NATO’s Narrative Vacuum

by Steven R. Corman

Nato FlagLast month, James Appathurai, NATO’s Deputy Assistant Secretary General for Political Affairs and Security Policy,  agreed to participate in an electronic Q&A sponsored by the Atlantic Community.  He answered 20 questions in four installments, on global partnerships and the Arab spring, partnerships in Asia, questions on Central Asia/Caucasus, and the NATO mission.  The latter includes an item on the NATO narrative that illustrates the large challenge the alliance faces in filling a narrative vacuum that currently exists.

Yours truly was invited to submit a question to Mr. Appathurai. As it happened, my colleagues and I had recently been discussing the issue of NATO’s narrative. So I asked:

It is widely acknowledged that public and political support for the NATO alliance is flagging in many member countries. I and many of my colleagues believe this is because NATO’s narrative has been slowly disintegrating. With the Cold War some twenty years in the past, its original motivating conflict is fading from memory.

What do you see as a sustainable narrative for NATO in the 21st Century? What basic conflict does it exist to deal with, and what desire does that create? What is the projected resolution of that desire? What actors, actions, and events lead from the desire to the resolution?

He answered:

This is the classic and very important question. I don’t mean classic in an old-fashioned sense. We debate this here all the time. I personally don’t have too many questions about it.

What we don’t have is a good slogan. In the early days of the Cold War, one NATO Secretary General defined NATO’s purpose as “keeping the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” That was the post-Second World War conception. Since the end of the Cold War, those things aren’t really necessary. The Americans are in. We don’t need the Russians out. Actually, we have them as partners. And the Germans are, of course, strong and vibrant members of this Alliance and of Europe and of the world, without there being anything negative, only positive things about that.

So we never found a good new slogan. And I can assure the new Secretary General has encouraged us to look for one. But to my mind, NATO is about what it is and then about what it does. What it is, is a collection of democracies that is uniquely capable militarily. No other organization can do what NATO can do militarily. You saw it in Libya. You see it in Afghanistan. And that’s a priceless thing because there are times when you need that capability as an international community. We can’t get rid of it.

And it’s also a place where we consult politically. All these 28 countries are here every single day and discussing and debating all sorts of issues. And by the way, with a very wide group of partners now as well. So it is a unique political forum and a very important one.

What do we do? We do three things. We do collective defense. That’s the ultimate mission of NATO, to defend the Allies. Second, crisis management. I mentioned Libya, I mentioned Afghanistan. I can mention Kosovo. I can mention counter piracy missions. And third we do collective security. Building trust and confidence and inter-operability in the broadest political sense as well as technical sense with partners around the globe. So all of that I think is a very important role. But I can’t think of the slogan to define it, and I tried for a long time. I came up with a lot of bad ones, but I never came up with a good one.

I would first like to thank Mr. Appathurai for answering my question, and indeed for participating in entire exercise.  High ranking officials are not required to do things like this, and taking the time that was involved here indicates his commitment to strengthening the alliance’s partnerships and frameworks, and doing so openly and participatively. This is commendable.

That said, I do not find his response especially satisfying.  True, it might be useful if NATO had a slogan. But slogans encapsulate narratives; they do not substitute for them.  I suspect Mr. Appathurai’s difficulty finding one stems from the incoherence of the narrative elements as they exist.  Yes, NATO “defends the Allies” and does collective security, but defends and secures against what?

The second paragraph of my question invokes a narrative arc described by Kenneth Burke.  He said that all narrative is based on a conflict (or other deficiency) that creates desire.  The desire implies a satisfaction (actual or potential). Narrative is a trajectory of participants, actions, and events that leads from the desire to the satisfaction.  This is rhetorically powerful because the narrative is grounded in the desire, and suggests a path to the resolution of the desire.  The need for satisfaction creates an incentive for people to buy into the trajectory–i.e. accept and participate in the narrative.

Narrative TrajectoryDuring the Cold War, NATO had a very strong narrative arc.  The conflict was with the Soviets, as Mr. Appathurai notes, and its behavior in the wake of World War II created a strong desire for protection from the “bear in the woods” (to use the 1984 Reagan campaign’s brilliant storyline).  The bear threatened to eat the North Atlantic countries, so a strong military alliance was the resolution of that desire.  NATO–its participating countries, treaty, mutual defense agreements, joint exercises, funding, etc.–was the trajectory leading from the desire to the resolution.  The story form organizing this narrative was deliverance, in which a threatener menaces a community until a champion comes along to defeat the threatener and restore the community to safety (David and Goliath is a deliverance story).

This was a compelling narrative that served NATO well for many decades.  Then the bear wandered away, leaving a gap where there was once a clear conflict creating a strong desire for the trajectory leading to the alliance.  As a result, to some observers, NATO looks today like a solution in search of a problem.  Lawrence Kaplan, for example, wonders if NATO is anything more than the military arm of the UN.

The 9/11 attacks against the United States are the basis for NATO’s participation in the Afghanistan conflict, and terrorism seems to be the leading candidate for a new conflict/threat to organize NATO’s narrative.  A page on NATO’s website explaining Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty even bears the header (graphic) “NATO and the Scourge of Terrorism.”  Terrorism also figures prominently in  NATO’s most recent (2010) strategic concept.

However, there are many ways terrorism does not fit into NATO’s existing story.  It would be a stretch to link NATO’s action in Libya to terrorism (while the Libyan government is suspected of involvement in the bombing of Pan Am 103, that happened over 20 years ago).  The intervention in Kosovo was not related to terrorism. Also numerous terrorist incidents in Europe in the 70s and 80s were never met with a NATO response.  There is even disagreement, especially in Europe, about whether terrorism should treated as a matter of war (as opposed to crime).

Stephen Walt notes the incoherence of the current narrative when he says “in recent years NATO has tried to transform itself into some sort  of global expeditionary force.” This incoherence leaves some NATO partners questioning their investment, and disagreeing about what the organization should be, as Klaus Wittman notes in a Danish Institute of International Studies report:

[T]here is no really solid unity on a number of issues: namely whether NATO is a regional or a global organisation, predominantly political or military, how it must balance collective defence and expeditionary orientation, how it must assess certain security challenges and their emphasis in the view of individual allies, the NATO–EU relationship and its political ‘blockage’, the UN mandate issue, the approach to Russia, nuclear weapons policy etc. (p. 37)

Most commentators seem to agree that NATO should be sustained.  But this requires filling the current narrative vacuum.  To do so, NATO must define a clear conflict and corresponding desire that that alliance resolves. Once this is done, it should be scrupulous about maintaining narrative coherence by lending its name only to those actions that are squarely consistent with resolving the desire.

One Response to “NATO’s Narrative Vacuum”

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  1. Why don’t we use a slogan summarizing the current startegic concept, like Active Engagement, Modern Defence as a slogan allowing all of us to explain why we do what we do the way we do it?