, to ask the youth questions like, "What do you need?" "What assistance do you need and want from us?" Assessing the needs of the youth in partner countries as well as the security needs of their governments can bridge a cultural communication divide and reinvigorate intercultural diplomacy. But in order for NATO to do this and support the long-term transition process underway in regional partner countries it must first assess its ineffective Mediterranean Dialogue policies and amend them. In doing so, NATO can improve regional security and stability by fostering widespread closer ties amongst the next generation of NATO-Mediterranean Dialogue leaders and citizens that could minimize future military and diplomatic dilemmas.
Per its Key Principles, NATO is inclusive, engaging, and non-discriminatory towards the Mediterranean Dialogue partner country governments, but also exclusive, non-engaging and discriminatory towards the critically important youth in those countries. To remedy this, NATO must begin a new dialogue that embraces Arab youth from diverse ethnic, religious, and socio- economic backgrounds. Furthermore, NATO and the West must alter its public discourse. We must stop the paternalist practice of "talking at them" and start talking to them as capable agents of positive change. As an American of African and Arab heritage with a vested interest in NATO performing well, it is alarming to still hear in 2012 NATO narratives subtly advocating nation-building, and to recognize the aggressive promotion of Western democracy being directed towards Arabs without authentic consideration for their various socio-cultural and political needs. If I, an ardent NATO supporter, can be as irritated and disappointed as I am about the manners in which we communicate with the Arab world, I submit that many Arabs, especially young ones, are even more alarmed and resistant to the brand of change that we advocate even if they too desire greater liberties and more responsive governments. Intercultural diplomacy is popular amongst Western nations but less so between Western and non-Western nations. One can refer to the vast minority of articles on the Atlantic Community's Greater Middle East op-ed section as a reference that such diplomacy is not fully on the radar of young professionals in the field, some of whom will likely be the best hope for future NATO diplomacy.
Cultural anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, insightfully argued that, "Our ideas, our values, our acts, even our emotions, are, like our nervous system itself, cultural products," that are manufactured from long histories but nevertheless manufactured and capable of conscious adaptation with which to better communicate with each other and improve our relations. Thus NATO could begin fresh intercultural diplomacy efforts with Mediterranean Dialogue partner countries by proposing the implementation of proactive grassroots, youth-led programs that encourage intercultural understanding via direct dialogue between youth in partner and NATO countries. These programs could help to eradicate existing cultural preconceptions and misconceptions.
Primarily, small groups would be based in villages and cities, uniting economically, ethno-religiously and culturally diverse youth in partner countries. Groups would be supervised by consensus-based, youth-selected psychosocial professionals in front of whom the participants feel the most comfortable speaking. However, the sessions would be directed by the youth so as to encourage the organic proliferation of ideas and the discussion of societal concerns. Groups would also be run between partner countries' youth and NATO member states' youth. Language training and translators would compliment sessions. Groups would be age appropriate, specifically based upon developmental milestones, e.g. the onset of advanced verbal communication and cultural awareness through young adulthood when psychosocial identity solidifies and world views become less apt to change. Groups would last indefinitely in order to help sustain the newly created cross-cultural linkages through which participants would engage with each other as peers rather than strangers.
Logistically, these transnational groups would have to occur online in community centers at regularly scheduled times as much as is practical. In partner countries they would be located in the least violent areas if possible. If not, NATO security could be provided. Cost should not be a great factor since NATO will increasingly reduce the number of troops and increase the cost-sharing burden for remaining troops, thus reducing the cost of operations and providing for the modest funding of new programs.
In closing, I believe that by changing our discourse and sharing our cultures, we can find a meeting point at which NATO and Mediterranean Dialogue partner countries can create a synthesis of mutually beneficial ideas and socio-culturally responsive policies that can promote a more stable, secure and bright future in the region.
Yasmin J. Mattox has a Master's degree in International Studies. Her research interests revolve around the intersections of intercultural understanding, diplomacy and security issues, particularly low intensity conflicts.