NATO: Misrepresented and Misunderstood

Chicago Lake View

By Mark Ducasse, Center for Transatlantic Security Studies

With NATO’s Chicago Summit just over two weeks away, the build-up has been both fascinating and disappointing. As a relative newbie to the workings of NATO, I have been amazed by the Alliance’s inability to convey its successes to the American public. If the American public does not realize the benefits of being part of NATO, the Alliance will be increasingly perceived as an unnecessary burden, a drain on U.S. resources in a time of scarcity, and could very easily become a target for cuts by U.S. politicians, even beyond the reduction of U.S. forces deployed in Europe announced by the Pentagon earlier this year.

The Alliance can no longer afford to ignore public opinion, especially during an American election year when foreign policy is relegated to a low priority. Both Democrats and Republicans are clambering over each other, utilizing wag-the-dog style politics in an effort to steal a minimal lead over their opponents. With the NATO Summit being held in President Barack Obama’s hometown of Chicago, Illinois, between the 20th and 21st of May, it is already overly politicized.

Given this situation, three key questions have continued to boggle my mind. First, why did NATO agree to hold its biggest political event in Chicago during a U.S. election year? Second, why did NATO agree to hold its Summit back-to-back with the G-8 Summit and potentially link itself to the mass protests of the anti-globalization and Occupy crowds such G-8 events always attract?[*] And third, why hasn’t NATO been bombarding the American public with non-technocratic information about the Alliance and its successes, instead of wasting its limited resources preaching to the converted about “capability gaps” and “Smart Defense”? If your head were being placed under the guillotine, you would not talk to your executioner about wood and metal care products; you would be loudly professing your innocence and calling every available witness to testify to your high moral standing.

The Alliance should distance itself from the quagmire that is domestic U.S. politics, and demonstrate its strategic importance to the citizens it protects instead of becoming a pawn for politicians who have their own agendas, decidedly different from promoting transatlantic relations. NATO especially requires the support of the American public. After all, the United States is the world’s only remaining superpower. The United States is key to everything that NATO does. In short, no American support, no NATO. But to garner this critical body of American support, NATO’s public relations machine needs to be spreading the good word of the Alliance’s continued relevance in maintaining the national security and international standing of the United States.

As a European living in the United States and working in the realm of policy, I have realized that public diplomacy, strategic vision, and concise justifications are scantily held skill-sets among Europeans. Perhaps this stems from the differences in working cultures, political systems, or simple confidence? Who knows? The point is that NATO’s public relations machine has done little in the build-up to Chicago to counter with fact and logic the plethora of thumb-sucking articles from shortsighted political commentators with banal titles such as, “Whither NATO,” or “The End of the Alliance.”

Memories are also short, too short. Not many Americans recall the first and only time that NATO’s Article 5 commitment was invoked – the famous three-musketeer clause of the NATO’s founding Washington Treaty that reads, “…an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all…” happened the day following the terrorist attacks of September 11th, and Article 5 was not invoked by the United States to support Europe – as was originally foreseen – but the other way around: Europeans and Canadians coming to America’s aid!

Every one of the NATO’s members rallied to the aid of their stricken ally, which included the active securing of U.S. airspace against the possibility of another attack. Under the auspices of Operation Eagle Assist, NATO Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) aircraft flew more than 360 operational sorties over the United States between October 2001 and May 2002, ready to identify and if need be to summon fighter aircraft to America’s rescue if there were any follow-on threats.

Then there was Hurricane Katrina in 2005. NATO and its partner countries responded to the United States’ request for assistance with offers of food, medical supplies, and equipment following the hurricane’s devastation. Every single allied nation is also fighting in Afghanistan, not necessarily out of national interest or priorities, but out of allied solidarity and their nations’ desire to engage and partner with the United States.

In short, NATO is a force multiplier – and indeed, a security multiplier – as well as a forum for international legitimation the United States cannot do without.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Alliance has continued to play an essential role in transatlantic security. It has intervened in conflicts to bring an end to ethnic violence and genocide, enforced United Nations Security Council resolutions, stabilized and rehabilitated nations, fought against terrorism, brought former adversaries into the flock of Western democratic States, and allowed for security and stability to be taken as a given, a necessary underpinning to development and prosperity.

We cannot and must not let such an alliance be misrepresented and misunderstood any longer. That is NATO’s real task between now and 20thMay in Chicago.


[*] The G-8 Summit was originally proposed to be held back-to-back with the NATO Summit in Chicago. The G-8 Summit has now been moved to Camp David, in part to avoid the risk of popular demonstrations in Chicago and the media’s memories of the 1968 Chicago riots during the Democratic National Convention.

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