NATO's New Public Diplomacy: The Art of Engaging and Influencing

Posted in NATO | 24-Feb-09 | Author: Stefanie Babst| Source: Atlantic Community

Dr. Stefanie Babst

Stefanie Babst: If governments are to deal effectively with the key foreign policy challenges of our age, they must engage in a new form of public diplomacy: one that combines understanding a given challenge with the ability to mobilize networks and public support to bring about concrete change.

The proliferation of new international actors, including NGOs and corporations, and the arrival of global digital and real-time technologies have blurred the lines between domestic and international news spheres. Today's audiences are no longer simply passive news recipients. The top-down communication patterns of the Cold War era are increasingly being replaced by people-to-people and peer-to-peer relationships and networks.

Globalization affects the way we communicate with each other, and presents a challenge for every political leadership. Indeed some governments find it difficult to accept that "shouting out" core messages, ever louder, in the false belief that they will eventually be heard, is no longer a recipe for mobilizing and sustaining public and political support. Instead, if they want to succeed, today's politicians need to find out what motivates people and seek to identify possible common interests. They need to involve networks and groups in their own thinking and policy planning. They need to persuade and influence.

These are some of the key principles that should govern our thinking on a new public diplomacy approach:

1. Public diplomacy is about listening. Contrary to what some may think, successful public diplomacy does not begin with talking, but with listening.

2. Public diplomacy must be connected to policy. There is no substitute for a sound policy. What counts is not what you say, but what you do. That is why public diplomacy cannot and should not attempt to portray a serious crisis or war in rosy colours. You can never communicate a problem away.

3. Public diplomacy must be credible to be effective. What applies to dealings with the media should apply to all public partners: if you try to manipulate or lie, you will immediately lose credibility.

4. Public Diplomacy is not always about you. Sometimes the most effective public diplomacy will be conducted under the media spotlights, but at other times, policy issues are better communicated by third parties, such as think tanks and academics, than through official statements. Facilitating and supporting discussions among political networks or groups of foreign policy professionals can be an excellent public diplomacy strategy if the aim is to introduce and bring to the public attention a specific policy issue. NATO, for instance, puts a lot of efforts into cultivating networks and supporting discussions among security and foreign policy experts.

5. Public Diplomacy needs to respond to the challenges of the Web 2.0 world. Offering information about your policies and audiovisuals of all sorts online is certainly a useful thing to do, in particular because the number of online consumers has risen exponentially in the western world. In the less developed world, however, radio, print media and TV outlets still dominate the information environment. Simply posting a video on YouTube does not do the trick, either. Your news or footage can easily be used and manipulated by others. You need to continue engaging with online chatters and carefully select your target and digital means. If used smartly, however, the new media technologies can do a lot to support your public diplomacy operations.

At NATO, we have overhauled our technological capabilities, aimed at bringing the NATO website and other audiovisual tools and products up to a par. We are trying hard to make NATO's interface with the outside world as interactive as possible, by hosting lectures, videos and discussions online. Since April last year, a TV channel has been complementing our digital information offer on the internet.

This is all good - but not good enough. NATO should be more courageous in using digital tools to directly interact with the public. Why not host a permanent blog on the NATO website? Why not widen the debate about NATO's new Strategic Concept beyond the ‘usual suspects' and try to obtain new thinking through, for instance, online discussions with citizens on specific aspects of NATO's future role?

Let us hope that when Allies discuss NATO's future strategic course at the forthcoming Summit in Strasbourg and Kehl, they will also take a moment to sign up to a 21st century public diplomacy approach.

Dr. Stefanie Babst is the NATO Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy Strategy.

This is a shortened version of Dr. Babst's speech at the NATO Partnership for Peace Symposium on January 22, 2009.