NATO and the U.S.:

Putting the Public Diplomacy Machinery in Action


Zhikica (Zach) Pagovski


The relevance of NATO and the American commitment to the Alliance became some of the main topics of the past presidential elections in the United States (U.S.). The criticism of NATO being obsolete, weak in dealing with crises and terrorism, and inept in making its members pay their fair share took a lot of space in the U.S media. Former President Trump even considered pulling the U.S. out of NATO.

Far from this narrative, the reality is much different. NATO is playing a critical role in ending the war in Ukraine. Member states are increasing their defense spending across the board, prompted by the Russian aggression in Ukraine. Even though NATO is criticized for its role in countering terrorism, the Alliance has been instrumental in training Iraqi forces to fight back ISIS and ultimately defeat this terrorist organization. A couple of years ago, NATO appointed a top intelligence official to collect and share more intelligence on terrorist activities.

In this case, I believe that the much-needed response is a positive public campaign by NATO in the U.S. NATO’s public diplomacy (PD) machinery would do well by explaining the benefits that members of the Alliance, including the U.S., have enjoyed in the past two decades. NATO officials and member states would need to constantly make the case about the benefits that NATO brought to the U.S. and its other members.

One of the main goals of NATO’s PD is to raise the levels of awareness and understanding about NATO, promoting its policies and activities and thereby fostering support, trust, and confidence in the Alliance. In the case of anti-NATO sentiments, the Alliance members should stay committed to communicating with their internal audiences in an ‘appropriate, timely, accurate, and responsive’ manner. These notions might be reinforced in this situation of future public opinion crisis towards NATO in the U.S.

The Assistant Secretary-General for Public Diplomacy would need to consider activities to counter the anti-NATO narrative that has spread in the U.S. and among other member states. Moreover, NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division (PDD) should incorporate a customized approach to dealing with anti-NATO audiences in its annual Public Diplomacy Strategy and launch a subsequent PD campaign.

According to Nicolas Cull and other PD scholars, there are several PD approaches, such as listening, advocacy, engagement, and evaluation. NATO will benefit from adopting some of those in countering the anti-NATO message within the U.S. public.

Effective listening is important to access information about the attitudes and perceptions of the displeased audiences and carefully consider those considerations in shaping the PD approach. Hence, NATO needs to recognize that there is a concern about its role among a number of U.S. citizens. By starting with carefully listening to the people’s concerns, the Alliance will determine the main issues and target those issues through an effective PD campaign. Whether the Alliance needs to reform, improve its capacities, or readjust its strategy is always a relevant question. NATO’s PD machinery needs to be prepared and open to listen to and engage the audiences in this and similar types of discussions.  

NATO could also intensify its advocacy activities in the U.S. to counter the anti-NATO narrative. The PDD should utilize more of its social media and communication tools to convey a clear and concise message about NATO’s relevance in and contribution to the fields of NATO allies and partner countries, countering terrorism, cyber protection, and collective defense. Organizing public-facing outreach events in the U.S., similar to the NATO Engages to engage stakeholders beyond the traditional security and defense community in a discussion about the future of NATO could be one way to set the narrative.

The engagement process represents a “two-way channel,” which means that NATO and the U.S. government should try to engage that group of concerned citizens about the role of NATO. This could even require efforts to educate the NATO critics that the immense benefits from the Alliance exceed the U.S. expenditures.

Allowing anti-Alliance rhetoric to prevail or gain significant weight in the U.S. public discourse could be potentially dangerous for the unity of NATO. It could easily spill over to other NATO member states. NATO could consider creating and implementing a customized PD strategy in the U.S. to prevent future NATO backlashes. Similar forces in other NATO countries could quickly adopt a similar line of attacks that could be damaging to the Alliance, especially in this ‘post-Brexit’ era.