About the Author: John Heffern serves as Deputy Chief of Mission, USNATO.
I can't even do this around the Thanksgiving dinner table with family: get 27 people to agree with me on one thing -- say, whether dark meat or white meat is better. But through negotiation and diplomacy, the U.S. Mission to NATO (USNATO) gets our closest friends to agree on international security issues that protect us all. And, much like a family holiday feast, cookies get us through the tough parts.
When Secretary Clinton and the foreign ministers from the 27 other NATO Allies meet twice a year, they make decisions on priority security issues that are recorded in a formal public communique, an official final statement of the decisions of the meeting. But weeks before the Secretary and her counterparts fly in, USNATO policy officers and their colleagues from other NATO member countries meet to hammer out consensus on the best possible language.
Among the issues discussed and decided at the December 2009 ministerial by Secretary Clinton and her counterparts was how to help protect Allied populations, territory, and forces from the growing missile threat. President Obama's new missile defense policy was announced in September 2009 and articulated by Secretary of Defense Gates to NATO defense ministers the following month. To reinforce our main points on missile defense, and to underline Allied support, Washington wanted to ensure some key points were included in the formal communique.
NATO decides policy by consensus, which means every country around the table has to say "yes" to every single word on the paper. You might be familiar with getting a committee of people to approve a memo you've written, or in State Department terms, a cable. For the communiques, we not only have to consult colleagues in Washington at the State Department, Defense Department and the National Security Council on the text, but we also -- after finally getting all U.S. policy input -- must then bring our already-hashed language to the table at NATO.
Through a week of intense negotiation, USNATO built support for the concepts, tried different formulations of language, and sought to build consensus on the wording. During long sessions, we broke out the cookies, which are a USNATO tradition. The cookies keep spirits up, give us an excuse to break for discussions on the margins that build trust, and demonstrate our genuinely collegial approach to the meetings.
Then the meetings got longer, and the document evolved. The two days and nights before Secretary Clinton and the foreign ministers arrived, the delegations met and, much like in a West Wing episode, back-bench officers rifled through papers to find references or made quick calls to Washington for clarification. In between sessions, the staff from other delegations also rushed to phones to consult their own capitals on proposed language before reconvening to indicate what was or was not acceptable.
Some Allies thought our missile defense language was too broad. We had to pick up our words, turn them around, and try different ways to say what we wanted without "watering down" our point. And then we had to seek Washington approval -- again. We proposed "territorial missile defense" instead of "missile defense of populations, territory, and forces." We proposed “essential part of NATO's broader response" instead of "appropriate and viable mission for the Alliance." Neither of these formulations gained consensus, but more Allies started to like the direction of the language. We broke and reconvened a few more times until it was done. The final agreed language was very close and, in some ways, even better than our initial instructions from Washington directed.
The result: For the first time, NATO has strong language asserting that missile defense plays an important role as part of the Alliance's collective defense mission and of the Alliance's broader response to missile threats. That means we made clear to any doubters that NATO is serious about this aspect of our defense -- that we'll all do what it takes and spend what it takes to protect our people.
And that was just the missile defense piece of the communique. The Secretary and her counterparts also negotiated and decided on increased troops, trainers, and funds for Afghanistan; possible future members of NATO; formally restarting and restructuring the NATO-Russia Council; and launching a joint review of 21st-century security challenges.
Now USNATO is prepping for the NATO Summit in Lisbon this November, which will put President Obama and other heads of state around the table and in front of another piece of paper. We've already begun hammering out language. And collecting cookie recipes.
Not glamorous? Twenty-eight pant suits and suits sitting around a table deciding word-for-word language on issues that affect the security of North America and Europe? It's not for everyone. But it's how diplomacy gets done, and it's how we work international security to protect ourselves and our friends. And that's something all 28 can say "yes" to.
On April 22-23, 2010, Secretary Clinton travels to Estonia to attend the NATO Informal Foreign Ministerial. The Secretary will participate in meetings with NATO Allies to discuss a range of issues before the Alliance, including European security and Afghanistan. Follow the Secretary's travels here.