Get Connected 2019

A millennial’s view on NATO | Capt. John Jacobs (NLD A), Atlantic Forum


Captain John Jacobs is one of the founders of Atlantic Forum, a grassroots startup NGO promoting NATO and the transatlantic values of the Washington Treaty. Atlantic Forum focuses on the 18-35 age group. Between 2016 and 2018 he was president of the Youth Atlantic Treaty Association and has been a board member of the Dutch branch, Jonge Atlantici (Young Atlantics), since 2015. John is currently working at Netherlands army headquarters as a planner (future ops). John is also pursuing a master’s degree in social geography from Radboud University (Netherlands) and has studied at King’s College London.



John Jacobs started his presentation by observing that Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (D-SACT) is not the only one facing the issue of a lack of interest among young people regarding security and NATO. In this session, he reflected on human resources (HR) practices concerning the recruitment of millennials to institutions like NATO and the military in general. Similar discussions were held in young leader programmes at GMF’s Brussels Forum and GLOBSEC. Young leaders can play an important role in tackling today’s disruptive world. Rather than seeing it as something different, their generation only knows disruption.


Despite all the great things NATO has achieved in the past 70 years, one major flaw remains: NATO is inherently a military organization and, combined with its political nature, has grown into a bureaucratic beast that is slow to adapt to a new environment, particularly in the area of HR.


On 3 April during “NATO Engages” in Washington, DC, D-SACT Admiral Manfred Nielson argued in favour of including more young leaders in his organization, saying that if he could he would replace 30% of his staff with young people. Outdated HR practices and regulations, however, prevent him from doing so. Youth engagement has to be fostered by young people. Having a retired ambassador or general come to a high school is much less effective than having 20-25-year-olds speaking to 14-18-year-old students.


John Jacobs stated that young professionals (millennials) are the current leaders. They are no longer the future leaders, despite still being referred to as such. Initiatives like GLOBSEC Young Leaders Forum (GYLF) and GMF’s Young Professionals Summit (YPS) do help, but they are few and limited in scope and impact. To date, at many organizations and events young people are engaged as programme fillers and only used to check the box of youth engagement in order to secure funding. GMF’s Brussels Forum, GLOBSEC and the past two editions of “NATO Engages” take a different approach. They are good examples of events in which young professionals play a meaningful role during seminars and get more to the forefront, be it as a moderator, a speaker or during Q&A sessions.


John Jacobs also mentioned that young people (millennials) are better equipped to deal with disruption (the theme of both the recent GLOBSEC and the recent GMF Brussels Forum) because they are less aware of a different era (relative to those who grew up in the bipolar Cold War). To close the gap between evolving technology and human experience, HR has to adjust to the millennial generation. This means faster hiring, flexible contracts, new ways to lessen the effect on family (young people are less eager to be deployed for 6-12 months in a hyperconnected world), lessening the effect on the spouse (women are no longer “just” wives, for example, they often have careers of their own). Moreover, young people do business differently. They care less about formalities and etiquette, while organizations with an “old” culture focus too much on the stiff jacket and tie. In other words, they focus too much on appearances which are not valuable to young people.


Millennials were born after the Cold War, or at least came of conscious age after the Cold War. As a result, they did not truly understand what happened in Rwanda and Bosnia at the end of the 20th century. Their earliest memories are those of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US. Since then, the world has been on a slippery slope down towards a world that is more dangerous. Despite good intentions, NATO and Western Allies did not always do well in terms of public opinion. Examples that illustrate this point include an Iraq War based on poor intelligence, the inability to follow up on Libya after Gaddafi’s death (despite the fact that this was due to Russia blocking UN resolutions), the Obama administration’s inability to maintain the red line in Syria and a poor collective response to renewed Russian aggression. Examples like these make it easy for young people who are not very well informed to pick up on disinformation narratives (Russia Today, Sputnik or similar sources). As they are not particularly interested and may already have an adverse position, they will not be convinced by talking about this topic. Instead, they have to be approached on the basis of different topics with defence issues piggybacking on these topics. Lieutenant Lasse L. Matberg of the Royal Norwegian Navy and the sports event that the Dutch embassy organized in Lithuania are examples of better ways to reach out to many in the #WeAreNATO target audience.


Key take-away

Millennials are capable of closing the gap between leaders and technology. NATO and similar institutions need to approach them, however, as the current leaders they are and in ways that resonate with them.


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