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The Future of NATO: A Conversation with Heidi Hardt

With the Biden administration promising to rebuild global alliances, how will the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), one of the longest—and arguably most successful—alliances adapt to a rapidly changing world? In this edition of IGCC Conversations, Heidi Hardt, associate professor of political science at UC Irvine and expert in transatlantic security, talks about her book, NATO’s Lessons in Crisis, and the emerging challenges facing the alliance. The interview has been edited for length.

Feb. 9, 2021 | Interview by Lindsay Morgan


You are the author of NATO's Lessons in Crisis: Institutional Memory and International Organizations. At his inauguration, President Biden said that his administration would rebuild international alliances after what has obviously been a period of withdrawal under the Trump administration. How might the U.S. relationship with NATO change with Joe Biden in the White House?

Despite what many might think, my research showed that there was already quite a degree of skepticism among European allies about the United States’ interests and intentions within NATO—well before Trump entered the White House. When Trump came to power with his focus on an “America First” agenda, that trust disintegrated even more, to the point where we've heard Angela Merkel clarify that trust is an issue.

Now that Trump has left, I think it's important to recognize that things aren’t likely to go back to “normal.” Certainly, there's going to be a big sigh of relief at NATO headquarters, but that diminished trust needs to be rebuilt. Many EU countries are considering ways to reduce their reliance on the U.S. for security. That said, Europe fundamentally needs the U.S.—they need the nuclear umbrella, they need our defense capabilities. So, I don’t foresee the relationship returning to what it once was; the strength of the relationship has changed.

The U.S. maintains dozens of alliances that range from conventional assurances to nuclear umbrellas, and there are important benefits and also costs to maintaining them. And yet, as Neil Narang noted in a recent interview, existing alliances have largely escaped critical reevaluation for decades. NATO is one of the more controversial examples. The linchpin in Trump’s anti-NATO rhetoric was the failure of some NATO member countries to raise their defense spending to the 2 percent of GDP target. Can you weigh in on the 2 percent target—is it meaningful, is it the right number, is it the right measure?

It’s important to recognize that simply having the presence of an alliance as strong and successful as NATO is really important for maintaining stability in the transatlantic region. There has been all sorts of research done on alliances and their pacifying effects. We know that just being a member of NATO, whether you're Romania or the U.S., reduces the likelihood of conflict among those states.

In terms of the burden-sharing debates—are other states paying their “fair share”?—there’s a lot of confusion about what is meant by paying a fair share. Yes, there is a common pot that states put money into to keep the lights on and pay personnel expenses, but in terms of actual operations—when troops are sent out—the states bear those costs. Ultimately, it's up to the individual countries to determine how much they want to spend on Afghanistan, on Libya and how many troops they want to send.  

There is some utility to the two percent goal because it is a way of gauging defense commitments without penalizing small countries for being small. Right now, ten countries are meeting that target. That said, it is just one of many metrics that we need to look at. It doesn’t account for capabilities, military equipment, number of personnel, number of women.

Another qualitative measure I’d like to see is: what's the record on civilian casualties? If you look at the numbers, civilian casualties actually increased over the course of NATO's presence in Afghanistan. I'm not blaming NATO entirely for that because individual member states are responsible for their troops, but there continue to be interoperability problems. There are instances where the rules of engagement don't match up.

One of the defining dynamics in global politics is the rise of China and the return of great power competition. How do you think NATO will or should address the rise of China?

NATO has been intentionally vague on China—officials will frequently cite “challenges and opportunities”—and that's because its member states have very different perspectives on their relationships to China. But it's also because NATO has to strike a delicate balance. On one hand, member states have huge economic interests in China. On the other, China isn’t a democracy. It doesn’t comport with the values entrenched in the NATO treaty—values supporting human rights, for example. That's where that tension lies.

In terms of dialogue, there are shared interests in non-proliferation, China, of course, being another nuclear power. There are shared interests in maritime security along the Gulf of Aden. There are shared interests in stability in post-conflict countries. China has been getting increasingly involved in peacekeeping.

NATO has three goals: cooperative security, crisis management, and collective defense. Collective defense is the core Article 5; if one country gets attacked then, we all have their back. NATO has said that China is not an adversary. But is China a partner? Probably not. Because they don't align with NATO values and, in some cases, they pose threats, whether in cyber security or weapon sales.

Why isn’t there a NATO for Asia? Do you think the rise of China will see the emergence of some kind of an analogous alliance?

NATO's establishment was a clear product of a Cold War arms race between two superpowers. It emerged as a direct response to the Soviet Union. 

ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) is the closest equivalent to NATO, but it's not a formal alliance. It's an international organization. ASEAN’s culture is very different from NATO’s. Member states have a strong commitment to sovereignty, to non-intervention; and culturally the organization works through very informal processes that are built around consensus.

I’m skeptical that we will see a more formalized alliance in the near future. China emerging as a rising power isn’t a new thing. If an alliance to counter China’s rise were going to happen, it would have happened 10 years ago.

In your book, you talk about how formal learning processes aimed at developing institutional memory within NATO haven't been sufficient to ensure that learning actually occurs. What are some of the key lessons that NATO needs to learn going forward?  

NATO has an institutional memory problem. It's an issue of high turnover—among members of the military and among NATO’s civilian staff. The result is that a lot of projects and ideas get reinvented, and there’s a lot of forgetting.

After interviewing 120 NATO military and political elites, the big takeaway was that the informal forms of learning work really well, but they can be improved. I recommend a number of things, like requiring exit documents, and requiring newcomers to have a conversation with their predecessors. Extending job contracts to at least five years is important, too, and thinking about how to recruit and retain great people. NATO has a big problem with retaining smart women, and there are very few women in leadership.

But another big lesson is planning for the day after. There was plenty of planning for going into Afghanistan and Libya. But planning for the day after was minimal. There were assumptions that the U.N. would come in and pick up the mess. International partners should have been part of the conversation from the beginning. You have to make sure that there are commitments from organizations to provide follow-on missions—not to mention ensuring there’s political will from the Libyans!

Civilian casualties is another big lesson. This was not a priority in the beginning of the ISAF Afghanistan mission, then it became more of a priority, then it became a zero-tolerance policy. There's still a lot of confusion among allies about how to avoid civilian casualties.

NATO also needs to take a gender perspective on their operations. They need to think about what are the implications for men versus women when they’re operating in an environment like Afghanistan where there are really strong cultural gender norms. Those can have explicit lethal, medical, all sorts of really dangerous consequences when you don't think about the gender perspective.

What does the future of NATO look like?

I think the future of NATO is going to be in addressing the elephant who has come back in the room— Russia—and emerging challenges like cyber security and disinformation threats from Russia and China, terrorism, and threats from non-state actors. NATO is going to have to figure out how it wants to engage with China. NATO is also trying to help support multilateral intelligence-sharing, and the Women Peace and Security Agenda.

NATO is very good at adapting. It remains the most successful international organization, in terms of the diversity of challenges and threats it has faced. It's not an organization that necessarily adapts easily; things move slowly there, just like in any other international bureaucracy, but there's no reason to expect that NATO is going away anytime soon.

The music featured in the IGCC podcast is courtesy of Gato Loco de Bajo.