ANALYSIS: What role for NATO as Iraq war looms?

As Western powers gear up for a possible war in Iraq, NATO faces increasing scepticism from US opinion-formers.

Director of information and press Jamie Shea outlines the target groups for the organisation's New Year communications push.

While the issue of disarming Saddam Hussein is being addressed primarily by the US, it is an international problem. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that the willingness of the US to make the conflict with Iraq a multilateral affair, engage with the United Nations and not go it alone is underestimated by the public and perhaps largely under-communicated.

The NATO governments have a task ahead in countering views that the US is acting unilaterally and must make it clear that it is a task for the entire international community to ensure that Saddam complies with UN resolutions.

In this respect, there has to be better public understanding that diplomacy rarely succeeds without the threat of force as a last resort.

This challenge is set against a backdrop of dwindling support for NATO from US quarters. US polls indicate that support for NATO has been declining for a number of years, going back before 9/11, which caused many in the US to question the relevance of NATO and what the organisation could do to help combat al-Qa'eda.

The question Americans are now asking themselves is: How does NATO relate outside Europe to our efforts? The message we want to send to the US is that NATO is useful to them and is not a relic of the past.

Firstly, NATO produces allies. While the US has large military resources, they can accomplish more working with ally countries. For example, with the peacekeeping mission in the Balkans, the US is reluctant to do it, but somebody has to. Wars may only last for a few months, but the restoration missions go on for years. Canadian and European allies have the capabilities and are willing to do on-the-round peacekeeping - so by aligning with allies, the US can share the burdens of the job that maybe they don't like doing.

Secondly, the problems we are encountering today require more international organisation. Terrorism has a global network and you can't defend yourself by putting up a wall around your territory. You can, however, tackle it by having allies that are all working towards the same goal and can share vital information.

The third message that we want to get across to the US is that NATO has been prepared to change. The US would be right if NATO had just sat on its hands after the Berlin Wall came down, but we haven't. We have got on with the job of moving beyond our borders - for example, we're helping to plan the peacekeeping mission in Afghanistan.

It's clear we have good arguments and can win the debate for US support of NATO, but having good arguments is no good if you don't communicate them. Our job is to get the messages across effectively.

The US is a vast country and we have got to target who we want to influence.

There are four main categories, starting with the US government. Many in that government are not permanent civil servants and when the government changes, 7,000 people change - our problem is that some come in who maybe aren't familiar with NATO and we have to work with them to increase understanding of the organisation.

The second target audience is Congress, in particular staffers who write the speeches and advise Congressmen. If we can get to them we can get to their bosses. It's no good NATO pressuring the US government to go along with its agenda, for instance on NATO enlargement, if it can't get agreements and treaties ratified by the Senate. We have got to get Congressmen on our side - they're powerful in terms of budgets, opinion building, access to TV and influencing the administration.

The third element is the press. There are a lot of heavyweight columnists in the US and those people can be extremely influential with fantastic access. The problem is that there's not much space for foreign affairs in American media.

There's a window of opportunity, however, to get the attention of the US public in a period when the country - following 9/11 - is much more receptive to what's going on in the rest of the world. Coupled with the economic downturn, there's a greater realism that what happens in the rest of the world does determine their security.

The fourth target category is the country's many world affairs councils and NGOs. Through those organisations we can mobilise influencers at state level. It's hard to get a hearing in Washington, but sometimes to get your voice heard you need to go to some of the regional centres, such as San Francisco or Los Angeles.

Within NATO we need to be clear on our priorities and it's something that is still being debated in the organisation. My personal view is that after 9/11, the NATO member countries themselves have become more important.

In recent years much of our funding has been put into dealing with non-member countries, but we now have to turn the oil tanker around.

What's the point of diverting all our resources into places like Asia if the US, which provides leadership, is questioning the rationale of NATO? We, as an international organisation, have now got to be nimble in getting the US back on side.

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