Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović is the Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Previously, she served as Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of Croatia to United States.
There is generation gap regarding public opinion of NATO in the U.S. Does that exist in Europe as well?
Well, I would say that generation gap exists everywhere, but I have to tell you that our polling shows, both in the U.S. and in Europe, public opinion has mostly a positive opinion about NATO. What they lack is knowledge about NATO and what NATO does. I think that’s more prominent with the younger generations born after the Cold War, which is why in the public diplomacy section we’re focusing on those younger generations. People look at NATO in the ways that it used to function in the past. However, NATO is an alliance that has been changing, responding, and adapting to the changing security environment in the world. As you know, the only certain thing about security challenges today is their uncertainty. So NATO has been responding to that kind of security environment. But of course the pillars of NATO remain collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. This means that NATO will continue its core function to expand its member nations, but also that it will be expanding towards working with partners on talking about security issues. Today’s threats and challenges cannot be contained geographically, they cannot be pin pointed to a certain part of the globe. Nobody can feel security in any corner of the world. And thus we will be deepening and widening that debate. And from my perspective, from the public diplomacy division, it’s very important to include audiences to get their feedback, not just talking but listening as well, because listening will help us do our jobs a lot better.
How are you reaching out to a younger audience?
We have different initiatives now. As you know, the younger audiences tend to be on social media, on the social networks. So we are expanding our activities there; more in the domain of the new media and the social media. But we are also trying to combine peer-to-peer engagement because nothing can replace human contact, and that is how we’re trying to maximize our activities as well. One of my favorite activities in Chicago, in addition to the Young Atlanticist Summit, was an activity called IREPS. We had a competition that was run all over the world – it was not just limited to NATO countries or partner countries, but really all over the world – for a short video of sixty seconds for young people to explain what security means to them, because unfortunately most of them take security for granted nowadays. We selected the twenty best videos – not all of them were NATO friendly – and we brought that group together in Chicago. We allowed them to be citizen journalists. The attended a lot of different meetings, roundtables, and they were in the media room answering questions. As we had our discussions around the table, they would tweet and blog. So it was this interactive, very immediate response. Within a few days, a lot of them changed opinions about security and about NATO in particular.
What’s been the general reaction to the two initiatives that NATO has put forward, in terms of security operations?
Well, a lot of people have mentioned Libya; it was a different operation, we did not have boots on the ground to begin with. It was based on solid international legal grounds, on the UN mandate. It lasted as long it was necessary. There was clear demand for it and regional cooperation, and the operation as very successful. But NATO did not interfere with any political processes, and we always decided that it was up to the people of Libya to decide on their own future. In Afghanistan, well, the same principle goes that it’s up to the people of Afghanistan to decide their own future. However, the operation has gone on for eleven years, and there has obviously been certain fatigue. And people talk about the unpopularity of this operation right now, but popularity is such a relative term I would say. We all like to be popular, but then we look down on popularity contests. And popularity really depends on external circumstances. So obviously there is fatigue on this operation in Afghanistan. However, if you look back at the past decade, you will see immense progress that we have achieved; not just with our operation, with ISAF, but with the terms we’ve laid down for the people of Afghanistan to make changes themselves. These are now allowing them to make progress in terms of education, health care, building roads and infrastructure, government institutions, and civil society. So there is immense progress that is difficult to fathom in just a single shot. It has to be looked at through the progress of that operation. It definitely is a success. And one of the basic aspects is really empowering the Afghan people to take ownership of the future. By 2013, Afghans themselves will be in charge of security for all of Afghanistan. And by 2014, the transition process will end, Then ISAF will transition into another mission in terms of support, instructing, and mentoring the Afghan national forces. But we’ve built that strong force that is now able to resist the insurgency and ensure the future of Afghanistan.
I have to tell you, I’ve been visiting Afghanistan for years now. During the time I’ve been the Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy, I’ve been to Afghanistan twice. I’ve always noticed changes on the ground. Of course, there’s setbacks, there are challenges, there are green on blue instances for instance. But people forget that almost 350,000 Afghan national security forces are working alongside ISAF soldiers every day. Unfortunately those incidents do happen; but they are not the rule, the big picture, and the image of that cooperation. And also when I visit Afghanistan, one of the things I love to do is to talk to Afghans themselves. In October of last year, I had a roundtable discussion with Afghan students at the University of Kabul. For me, it was very interesting to see what their thinking was, and there were two things that struck me. First of all, they look at Afghanistan as their country, the country where they see their future. They’re able to identify with Afghanistan. And secondly, they absolutely have the same hopes and dreams that other students have. All they want is for us to assist them, to help the in reaching those dreams in getting that education, in getting that security firm, in preventing Afghanistan from ever becoming a safe haven for terrorists; but also in letting Afghanistan to have its economic development, investment, tourism, opportunities that any kid in the world would have.
Is NATO a priority for Europeans when budgets are pinched? Do Europeans, in your opinion, realize how upsetting it is to Americans to continue to foot a significant percentage of the bill for NATO operations?
I would say that, in times of austerity measures, NATO actually is the answer. The new initiatives in Smart Defense are precisely what everyone needs; by pooling together, sharing, putting funding together, and not only being able to ensure that NATO remains the strongest political alliance in the 21st century, but really allowing individual countries to invest in defense in a smart and channeled way. We realize in times of austerity and shrinking budgets, for any country, it’s very difficult to increase defense spending when you cannot increase spending in education, social security, etc. So precisely by working with other countries on regional and multi-national initiatives, it allows you to have the defense capabilities to respond to current threats and needs without investing more. It means getting more in quality, not necessarily quantity, in order to be able to invest smartly but also to take care of austerity measures and your country’s budget. As far as relations between the U.S. and the European public goes; yes, there is an awareness of that gap, not just in the United States but on the European side as well. Europeans are doing more to step up to the plate, and I think that smart defense and other multinational initiatives are precisely proof for that. If you look at the Libya operation for instance, in the initial phase, the U.S. capabilities of intelligence and surveillance were crucial. But then the Europeans were able to pick up the pace and contribute a lot more to the operation. So I think it is a great example of that cooperation and how Europeans are thinking of that capability gap and how to bridge it and how to justify – of course not just to the U.S. – but to our own publics as well; with the underlying principle that is at the heart of the alliance and that is transatlantic solidarity.
Did your public diplomacy efforts in Chicago pay off?
Absolutely; we talk about smart defense, and it was an example of smart diplomacy. We worked very closely with the U.S. I have to tell you, the city of Chicago was magnificent; the cooperation that we had from the host committee, from Mayor Emmanuel, from his team and working with them. We were able to really maximize on the financial and human resources that we put into different initiatives. From our exhibition on missile defense which really made it a lot clearer to everyone what NATO’s about, to the baseball game where COMISAF (Commander of the International Security Assistance Force) threw the first pitch. You know, through those fifty flags displayed on the baseball field, people were able to feel a lot of solidarity, of ISAF solidarity and of fifty nations – almost one quarter of all the nations in the world – almost standing shoulder to shoulder in Afghanistan with the United States. To our exhibition at Pritzker military library which shows not just the weapons, but really the human side of NATO; what our soldiers do, how they feel about operations, how they feel about the people they are there to protect. To the kite festival, where we were able to feature the Afghan tradition of kite flying and demonstrate to the people of Chicago that again, people in Afghanistan have the same hopes and dreams as anybody else in the world and they like to have fun as well. So we had numerous opportunities. We worked for months with the U.S. Congress, with the administration, with think tanks, and NGOs. We had a lot of roundtables, a lot of discussions. But also we had a lot out of the classic public diplomacy tool box activities that really brought the alliance closer together with people to demonstrate that it’s all about people and not about structures. And I think also talking to the people and to the protestors in Chicago was also immensely important to demonstrate that, yes; we want this to be a dialogue. What NATO is there for, what NATO does in all of our countries all over the world is precisely their right to protest, to express their opinion. And we value that opinion. We may not always agree with each other, but it’s important to have that dialogue and to listen to each other and respect each other.