Center for Strategic Communication

by Scott W. Ruston*

In December, COMOPS was invited to participate in a question and answer forum with General Stéphane Abrial, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Transformation, hosted by Atlantic-Community is a leading European online think tank focused on transatlantic relations. The Q&A reveals that General Abrial has an integrative, forward-looking conceptualization of the role of strategic communication in NATO.  A close read also suggests that NATO faces both internal, as well as external, strategic communication challenges.

As the head of Allied Command Transformation (ACT), General Abrial is one of two strategic commanders in the NATO organizational structure (Allied Command Operations or ACO is the other, led by Admiral James Stavridis), and is charged with leading and facilitating the continuous improvement of NATO capabilities to meet NATO missions, operations and goals now and into the future.  The online forum consisted of a video by General Abrial introducing the concept of “Smart Defense”, an initiative recently put in place by NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen, and General Abrial’s thoughts on what Smart Defense means for ACT.

Members of Atlantic-Community were invited to submit questions to General Abrial, facilitated by the editors at Atlantic-Community, and over the course of two subsequent sessions General Abrial answered a selection of these questions.  The first set of questions addressed specific implementations of Smart Defense, including definitions and ACT implications as well as transparency and development concerns.  The second inquired about broader NATO issues such as maritime security, cultural obstacles to cooperation and strategic communication.  The complete question and answer session can be found here.

One of the underlying factors driving Smart Defense, emphasized both in General Abrial’s introductory video and his answers to multiple questions, is the increased pressure on defense budgets in the face of the current European debt crisis and severe recession in the United States.  Yet, the security challenges faced by NATO and member countries have not abated.  These fiscal conditions motivate a need to do more with less, or as the general puts it: “We need to spend better.”  General Abrial provides some interesting thoughts about cooperative procurement as a method to leverage economies of scale.  In addition, he suggests the coordination of each member-country’s unique strengths and capabilities would be more efficient than developing parallel capabilities across the Alliance.

Acknowledging the fiscal challenges underpinning Smart Defense, my question to General Abrial centered on what sort of security dividend could be realized by emphasizing strategic communication as an additional tool for achieving NATO security objectives.  In other words, with the significant rise in insurgency and other irregular warfare situations, might non-kinetic solutions offer a cost-effective supplement to traditional kinetic military capabilities (and by implication, could successful non-kinetic solutions reduce the need for expensive weapons systems procurement and maintenance, if only slightly)?

General Abrial’s answer emphasized the role of strategic communication as part of a broad public diplomacy effort and cited a 2009 NATO Summit conclusion that strategic communication must be an integral part of both political and military objectives.  This dual role of strategic communication points to a significant challenge for conducting it effectively.  Which arm of NATO (or any government for that matter), the political or military, should lead strategic communication?

Thinking of strategic communication in terms of public affairs and information operations is too restrictive. It is a discipline that bridges both political and military domains and is intricately enmeshed with both political and military operations.  It requires careful planning and forethought, otherwise devaluing its strategic benefit.  General Abrial calls for “building a professional framework strategic communications related military disciplines” and I would argue that this framework should be overtly collaborative with the political dimension of the alliance’s functions.

General Abrial’s answer also got me thinking about two sides of strategic communication and the special challenges faced by NATO.  All countries when seeking to communicate their objectives and goals, and seeking to persuade an audience to cooperate in the achievement of those goals have two audiences, external and internal.  In its traditional definition—communication crafted and coordinated to support the achievement of a goal—strategic communication is often conceived as an externally focused process, and this is especially true when subcomponents of the discipline such as public diplomacy, information operations and psychological operations (psyops) are considered.  However, countries have domestic audiences that require information and need to understand what their government is trying to accomplish.

In NATO’s case, this internal audience presents a particular challenge:  28 member countries, each with its own unique security and diplomatic concerns, its own internal political turmoil, not too mention significant historical and cultural concerns.  Each country itself has both internal and external audiences.  General Abrial’s comments introducing Smart Defense indicates this need to address this internally-focused facet of strategic communication.

He observes that a question facing NATO is: “how do we best encourage groups of like-minded countries to reap economies of scale by working together more often?”  This sounds like a strategic communication issue, but not one suited to information operations or pysop campaigns.  Rather, it is about getting all the member countries to share the same vision of NATO’s future and the same vision about how they can contribute to that future.  In short, they need to participate in the same narrative.

This challenge illustrates how approaching narrative from a systemic perspective can be helpful, not only in terms of narrative analysis and understanding, but also in terms of strategic communication planning.  Smart Defense already articulates some fundamental themes: cooperation, fiscal prudence, balancing sovereignty and solidarity, etc.  As we’ve noted here at COMOPS Journal before (notably here and here), a narrative is (1) an explanatory organization of information; (2) is structured with a trajectory towards the resolution a conflict or satisfaction of a desire (and the events of this trajectory illustrate themes, values and ideals); and (3) is a system of stories.

Constructing a Smart Defense narrative, then, would consist of identifying a variety of stories that constitute the events in the overall narrative trajectory.  For an effective and coherent narrative that unites the alliance, these stories would ideally be sourced from the member countries and thus consistent with those narrative landscapes.  Next, they would contain within them actions and characters and events that, when collected together, place Smart Defense at the resolution of the conflicts or the satisfaction of  desires germane to each member country.  Of course, that’s easier said than done.

The most encouraging of all the general’s comments, though, was his assertion that strategic communication “must be incorporated into all operational planning, instead of being relegated to an after-the-fact attempt to explain, or build support for a decision that has already been taken.”  As my co-authors and I argue in our upcoming book Narrative Landmines, understanding the narrative landscape and incorporating that knowledge into the decision-making process at operational and strategic levels can make the difference between success or failure of civil affairs, public outreach, crisis management and other soft power enterprises.

We at COMOPS thank General Abrial and Atlantic-Community for the opportunity to engage in this dialogue, and look forward to following NATO’s efforts in implementing Smart Defense and ensuring both European and Transatlantic security in the years to come.


*Dr. Scott W. Ruston is an Assistant Research Professor at the Center for Strategic Communication at Arizona State University. A specialist in narrative theory and media studies, he is the co-author of Narrative Landmines: Rumors, Islamist Extremism and the Struggle for Strategic Influence (Rutgers UP, available March 2012).  He is also an officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve newly assigned to a NATO ACT reserve support unit.