By Capt. John G.L.J. Jacobs
The #NATOEngages series has become a recognizable brand associated with NATO engagement activities. Initially launched in 2018, #NATOEngages became a side event to the Brussels Summit on 11–12 July with the help of a consortium made up of think tanks and NGOs supporting NATO’s public outreach activities.
The original goal of the ‘NATO Engages’ event was to “bring together current and next generation leaders to take an in-depth look at new and emerging security concerns, ask how NATO can adapt to them, and analyse what this means for NATO’s collective security guarantee for its one billion people”.[i]
While it initially seemed like a gambit to launch a second ‘brand’ of NATO Public Diplomacy amid the #WeAreNATO campaign, #NATOEngages proved to be a new and fresh concept that strengthened the latter. The #NATOEngages event focused on two particular target audiences from the #WeAreNATO campaign: youth (later termed ‘next generation’ or ‘successor generation’) and women. To reach the latter group, Women in International Security (WIIS) were coopted as a consortium member in the inaugural event.
Both #NATOEngages and #WeAreNATO were launched under Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy Tacan İldem, though no doubt credit should also be attributed to his team, NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division (PDD), which is increasingly becoming more adept at engaging with modern audiences. The #NATOEngages series is a fine example of this new, 2.0 style of engagement.[ii]
With this article I aim to look back at the past three #NATOEngages events. The events took place in July 2018, April 2019, and December 2019, respectively. Unfortunately there was no #NATOEngages event in 2020, though we did see the (hopefully) first iteration of the NATO Youth Summit.[iii]
In October this year speculation was made about holding a possible March summit should Democratic candidate Joe Biden win the US presidential election.[iv] While the initial outcome of the US election led to controversy and a refusal from President Donald Trump to accept his loss, the administration has since moved to begin the transition of power.[v] With a Biden administration now confirmed, Stoltenberg has confirmed the plan for a NATO summit in early 2021.[vi] Thus, this raises the question: will there be a #NATOEngages (COVID-19 restrictions notwithstanding)? If #NATOEngages moves forward in 2021, what can we learn from the first, second, and third iteration, what should be kept from the format, and what should be changed?
The Brussels Summit Dialogue: Brussels 2018
The initial #NATOEngages was organized by the consortium of the Atlantic Council, German Marshall Fund (GMF), Munich Security Conference (MSC), and Women in International Security (WIIS) in partnership with NATO and took place on the premises of the new NATO HQ just after the transition was finished from the old HQ across the street.
The Brussels Summit Dialogue
The consortium partners, as well as NATO PDD, went to great lengths to secure the involvement of the successor generation. Through GMF, volunteers were mobilized in the form of a short-term internship starting prior to the event. The temporary staff helped with the logistics and behind-the-scenes work. This was a great way for graduate students and career starters to get hands-on experience and network.
Simultaneously, MSC hosted a social side event aimed at the ‘Next Generation Participants’ in cooperation with the Embassy of Bavaria.[vii] The event allowed the successor generation to mingle with their peers in a social setting, as well as informally interact with ministers and other officials who had found their own way to the event. The company enjoyed Bavarian beer and sausages while enjoying a competitive match between NATO allies France and Belgium at the World Championships Football.
Through NATO PDD a cadre of promising young leaders were assembled who enjoyed their own luncheon with Atlantic Council’s Damon Wilson. Three members of the young leaders group were selected through a competition on PDD’s NATO Engagement Facebook group. Members of the Facebook group were invited to post a multi-media contribution answering the question “Without NATO, What?” to which the other members of the group could vote on. While the vote was based on number of likes, coincidence would happen that the three winners: Benjamin Patterson (Canada), Muhammad Waqar Ahmad (Pakistan), and Tamari Jibuti (Georgia), reflected three far corners of the NATO alliance and partners.
The successor generation on stage during the first day’s evening reception. The “Without NATO, What?” competition was introduced by Sascha Mueller, Program Coordinator, Engagements Section, NATO Public Diplomacy Division.
By hosting such a competition, PDD cleverly introduced the ‘uneducated’[viii] target audience to the #WeAreNATO campaign. NATO enthusiasts would invite friends and family to join the NATO Engagement group (to vote on their video/image/art piece), thus growing NATO’s reach beyond those already interested in NATO activities. Today, the Facebook group has over 10,000 members who debate and share insight about NATO on a daily basis.
The main focus of WIIS, as the name suggests, during the event was on the female audience of the #WeAreNATO campaign. Largely focused on the gender balance of the formal content of the #NATOEngages conference (roughly a 1:2 ratio of females to males, yet key engagements featured a larger proportion of female participants), they also hosted online sessions between the various WIIS chapters around the world. In addition to the gender balance, the consortium also made sure there was a fine balance between the successor generation and current/retired leadership, for example, by matching upcoming strategic analyst Karlijn Jans with outgoing Assistant Secretary General Rose Gottemoeller.
Karlijn Jans on Stage with ASG Rose Gottemoeller
Both the consortium partners and NATO made great strides toward actively including the successor generation into the conference. Because of the experimental format of engagement, 35 percent of the participants from across the transatlantic sphere were under 35.[ix] This laid the groundwork for a successful new concept of (youth) engagement through the continuation of the #NATOEngages series.
Happy Birthday NATO at the Rock Stage: Washington 2019
The second iteration of #NATOEngages was not hosted alongside a summit but rather took place alongside the 70th anniversary of the Alliance. In celebratory fashion, the Rock Stage: The Anthem, was set for as a venue in Washington, D.C.
For the renewal of #NATOEngages, NATO revised its consortium. Despite WIIS having a chapter in Washington, D.C., the consortium only included the Washington offices of the Atlantic Council and GMF as well as MSC.
Subsequently, it seems that there was less focus on empowering female leaders, aside from the current generation, which featured Álfrún Perla Baldursdóttir, NATO Senior Civilian Representative in Afghanistan, and Lindsay Gorman, Fellow for Emerging Technologies, Alliance for Securing Democracy. In terms of stage, the female to male ratio remained 1:2 and did not see improvements from the Brussels edition. Nevertheless, the combination of successor generation and current/retired leadership was preserved.
The consortium did expand on the opportunity to hold side events, to which each organization hosted their own side event (and graciously invited Atlantic Forum to each in order to pitch the new platform for transatlantic youth engagement). GMF’s event was specifically aimed at the successor generation, while Atlantic Council was mostly focused on holding an event for its own young staff in the form of a social, to which other young people were also invited.
Different from Brussels, the second iteration of #NATOEngages was only a one-day event, likely because the formal occasion was relatively short.[x] Nevertheless, it is important to realize that surrounding the events of the meeting, NATO Secretary General Stoltenberg was addressing a joint meeting of the United States Congress, making him the first leader of an international organization ever to do so.
Back at the Rock Stage at the Anthem, there was a surprising lack of performance on the stage. The Anthem is also used for regular concerts and conferences; therefore, both the setting of using such a venue, as well as the occasion of the 70th anniversary, had led to the expectation of seeing more performances on stage. Quite a few popular artists can be linked to NATO, for example, British Singer James Blunt, who served as a Captain in the British Army and deployed to the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR)[xi] as part of the NATO Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (ARRC).[xii] Similarly, British singer Rita Sahatçiu, better known as Rita Ora, has her roots in Kosovo. Her family fled to the United Kingdom at the start of the disintegration of the former Yugoslavia. A third candidate could have been one of Afghanistan's most famous musical artists, Aryana Sayeed, whose story is similar to that of Ora in the sense her family fled Afghanistan under Taliban rule.
Despite this missed opportunity the second iteration did introduce a new form of presentation through storytelling, featuring powerful stories from Ambassador Rastislav Káčer, formerly GLOBSEC, currently the Slovakian Ambassador to the Czech Republic; Tim Brown, a retired firefighter who was a first responder to the 9/11 attacks; and US Airforce Major Matt Wilson, who served in Afghanistan as part of the subsequent triggering of Article 5, NATO’s collective defense response.
The Leaders Meeting: London 2019
Like its sister event in Washington, the third iteration of #NATOEngages in London was also only a one-day event—likely due to the fact that the Summit, which was not a summit in the usual sense but rather formally termed the ‘Leaders Meeting’, also was only one day. The gathering of NATO members’ heads of state took place outside of London, with the #NATOEngages event taking place the day before on 3 December.
Unlike its predecessors the London edition did not feature any side events taking place in the days leading up to the event, despite the consortium being expanded to five members (six if you count the UK government). The event was a missed opportunity to target those unfamiliar with the #WeAreNATO campaign, i.e., the ‘uneducated’ target audience. A day before the event I took a stroll across ‘the Mall’, which featured the 30 flags of NATO member states, the soon-to-be-new member North Macedonia, and the flag of NATO. Overhearing conversations of bypassers quickly made clear that the local London population had little idea of what was going on when questioned what they thought these flags represented. Similarly, a social at the original NATO HQ, which now hosts the Ghana High Commission, could have been an excellent way to engage with stakeholders from London.[xiii]
The original NATO Headquarters located at 13, Belgrave Square, London, a perfect location for a social event as part of #NATOEngages in December 2019.
GMF did not contribute to #NATOEngages in London; in its stead the local stakeholders Royal United Services Institute, the world's oldest independent think tank on international defence and security, and King’s College London took its place. The consortium was further strengthened by GLOBSEC, a Slovakia-based NGO that hosts the yearly GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum—the largest event of its kind in the Central and Eastern European region. With the introduction of King’s College, a promising angle towards youth engagement was expected.
Despite this unspoken promise, the youth engagement at the London meeting was mostly offsite or passive. The event aimed to have 50 percent of its audience to be below age 35, a great increase compared to the youth presence from the Brussels meeting (35 percent). However, like Brussels and Washington before, youth participation was limited to everywhere except on stage. KCL’s youth engagement took place offsite with the UK Foreign & Commonwealth Office running a NATO simulation, and as such was not really part of #NATOEngages. Only 10 minutes at noon had featured two KCL students on stage to talk about the simulation proceedings—ten minutes in which most key leaders unfortunately took a much-needed break as the session had gone on continuously without respite.
At the end of the event around dinner, Olivia Seltzer (16), founder of The Cramm took the stage. The Cramm is a youth-led news outlet focused on Generation Z, which Olivia impressively founded at the age of 15. Unfortunately for her and the consortium, most audience members were already tired and were not paying attention. There did not seem to be any follow-up with Olivia and NATO, though this can perhaps also be attributed to changing plans around COVID-19.
All four instances seem to be telling of a change of direction when it comes to engagement with the successor generation. Youth was reduced to the audience and offsite events, with no focus on social interaction/bonding with peers. The concept of #NATOEngages seemed to have moved away from the successful combination of the successor generation and current/retired leadership on stage. Perhaps one explanation can be found in the size of the consortium, each lobbying to have their senior stakeholders involved rather than making room for their own young talent, of which Katarína Klingová was the only representation of the successor generation.
To end on a positive note, the successful storytelling intermezzo made its return (though being told by current/retired leadership), and Aryana Sayeed, who we had missed on the Rock Stage at the Anthem in Washington, did make an appearance. Sayeed has turned her musical career into activism to defy the Taliban[xiv] and plays an important role as a young influencer.
NATO Youth Summit
Enter the NATO Youth Summit, the first youth-orientated summit of its kind hosted by NATO in cooperation with MSC on 9 November 2020. Unlike the #NATOEngages series, the Youth Summit was not organized by a consortium but rather was an individual project of the MSC. The NATO 2030 Youth Summit aimed to “bring together 18–35 year-old citizens from NATO Allied and partner countries for an online conversation with Secretary General Stoltenberg and a series of interactive debates focused on keeping NATO strong militarily, making it stronger politically and taking a more global approach.”[xv]
Its aim to bring many young people together in an online conversation was very successful. MSC reported after the event that 900 successor generation participants took part in the online summit. While the initiative to host a NATO Youth Summit should be fostered, the concept itself had much to improve. For example, the summit only lasted three hours and had limited interaction with the audience (aside from a tool to send in questions to moderators). Utilizing its platform, and the fact that due to COVID-19 the event was digital, it’s breakout sessions could have been more linearly spread across multiple days and alternate between open discussion groups and in-depth working groups. Instead, the three hours were packed with shallow, fast-paced panels with little to no interaction with the audience.
As it was not part of the #NATOEngages series, this event required rebranding. As it was launched as part of Stoltenberg’s #NATO2030 agenda,[xvi] the Youth Summit also used #NATO2030, muddling the hashtag on social media. The lack of information planning was not the only visible suggestion of poor planning.
The event itself was announced reasonably late and prior to that clouded in mystery. Similarly, the addition of a 14-headed reflection group seemed ad hoc. How the successor generation of the reflection group is to conduct its work is unclear, as the reflection group itself reported their findings to Stoltenberg on 25 November.[xvii] As a result the introduction of the group, and their subsequent radio silence over the past three weeks, leaves a bad taste in the mouth akin to “token youth” and “lip service”. Had the concept been different, the NATO Youth Summit could have been used as their ‘Kick-Off’ event’, with each of the fourteen members having chaired its own discussion group and gathering input from peers on the spot. Like the idea of a NATO Youth Summit, the idea of the Successor Generation reflection group should be embraced. Yet, its late introduction and its otherwise non-participation in the Youth Summit suggests these were two separate initiatives merged last minute.
When looking at the content, the NATO Youth Summit had a surprising amount of current generation professionals as speakers, rather than the successor generation that the Youth Summit was supposed to be about—the Master of Ceremonies, Setting the Scene, and Closing Remarks, for example, could all have been done by a member of the successor generation. Not only did the successor generation reflection group lack a presence at the panels, so did many other young people. While not part of the #NATOEngages series, this decision does seem to continue the trend away from a healthy combination of successor generation and current/retired leadership on stage.
When looking at the young panelists we did see, as well as looking at the compilation of the successor generation group, it can be concluded that this was heavily skewed towards think tankers and policy makers. Young journalists, military, and industry leaders, whose senior counterparts do appear at #NATOEngages, were absent.
Moving forward, a #NATOEngages in March?
Assuming a NATO Summit will take place in March 2021, and assuming a #NATOEngages event will be part of NATO PDD’s outreach, the following dos and don’ts should be considered:
- The slippery slope towards token youth should be halted and revered back to the combination of successor and current/retired leadership sharing the stage;
- Under the assumption that the official event will be two days, the #NATOEngages event should also be two days, including a social in the evening (COVID allowing);
- When going for a digital edition (again due to COVID), the event should be spread out across multiple days;
- Whether digital or online, consortium members and partner organizations should be able to host their own smaller and more social side events;
- A renewed effort should be made to strike a better gender balance. There are plenty of (young) female experts, policy makers, military leaders, journalists, or industry captains out there willing to participate;
- The Successor Generation Reflection Group should have a prominent position at the event, and ideally all fourteen would be more prominently featured on the agenda;
- A better balance should be sought to move away from the abundance in think tankers and policy makers.
The #NATOEngages series and the NATO Youth Summit has made a promising start towards developing a 2.0 style of NATO public diplomacy. However, the conceptual format should be reviewed critically to prevent the concept from becoming a regular security conference. Under a Biden administration, the United States seeks to ‘Build Back Better’, including renewing the transatlantic relationship. As Stoltenberg has remarked, “[NATO needs to be] ready to face tomorrow’s challenges, and keep its citizens safe in the next decade and beyond”. For this it certainly needs a stronger successor generation, and #NATOEngages provides a great opportunity to continue engaging with this audience.
About the Author
Capt. John G.L.J. Jacobs is the co-founder of the Atlantic Forum, a grassroots start-up NGO promoting NATO and the transatlantic values of the Washington Treaty. The Atlantic Forum focuses on students and young professionals, ages 18 to 35. Through this role John is frequently in contact with the NATO Public Diplomacy Division. Between 2016 and 2018, he was the president of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association (YATA), and between 2017 and 2019 he was a board member of the Dutch-based Atlantische Commissie (Atlantic Commission). He is currently working at Netherlands 1 Civil & Military Interaction Command with a focus on Communication & Engagement. John graduated from Radboud University, Netherlands, with a master’s degree in Social Geography, specializing in conflict, territory, and identity. He previously studied at King’s College London.
[i] “NATO Engages: The Brussels Summit Dialogue,” NATO, last updated 10 July 2018, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_156845.htm.
[ii] I. Merheim-Eyre and J. Jacobs, “#WeAreNATO: Strategic Communications, Engagement and Lessons Learnt,” RUSI Newsbrief, 22 November 2019.
[iii] “NATO Secretary General to Host NATO 2030 Youth Summit,” NATO, last updated 9 November 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_178894.htm.
[iv] Robin Emmott, “NATO would seek early summit with Biden, if elected, envoy says,” Reuters, 20 October 2020, https://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-usa-election-nato-idUKKBN27514L.
[v] “Transition Highlights: Trump Authorizes Administration to Begin Working with Biden on Transition,” The New York Times, last updated 24 November 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/live/2020/11/23/us/joe-biden-trump.
[vi] “Online pre-ministerial press conference,” NATO, last updated 30 November 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/opinions_179791.htm.
[vii] Yes, the Free State of Bavaria has its own representation to the European Union.
[viii] The ‘uneducated’ segment of the audience is made up of individuals who have not been formally educated in high school or in advanced degrees about transatlanticism or NATO.
[ix] Roger Hilton, “More ‘likes’ for defence and security issues: engaging young audiences,” NATO Review, 14 August 2020, https://www.nato.int/docu/review/articles/2019/08/14/more-likes-for-defe....
[x] “NATO Secretary General addresses historic Joint Meeting of the United States Congress,” NATO, last updated 3 April 2019, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_165249.htm.
[xiii] “NATO’s Homes,” NATO, 20 October 2016, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/declassified_136208.htm.
[xiv] “Aryana Awarded Atlantic Council 2018 Freedom Award,” TOLOnews, 24 June 2018, https://tolonews.com/arts-culture/aryana-awarded-atlantic-council-2018-f....
[xv] “NATO Secretary General to Host NATO 2030 Youth Summit.”
[xvii] “Group of experts presents report to Secretary General,” NATO, last updated 25 November 2020, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_179730.htm.
Image credit: Author