How to Sell NATO to Gen Z

How to Sell NATO to Gen Z



The NATO alliance turned 75 this year. For some, this milestone proves how important the trans-Atlantic alliance is to U.S. and global security. More than seven decades of alliance coordination to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges is nothing to sneeze at, after all. But for others, the alliance’s age is evidence of NATO’s increasing irrelevance—the international security equivalent of a senior citizen shaking a cane at the state of the world and missing the boat on the questions that really matter, such as Gaza or Chinese economic coercion. Not to mention the long-standing perception that Europe isn’t pulling its weight when it comes to defense spending.

The NATO alliance turned 75 this year. For some, this milestone proves how important the trans-Atlantic alliance is to U.S. and global security. More than seven decades of alliance coordination to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges is nothing to sneeze at, after all. But for others, the alliance’s age is evidence of NATO’s increasing irrelevance—the international security equivalent of a senior citizen shaking a cane at the state of the world and missing the boat on the questions that really matter, such as Gaza or Chinese economic coercion. Not to mention the long-standing perception that Europe isn’t pulling its weight when it comes to defense spending.

For any number of geopolitical reasons, pundits have wrongly predicted the demise of NATO for decades. Yet recent polling suggests that there is something deeper at work when it comes to how different age groups think about the alliance. The German Marshall Fund’s 2023 Transatlantic Trends survey discovered that younger respondents view NATO as less important, and Chinese and Russian influence more positive, than older generations do. In other words, Gen Z is not necessarily buying the assumptions that many of us older, crotchety folks make about the enduring importance of NATO.

Google “NATO and Gen Z,” and you’ll discover that NATO is now a dating term that, for some, means “Not Attached to an Outcome.” In the complex jungle (hellscape) that constitutes the social media and online dating world, NATO is a way to say that one is OK with the dating journey and not dedicated to any particular relationship destination, such as marriage. It is mindfulness and living in the moment applied to meeting and getting to know another person and potential romantic partner.

Now, the NATO alliance is very much wedded to certain strategic outcomes: deterring Russia, tackling climate change, advancing democracy, and countering authoritarianism being some of the alliance’s key priorities. But taking a step back and thinking about what it will take for the alliance to have another 75 years ahead of it, NATO and its member states might usefully consider applying a “Not Attached to an Outcome” philosophy to its way of doing business:

Setting up good options. A positive dating experience is often contingent on having sizable and flexible resources; you never know when you’re going to meet someone, and those dinners don’t pay for themselves. Applied to NATO, countries need to think about how to build themselves robust, flexible capabilities that give current and future decision-makers the ability to jump on critical opportunities. While defense spending is a critical component of future-option building, so is developing NATO’s capability to respond to broader challenges that are not strictly military, such as enhancing civilian infrastructure and resilience building.

Build resonance in order to build relevance. One-sided lectures are a great way to bring a first date to an abrupt end. Talking at our publics and saying NATO is working on Very Important Things is necessary but not sufficient; people know when they are being messaged to, and ultimately, a few words in a summit declaration have very little practical meaning for the overwhelming majority of the trans-Atlantic public. Rather, NATO, with its member states in the lead, should better, and more actively, engage diverse stakeholders in their polities to understand how they view the world and how NATO can be relevant to grappling with those challenges. What challenges resonate with our communities? What role can NATO play in addressing those challenges?

How can we build resonance in practice? Many in the United States are rightly concerned with illegal immigration on the southern border, a view that many are quite vocal about. The part of the argument that is not often articulated is that failure to support Ukraine will almost undoubtedly lead to a broader conflict in Europe that will embroil the United States and send economic shockwaves around the world. Tackling the southern border under those strategic conditions would be exponentially more difficult.

Be open to connection—but be prepared to walk away. Not being attached to an outcome means being ready to pursue a relationship for as long as it runs its course—but no longer. As the alliance looks to the future, it should pursue its institutional partnerships for as long as the vibes remain good. For example, right now NATO is building connections with Australia, Japan, and South Korea because they are like-minded democracies that have useful insights and capabilities to help the alliance grapple with difficult global challenges. Yet the alliance must also move more quickly when circumstances change; NATO was arguably slow to recognize the emerging threat from Moscow, and many of its member states are finding it difficult to insulate themselves against the risk of Chinese economic and political coercion. Enhancing early warning and intelligence-sharing capabilities can usefully help the alliance understand when it’s time to walk away and pursue other options.

Focus on the benefits, not the burdens. Another good way to get ghosted: focusing conversations on one’s drawbacks rather than strengths. For decades, under the moniker of better burden-sharing, the United States has been pillorying European allies about defense spending and the continent’s collective inability to deliver military effects. It should hardly be surprising, therefore, that many policymakers—particularly in Washington—are convinced that NATO allies are free-riding on U.S. military largesse. Yet a recent study I co-authored for the Center for Strategic and International Studies found that at least 25 NATO allies are spending more than 3 percent of their GDPs on programs that have utility for national security programs. In other words, allies are shouldering collective security responsibility. It’s a good news story and highlights that NATO has a lot to offer.

Be authentic. Many conversations about NATO are inherently technical: what work the allies are doing on a particular issue or who has spent what on military capabilities or advanced technologies. But at the end of the day, alliances are made of people. They are multifaceted pacts among and between citizens and governments to build a better world. Ultimately the alliance must be about, and focus on, the people it serves and the people who work for and serve the alliance.

Ultimately, NATO’s duration and continued relevance is not a foregone conclusion. Perhaps it never was. So if NATO is to make it to 150 years, new generations need to come to their own understanding of why the alliance is—and will remain—a useful national security partnership. And in this, what matters is the journey, the process of the discourse, and the process of continual, open engagement. The process is, in many ways, the product because it is how a renewed understanding of the values and strengths of the alliance gets rooted in our democracies—and will make NATO the partner of choice for global security leadership for decades to come.



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