The Nomad is a series of stories, fascinations, encounters, observations, experiences, joy of the moments by me, Ulrike Reinhard – all around my travels. Stay tuned!

Ulrike Reinhard is The Nomad 🙂

I’ve written this in 2014.

“Expect the unexpected” is the motto of each and every DLD (Digital- Life-Design) conference organized by Hubert BURDA Medien. Maybe that’s why Steffi Czerny, heart and host of the conference, connected me with Stefanie Babst, Head of Public Diplomacy at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Brussels. In a nutshell, head of public diplomacy means being responsible for NATO’s overall global communications – a tricky job as you might well imagine. Stefanie has held this senior position since 2006, the highest position ever for a woman within NATO without military rank. Her and my career, job and life couldn’t have been more different – but we did have one thing in common: a few weeks before we met in Munich in June 2011, we were both in Afghanistan at the same time, and we were both working with Afghan women. Stefanie was engaged on the government level while I was doing grassroots work in rural schools. And we both shared the opinion that one vital key to success in Afghanistan was, and still is, the education and empowerment of women. This was the core of our connection.

During a break of our “Mobile Devices” workshop I was explaining this Afghan girl my flip cam – how to use it and what to do with it.

A few weeks later Stefanie invited me to NATO headquarters in Brussels. The check in at NATO is as intimidating as the check in for an EL AL flight to Tel Aviv, you have to run the gauntlet of maximum security. You have to leave all mobile devices, laptops and cameras at the front desk, and only after showing your ID card or passport and a double check with the person you are supposed to be visiting are you finally allowed to enter. I don’t know how, but somehow I managed to keep my cell phone and on my way to the meeting point – in complete innocence – I took the picture above. I didn’t even have time to save it before security guards surrounded me and confiscated the offending phone.

After this short incident, I went to my meeting with Stefanie. At strange odds with NATO’s hierarchical structure, all the buildings were flat. As I learnt later, there are only two floor buildings in the entire compound. In the lobby of the visitor’s entrance Stefanie’s colleague picked me up. Another form, another signature – and there it was, my NATO visitor’s badge. Now I was inside the unsecured section of the NATO building. We walked through endless corridors with imposing wooden doors on both sides. When we finally reached the office area, they looked more like the corridors of an old hospital – narrow alleys, floors covered with a beige-grey linoleum, a sixties kind of smell in the air and plenty of small offices crammed with desks which had seen better days. This was the area of the administrative work force.

Stefanie’s office was huge in comparison to the other offices I could look in – it had massive gracious furniture. Her desk and the shelves on the walls were covered with personal items – a collection of memories from all over the world.

Our plan was to do an interview on the various WE’s in NATO for our we_magazine. She was well prepared. Actually, she was the best prepared person I have ever interviewed. She used our we_language as to the manner born. I was surprised. And she didn’t use it because she wanted to be ingratiating. No, I really had the feeling that she perfectly understood our vision and was highly capable of adapting it for her thoughts on NATO. I left Brussels feeling that this was one of the best we_interviews I’ve ever done.

One of my first questions to her was about any significant WE moment she’d had at NATO. With no hesitation, her answer was 9/11. She eloquently described the feeling of being in one boat and standing side by side with American colleagues and the American people. This unity in reaction to 9/11 resonated in political decision-making just one day after the attacks when, for the very first time in its history, NATO invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty which sets out the allies’ commitment to collective defense.

I think this is remarkable. 12 years after the Cold War ended and the Berlin Wall fell, NATO had finally a glimpse of what could become its new identity. In other words, a new purpose was defined and a new enemy came in sight. Terrorism.

Stefanie described the WE in NATO as 28 like-minded countries committed in a joint, participatory and collaborative way to make life better (yes!) and more secure (yes!) and to defend the membership countries’ shared democratic values (yes!). She explicitly referred to the we_values I outlined above in “The Transformative Power of WE” and said they were also part of NATO’s set of values. But at the end of the interview she admitted that very often these commitments are only written on paper and hardly ever practiced. She went on to say that there is a lack of political leadership committed to these values and when she looks around she can’t see anyone really living up to them. When she said all this she was laughing. But was this laughter her way of saying “Am I speaking out of line? Am I being too candid?”. But she stood by what she said and let the interview be published as it was with no cuts. And this is something extraordinary for someone in her position. For me it was a decisive moment where she really gained my trust.

Then Stefanie laid out her vision of how NATO should be embedded in its broader environment – in its greater WE as she said. First she described NATO’s change from being a very exclusive organization to one reaching out even to former enemies to include them under the NATO umbrella.

She explained that NATO has now reached a stage where they have a web of partners all over the world including Africa and some Gulf states. As the third pillar of NATO’s new WE Stefanie named NATO’s decision to go out of its designated area into that of what are known as failed states like Afghanistan and invade if the allies decide it’s necessary. The first time this happened was with Bosnia Herzegovina and right after that Kosovo.

I remembered how many Germans blamed Joschka Fischer, the Foreign Minister in the newly formed red-green coalition government, for his active support of this NATO decision. People threw eggs and balloons filled with red paint at him. Even today this pro-war decision still sticks with him; no one in Germany would have expected that our “Joschka” would support such a NATO decision.

The message which struck me most in Stefanie’s answer, however, was the second part about building this greater WE, when she talked about how NATO should act when it invades a country. Very openly she referred to the mistakes NATO had made in the Balkans, and she insisted that NATO had learned its lessons. The crucial point is that NATO can’t send its troops into a foreign country without having made proper arrangements to con- nect with the government, stakeholders, NGOs and civil society. Every military operation needs a civil component; you need to have specialists who know how to connect with the locals and build relationships, confidence and trust. NATO was trying to do much better in Afghanistan by re-enfor- cing this civil component. Stefanie really emphasized the joint planning and partnerships with civilians, NGOs and other partners. And she said that they have improved training of their troops in social and cultural skills. When I asked her how far NATO had gone down this particular path, she honestly replied that they were just starting out now and that such steps were unthought-of five years ago.

If we look at Afghanistan and Libya today, we can easily see that NATO is just at its beginnings. The countries are facing a civil war, tribal (war) lords have the upper hand and the situation of the ordinary people is getting worse every day. I visited Kabul and the surrounding areas a couple of times in 2011 – 12 and I very keenly felt that I’ve never seen international NGOs, expats and soldiers so totally detached from local society as I did there. They’ve built a dome over the city and its people with hardly any connections to the local community. It’s scary.

The day this interview took place, the idea of was born.

In the run-up to the NATO Summit in Chicago in May 2012 Stefanie and her public diplomacy team had planned various new online activities. I think that probably as a follow-on to our interview and my worldwide connections to leaders and activists in the Internet world, she had her team thinking more strongly in terms of interactive formats and a conversational style platform rather than sending out newsletters and PR messages and starting competitions. Over the following weeks, working with one of Stefanie’s staff members, I developed the concept of and registered the domain. Yes, I did it myself, because within NATO the process would have taken weeks. The overall goal of was by no means to compete with NATO’s existing website but rather to become a valuable and distinct add-on. It was meant to be an experiment for the time of the summit.

The concept was easy and simple. On the platform side we wanted to use wordpress and mediawiki. Unfortunately it turned out that neither wordpress nor mediawiki could fulfill NATO’s security norms. There was a clear and strong no-go to use this software on any NATO server. According to the person who managed NATO’s online activities, it was also no-go to host any NATO content outside the NATO firewall. So what to do? In the end Stefanie took responsibility and decided to host ex- ternally. In January 2012 we finally found an external service provider who agreed to run NATO’s performance test. And oh wonders they passed it! A huge hurdle was jumped.

On the content side the plan was to offer a more diverse perspective on NATO’s summit topics Afghanistan, Middle East, smart defense and Russia with a strong interactive touch. We opted for open formats such as

  • live video chats between NATO senior staff and network experts people (Joi Ito, Peter Kruse, Don Tapscott and David Weinberger agreed to join the conversations)
  • live stream with Anders Fogh Rasmussen
  • (video) interviews with experts from outside NATO who challenged NATO’s perspective e.g. on its use of drones
  • individual/personal reports from the frontline troops
  • online events with activists from the Arab world discussing possible collaborations with NATO (especially in Libya)
  • narratives from Afghan women who have been working with NATO to inculcate a better cultural understanding between the locals and the allies
  • open online discussions brought up by people like you and me
  • live blogging from the summit itself

Stefanie and her colleague were enthusiastic. It was basically the vision Stefanie had laid out in our interview of embedding NATO in a greater WE. I got the final go ahead for the job in November.

All of a sudden NATO was my client.

This gave me some pretty sleepless nights. I had a quite a few discussions with my online peers wondering if I would lose my reputation if I started working for NATO. In the end I took the leap because I trusted Stefanie completely, and also because I saw a fair chance that these activities would truly open up NATO’s boundaries or at least make them more permeable. Dominik Wind, who came on board for the software part, went through the same kind of thoughts. And as I heard later from Joi Ito, who participated in the opening online event together with Stefanie Babst, he too had had similar discussions with his peers but finally agreed to join because he completely trusted me. Actually only a very few onliners refused to participate. Many were very skeptical though and it was hard for them to believe that NATO would really make such an uncha-racteristic move. But they were prepared to step in when the time came. Especially some bloggers and activists from Libya.

We used the Christmas/New Year break to finalize our plans and schedule. We set up the server, structured the blog and the wiki and uploaded the first content. I met Stefanie in January 2012 at DLD again to discuss the launch and how to train her staff for the project. Meanwhile it was rapidly becoming clear how challenging the was for the structure of NATO itself. How would an organization with 13 (!) hierarchy levels – all strictly top-down – react when all of a sudden a team of 10 or 15 employees starts to practice network structures and leaves – at least for this project – the hierarchies behind? How would the team itself, the employees react?

The challenges for the NATO staff members were daunting: They had

  • to step out of their comfort zone
  • to take responsibility
  • to be open for surprises and unexpected things happening
  • to question what they’ve been taking for granted for many years
  • to learn that crisis might be helpful to drive change
  • to learn that being disruptive can be inspiring
  • to deal with a huge amount of skepticism among their colleagues
  • to learn that failing is an option
  • to learn that sharing means losing the gatekeeper authority
  • to realize that there are much better tools than email to communicate
  • to adjust to the different speed in communication and operation on the web
  • to learn that small steps smartly made are much more efficient than running a master plan
  • to allow that agenda setting is (at least partially) coming from the outside world

On the institutional level the challenges were even bigger. Only few appointed people were allowed to give NATO a voice. PR-polished voices, in many cases compromises, yet always with the goal of pleasing every- body, of demonstrating agreement and taking great care not to hurt or con- tradict any ally’s’ position. This was a crucial point. Would the team get carte blanche to publish content on the website? Would real-time commu- nication be possible? Would NATO’s built-in control structures allow this? Would the team get the necessary time budget for the project? Even though our project was backed by top management, the big question still remai- ning was: is the system ready to adjust? Is the institution NATO able to shift smoothly between the hierarchy- and the network-modus when needed?

We organized a kick-off event with all the we_NATO team members and Peter Kruse to outline the challenges once again and discuss how to deal with them. With a twinkle in his eye Peter accepted my invitation and asked why I always picked the biggest challenges. He was as curious as we were to see if this project would work out. In his view NATO was in a deep identity crisis. It had lost its identity after the Cold War and for Peter NATO couldn’t look ahead into a bright future without a clear identity. His core question was: what does NATO stand for? What is at NATO’s core? What are its core values? In his typical manner, he bombarded the audience with facts and figures, he didn’t spare them and when he finished you could hear a pin drop. Dead silence. Followed by a big round of applause. Astonish- ment. Most of the participants weren’t sure what to say. You could see in their faces that they were deeply impressed. Today I would say that they weren’t able to translate what his words meant for their daily job with we_NATO.

In his presentation Peter focused on three crucial points:

  • Power shifts enforced by network architecture.
  • Expectations provoked by network experience.
  • Cultural change as a condition for network success.

If you implement network structure within an organization – as we were planning to do with the team – then this team automa- tically would be empowered. In this specific context it would mean that team members would give NATO an uncensored voice. They wouldn’t ask for permission within a given set of rules;, they would act in real-time; they would be responsible for their activities; and – above all – they would be confronted with an online audience which is savvy in the network world. If NATO goes online with a blog and a wiki and announces live events, the audience would expect that network rules are the rules of the game. Any hierarchical intervention would rebound and damage NATO. Shit storms guaranteed! This was a real challenge for the existing corporate culture at NATO and an even bigger challenge for its non-existing identity.

Three or four weeks after the workshop, went live. The server resisted the expected attacks from Pakistan – these were the days when NATO drones were frequently killing civilians in the northern areas of the country. But unfortunately, Dominik’s website was hacked and brought down. Our we_magazine website was also cyberattacked, but it more or less withstood the pressure. It only became very slow.

Yet with the launch of the NATO event and PR machinery started to roll. And when it rolls, it’s rolling! I can tell you that. Clearly defined processes – performed by humans acting almost like robots – began to mobilize and spread leaving not a crack for anything new to take root and flourish. The we_NATO team was captured in less than splendid isolation. For any video and live event, for any article from NATO associated people, for any requests for NATO Ambassadors and officials they had to go painfully and slowly through the cogs of the old system. Resistance and foot-dragging were met with at every corner. The old structure was striking back – and it was so easy not to get things done. Some team members really tried their level best but were lost in the hierarchy and overwhelmed with the daily workloads. The colleague I worked with on the concept, for instance, had to report to three seniors only one of whom supported we_NATO. The others simply boycotted it. She was asked to write various papers completely unrelated to the summit. The result was she never managed to finish a single article for us.

So what the claustrophobic environment of the we_NATO team did – was those who were needed to run the show delivered their services, but in the traditional and habitual way. They showed no interest in network structures. They followed their daily routines. No plan B for them. This meant that processes took endless time, texts were never finished, videos were polished to put it politely, no open discussion was possible, no critical voices from the outside were allowed. Basically every single tiny move was heavily and stiflingly controlled. Everything planned needed revision and all of a sudden permission had to be sought for everything. We were even asked to send in the questions for a live chat with Rasmussen, the Secretary General, in advance! How is this possible? It turned into a farce.

The video interviews I did – in agreement with Stefanie – I could publish on the website but they were mainly ignored. As for the interview I did with Wendell Wallach, drone expert and White House advisor, no one from NATO deigned to notice it. The interview was very analytical, not confrontional but quite critical. Wendell was working on a paper for the Obama administration about ethics and drones – he said it was a very slow process and that many stakeholders with very diverse opinions were involved. But at NATO he didn’t get a hearing. It was a complete mess.

Two other instances in which plans were completely upset were the live events and narratives of locals in Afghanistan. Only one live event took place.

At the very beginning Joi Ito and Stefanie Babst discussed the book “The Age of the Un- thinkable” by Joshua Ramo – all other scheduled live events were changed into pre-produced sessions which only then were aired.

No real-time discourse, no real-time conversation. And the narratives of the local Afghan women turned out to be a showtime presentation of women U.S. generals shaking hands with a line-up of kids in front of a school somewhere in Afghanistan. This video was put online for World Women’s Day on March 8, 2012.

This was the day when Dominik and I quit the job.

We were running our heads into brick walls and our level of frustration was intense. All our attempts to stick to our goals and vision were a miserable failure. All our proposals and plans were gone with the wind. What we’d outlined in the workshop before the project started unfortuna- tely turned out to be true. NATO wasn’t ready for a change – not even on a project basis. Maybe the NATO summit was simply too big and too important for the NATO institution itself that it would allow to interact and ex- plore the networked world with new formats.

My online peers especially within the Arab community were carefully watching though what was going on at For some of them, I simply couldn’t deliver on what I’d promised. For others I’d sold my soul to the enemy. NATO had no good standing in the Arab world – not before the bombing in Libya and certainly not in its aftermath. So the tensions were high when it became public that I would attend a conference in Tunis. In the run up to the event I’d had long conversations with the organizers about how to address the NATO issue and we decided that I rather answer the questions of the audience than giving a talk. I arrived at Tunis airport and went straight to the venue.

A friend picked me up and we were crossing a plaza to the conference hall when two guys attacked me with knives. In the brawl my left upper arm got stabbed but the guy who helped and protected me was very badly injured. In fact he lost one of his legs a day later. Both of us were rushed to hospital. The scene of the attack looked like a battlefield. Blood splattered everywhere. We were incredibly lucky to escape as we did. It could have come much worse, especially for me. I don’t even want to think about what would have happened had I been alone. And there is no thank you in the entire world big enough to express the emotions that whell up in me when I think about how my friend saved my life. He’s a young man with a very proud sense of his Arab heritage and has an extraordinary wry sense of humor: he’ll joke, “I lost my leg defending NATO.” These days he’s learning to use a high-tech prosthetic limb which will allow him to run again.

The two attackers were detained. The conference was cancelled. The next morning I insisted on leaving the hospital and flying back to Germany for further medical treatment. I wasn’t in the best of health, but before I left I made a point of going to see the two guys in prison. It wasn’t easy to reach out to them – but today, looking back, I’m sure it was absolutely the right thing to do. After a very long silence, we had a very frank conversation which was remarkably free of recriminations on both sides: I could understand where their hatred was coming from, and they understood what made me go ahead and engage with NATO. What I couldn’t do was prevent them from going on trial.

These two young men are part of a young Arab generation which hates America and its allies. And I – working for NATO – represented this allied world. This is why they attacked me. These young Arabs, and many others like them, are no longer willing to pay the bill for decades of Western support for Arab dictators. For far too many of them change felt like a distant dream until the desperate act of a young Tunisian in October 2010 and wikileak’s cables showing how ruthlessly Ben Ali was exploiting his people and how he had massed a huge private fortune, united people in anger and frustration and sparked a series of surprising events. All of a sudden there was this extraordinary sense of what is possible. And thanks to Facebook, Youtube, Twitter and satellite TV, the idea of bringing down the Arab despots spread faster than anyone would have ever expected. The shared language and culture of the people in the Arab World helped as well. Despite all appearances to the contrary, what we are now seeing in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt – but also in countries like Bahrain, Yemen, Morocco, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Algier where the old despots are still in power – is not a bad end getting worse but a stage of transition.

It’s a five act play, and we are probably getting towards the end of act two, and the play’s authors, the people themselves, are still trying to work out where the story will end. It’s not too early, though, to conclude that Arabs from the Mediterranean to the Arabian Sea have embarked on a process of real, historical and revolutionary change. The old certainties have gone. No country is immune. lived on until shortly after the summit. It lived out its usefulness without any interactive formats, without any fruitful conversation with the locals in the involved territories.

After the summit Stefanie Babst was moved to a new job. This didn’t come as a surprise. Months before the summit began – actually it was just before Christmas – she was told that her services as the head of public diplomacy were no longer needed after the summit. No further explainations were given. For Stefanie this was a huge shock and it was very obvious that the new job was a debasement. During the up-run and the summit she was somehow forced to fulfill her assigned task. What other options did she had? Hard to see …

Looking back I still admire her courage to speak so open and free the way she did during our interview and – knowing the rules of the game – her willingness to push the unwanted agenda at least to the extent she was able to push it.

A few weeks after the attack I went back to Tunis to see the families of my two assailants.

I received a warm welcome.

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