Confessions of a NATO Speechwriter

Speechwriting at NATO is a self-defeating, creatively stifling exercise -- one that threatens the hallowed institution's very existence. An insider account of how to fix it.

NEWPORT, WALES - SEPTEMBER 05: World leaders from some 60 countries gather for the two day meeting where Ukraine and the ISIS hostages are likely to be discussed at the NATO Summit at the Celtic Manor Hotel in Newport, Wales on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
NEWPORT, WALES - SEPTEMBER 05: World leaders from some 60 countries gather for the two day meeting where Ukraine and the ISIS hostages are likely to be discussed at the NATO Summit at the Celtic Manor Hotel in Newport, Wales on September 5, 2014. (Photo by Kayhan Ozer/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

Let me tell you what writing speeches at NATO was like.

In August 2014, I was a speechwriter for NATO’s then-secretary-general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. It was a month before the Wales Summit. The senior speechwriter, a retired British colonel, asked me to put together remarks Rasmussen would deliver at a ceremony honoring the hundreds of thousands of allied troops who had served and died in Afghanistan. As usual, we had little information about the venue, format, or audience, and an arbitrary deadline meant I had to write a draft immediately.

As I typed, it occurred to me that including a line to honor a specific soldier would be more powerful than honoring “soldiers” as a group. So I wrote a sentence paying homage to Harold J. Greene, a U.S. major general who had perished in an insider attack that month in Afghanistan.

My tribute to Greene got me in big trouble. When the spokeswoman read the speech, she was shocked. Mentioning the general, she said, would offend the Afghans — presumably because an Afghan soldier had carried out the attack. She even tried to downgrade my annual performance review.

In a follow-up meeting, I didn’t dismiss her concern, though the jump from my words to Afghan offense seemed to me a long one. But trashing a year’s worth of my work because of a single sentence paying homage to a fallen U.S. general? And in a “tribute to the troops,” no less?

In the end, my performance review was not changed because a deadline for revising it had passed. But I remain shocked: The last thing I wanted to be was a rebel. I was just trying to write an appealing speech. After all, what’s the use of pushing an uninteresting narrative that no one will listen to? It seemed far more natural to take a risk — say something meaningful to advance the conversation about the future of transatlantic security.

The problem is that NATO has a hard time contributing to this conversation. And this difficulty comes with consequences.

Despite Russian pressure on the alliance’s eastern borders and extremist pressure from within and without, our publics often wonder why NATO still exists. Since 2013, slightly less than half of Americans have viewed it favorably, four points down from 2009. This downward trend — more than any massed army — is NATO’s existential threat. Skepticism about its value is percolating into our politics. Two major presidential candidates — Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump — are either critical of the organization or advocate its elimination outright.

NATO has a worthy mission: defending allies and the liberties that their citizens enjoy. Collective, transnational threats such as terrorism and cyberwarfare demand a collective response. Even a superpower can’t address them alone. So NATO isn’t obsolete. It’s more important than ever, and its secretary-general should be a big part of the global conversation. But his speeches are mostly greeted with indifference, and the alliance’s biggest media products are largely ignored. It’s time to confront NATO’s failures head on and adopt reforms that will allow its voice to be heard.

My own journey to NATO was a long one. A high school year abroad in Spain transformed me from a mediocre sophomore to an accomplished senior bound for Yale. After graduate work in Bologna, Italy, I headed to Brussels and joined NATO as a consultant. I was selected as a speechwriter to the secretary-general in late 2011.

At the time, the alliance was mired in internal crisis. The euro mess was unfolding, and resulting budget cuts were squeezing the life out of the place. Dozens of staffers were either let go or not replaced, and their work was handed off to colleagues who often had neither the time nor the skills for the additional workload. Burnout was rampant. Overworked staff — good, experienced people — became so stressed that they took months of medical leave or departed the organization altogether. Such a toxic workplace drove away talented young people, while insulated insiders found ways to protect their own turf.

The basic problem was one of incentives. My initial work as a consultant was with NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division — its communications wing — which produces videos, documentaries, brochures, and the like to explain to external audiences what NATO is and does. But a lack of transparency and accountability typically means that finished projects better reflect the pet priorities of people inside NATO than the concerns of allied publics.

One example among many comes to mind. When I first arrived at NATO, our then-head of public diplomacy instructed his staff to produce a “viral video” with the ostensible goal of promoting NATO as a guarantor of allied security. It was never made clear what the video was intended to convey. That’s because the point wasn’t to convey a message; the point was to go viral. Social media specialists and shrewd millennials everywhere will scoff, as they should. The project was an illusion that a NATO video could magically spirit itself away to millions of viewers without the promotion or distribution costs.

But the boss wanted it. So after a bidding process, NATO handed off the project to a production company, though several managers vetted every script. In-house, we referred to it simply as the “viral video” until shortly before its release, after which it became known as the “online video.” Half a million euros later, the result: three mediocre spots. After much self-congratulation, a hyped rollout presented the videos to the Internet.

The response? Silence. YouTube hits eventually crept into the low four-digit range. The joke was that most of those hits were NATO staffers clicking away in their cubicles. The videos were quickly and conveniently forgotten.

In many ways, the nonviral video was typical of NATO projects. In the private sector, a product isn’t a success until it sells. At NATO, a product is considered a success simply because it is produced. And the audience? The numbers can always be optimistically interpreted, and a degree of victory claimed — and an antiquated compensation structure ensures that staffers are paid the same regardless, whether their work is good, bad, late, or nonexistent. Insiders have a phrase for the process: Any project is “doomed to succeed.”

But if I thought the Public Diplomacy Division was bad, I couldn’t have imagined what things were like inside the NATO speechwriting shop.

As a former chief speechwriter for U.S. President Barack Obama, Jon Favreau has said writing a good speech means telling a story, being honest and authentic, and using a conversational tone. Basically, minimize the policy talk, and maximize the human talk. Above all, one speechwriter should hold the pen, ensuring continuity of style and tone while earning and enjoying the speaker’s confidence.

Speechwriting at NATO violated every one of these rules. But it was even worse.

The main problem was process. NATO had three official speechwriters wrangling two or three major addresses a month and a dozen others — diplomats, policy experts, anyone who conceivably had a stake in the speech — who had an effective veto over every word. The result, following an often acrimonious approval process, was usually wounded and unsightly prose, already half-dead before it crawled up the chain of command.

Look closely, and you’ll also detect a pathological optimism that infects much of NATO writing. Even well-known alliance weaknesses must be portrayed as strengths that merely need strengthening. The idea is, everything’s perfect. Now let’s make it perfect-er. Ultimately, this farce is self-defeating because, more often than not, few outside the organization care. It’s as if the alliance is a man who fancies himself a brilliant tenor, meticulously crafting a beautiful aria that he will deliver to an adoring crowd, when he’s really just singing to himself in the shower.

Consider the speech NATO’s current secretary-general, Jens Stoltenberg, delivered to the Atlantic Council think tank in Washington, D.C., on April 6. After a promising start to the speech that allows Stoltenberg’s charm to shine through, it collapses into the usual junkyard of disjointed agendas and rusty clichés. Its initial subject — “Without NATO, transatlantic cooperation would be weaker, Europe and North America less safe, and the world a more dangerous place” — is never really proved. The address reads like four or five speeches crammed into one, as its crafters try to say everything and end up saying little.

The address was a missed opportunity, delivered at an inopportune moment. Only days before, Trump had questioned NATO’s future. The occasion was ripe for a vigorous defense of the alliance — not anything that mentioned The Donald by name, but a defense of the defenders that built upon Stoltenberg’s charisma and that used stories from his work and travels as secretary-general to show, in personal terms, how NATO makes Europe and North America safer, while having enough courage to admit how and when the alliance comes up short. Such a speech might have risked incurring Trump’s wrath. But it would have contributed to a fairer and more honest conversation about the good that NATO does.

Instead, the audience received a mostly bland statement masquerading as a speech, and such statements are rarely appealing to a broad audience. In the U.S. mainstream media, the speech made the tiniest of ripples.

So what is to be done? How can NATO better communicate its message and better prove its utility to skeptical allied audiences?

For one thing, the secretary-general and his deputy don’t need three speechwriters. Take it from me: We often twiddled our thumbs. When it comes to communicating, less is more. So cut the team down. Allow the secretary-general and his deputy to choose one speechwriter each. Give these speechwriters the explicit right to hold the pen without others wrestling it away. Stakeholders can comment, but the speechwriter should hand the speech to the speaker.

Above all, allow speechwriters more time with the people they’re writing for. Before trust can be built between an audience and a speaker, trust must exist between a speaker and a speechwriter, as the example of Favreau and Obama demonstrates. At NATO, such trust is not allowed to develop. During my time, speechwriters were allowed a meeting with the secretary-general once or twice a month and almost always in large groups.

Beyond the speechwriting section, NATO’s Public Diplomacy Division must become more transparent and accountable. In a way, the bureaucracy depends upon the fact that its products don’t generate much attention. Otherwise, greater public scrutiny could upset delicate structures of bureaucratic patronage that have ossified over time. The result is that NATO’s public diplomacy paradigm is neatly reversed. Projects that could reach our publics are effectively discouraged, while projects that hew closely to an internal and uninteresting canon of “acceptable language” are promoted.

So turn the focus toward the external audience by opening NATO’s books. Let the public see how the alliance spends its public diplomacy cash. Establish clear goals for reaching external audiences that everyone — including our taxpayers — can see.

While a certain degree of institutional messaging is inevitable, don’t let it muzzle creativity. Allow staffers more autonomy to propose their own projects, and allow them to take greater credit for what they do. Perhaps even give them a bonus if a video reaches a coveted audience, such as young people not in the military. Yes, mistakes will be made. But the result would be a louder conversation about NATO.

Finally, if the alliance can’t reach its publics, let others do it. Organizations like the Atlantic Council, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, and Carnegie Europe often make NATO’s case better than the alliance does. For example, the Atlantic Council’s NATOSource blog is often far more informative about NATO than the alliance’s own home page. So let them in — literally. The new headquarters should be open sometime next year. Its high ceilings and massive corridors should allow plenty of space for others to help in formulating NATO’s message. Let them hold the debates inside NATO that the alliance can’t, or won’t, encourage.

I believe in NATO. It has great value as a cost-saving device, but more than anything, the alliance is an idea: that allies defend not just our territories but also our values and that among those values is the right to say what you want, and you won’t go to jail for it.

But today, freedom of expression is under attack — not only in ascendant autocracies outside the alliance, but in certain allied states that have taken steps to curtail freedom of the press. More than ever, NATO’s mission matters, but the alliance is bankrupt of ideas. It’s a geopolitical habit, getting by on a promise of perpetual Western peace made by a generation of World War II soldiers who are nearly gone. When the memory of their sacrifice fades, what will justify NATO? “Capacity building”? Gimme a break.

People rarely support something they don’t understand, and it’s clear they do not understand NATO as well as they should. NATO should admit its failure and work to correct the problem. The first step is the humblest. Just try to become part of the conversation.

Let’s begin by allowing a little freedom of expression in the institution dedicated to defending the idea. Let’s implement true reforms by encouraging creativity without simply slashing budgets. Let’s allow good speechwriters — and NATO has them, right now — to write the speeches that will get the secretary-general in the debate about transatlantic security. That’s the place where I wanted to work, as the young rebel I didn’t realize I was. Maybe, someday, that NATO will exist.

Photo Credit: Anadolu Agency / Contributor