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My piece on how the military definition of "engage" and our civilian use diverges.  First published on the platform.

As a firm advocate of People Power 2.0 and the immense productive potential of online collaboration, NATO’s Public Policy Division invited me, a simple netizen, to “engage directly in an open and transparent dialogue on issues related to NATO’s current agenda”. By tapping into a globally diverse talent-pool and harnessing the brainpower of the worldwide web the Transatlantic Alliance is pro-actively circumventing artificial consensus on policy-making (one of the pitfalls of expert committees). I must admit that I also felt kind of empowered by this outreach initiative, as if, through my personal experience, commitment and feedback I could contribute, even minutely, to problem solving issues as complex as global security.

So before tackling an opinion piece on Soft Power or providing insight into my experience on Social Media and the Libya conflict or crisis management, I re-read the mission statement of and one word on the “about” page leaped up at me. It’s a little word that often peppers public speeches and policy briefs but rarely translates into deeds.

The one word that seemed all-important here is “engage”.

When “engaging in something” we take action; we get involved – generally in an attractive manner. “I’m engaged!” is met with clinks and cheers. To engage is to encourage participation. As a communication consultant, I measure engagement to fathom endorsement, hence success. As a French speaker, the word is even more nuanced: “un engagement” is an enrolment or something larger than just a promise. It’s a commitment, a binding agreement between stakeholders to take positive action.

In military terms, however, “engage” or “engagement” implies combat. It’s messy and in most cases lethal, and it expects a “win”. A wildly different meaning from what the word defines in my world.

An intriguing disconnect.

After researching the origin of the military term “engagement” I came across a plausible scenario for this disparity. In the late 1870’s a board of post US civil war officers came together to define military terminology. To them, an engagement “denote(d) a combat of more limited scope (than a battle), involving subordinate units or detachment of main armies.  In size, an engagement ranks just below a battle and above such other loosely defined combats as skirmishes, actions, and affairs.” 1

Some 140 years later, an engagement still implies physical conflict; perhaps due to a culture of tradition and discipline, the military lexicon seems to be impervious to our rapidly changing environments.

So why would NATO, a military organization, invite me to “engage directly”? I should be scared out of my wits about this – not thrilled!

Oh wait – It’s public diplomacy, not a military operation.

Reading “What we are doing right” I was struck by Kristen Durant’s phrase: “if two people have engaged in civil dialog, hostility between them is less likely.”

I’m assuming Kristen meant physical hostility – displacing the conflict to another more diluted battleground, a field in which resources are spared (I mean lives, others might think money as well). It still involves fronts, angles of attack and ultimate goals. We rush to combat armed with words, wielding Soft Power, building media campaigns – another military term. Whether sparring verbally or in the field, it’s still a conflict.

The truth is that we, as world citizens, rely on the Transatlantic Alliance and the fruitful collaboration of its member countries to overcome physical challenges to our security. This reality rings even truer when dealing with transnational threats such as terrorism or cyber attacks. Both types of warfare have as common attributes:  Decentralised, dislocated command and control structures, and they dispose of a pool of proxies to enrol into lashing out – sometimes indiscriminately. Proxies which the Alliance is trying to win over (at least their hearts and minds). This amorphous warfare seems impossible to squash, and we might all need to accept the fact that we will not “win”, that crisis is the new status quo and that it need not be a bad thing. Crisis breeds innovation – it is a time when fundamental change is necessary.

As one of the first of those necessary changes, let’s synchronize what is said with what is done. I would like to put forward a re-alignment of the definition of “engagement”, the military call to action, with what it really means to the rest of the world: a commitment made by all stakeholders to participate actively. And while we are at it, let’s throw “win” out the window too.

“Hearts and minds” may never be “won”. Besides, battling for their possession is not the ultimate goal, is it? The Alliance might not win, but it could succeed; success being a quality measured through the level of participation of all stakeholders – through dialogue, but principally through actions. “Hearts” and particularly “Minds“ can be sparked into contributing to the problem solving, probably quite easily since the issues aren’t just abstract threats, but immediate concerns. Once enrolled, it’s a small step to take it to an actionable level. When “Hearts and Minds” are engaged, small successes can snowball into larger ones and the brawn might just follow.

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