Lessons Learned, Lessons Forgotten? Updating the Way NATO Learns


President Donald Trump has repeatedly reprimanded NATO allies, openly praised authoritarian governments, and aligned U.S. foreign policy with Russian interests on numerous issues. Most recently, the administration implied in private letters that U.S. military support could be withdrawn if allies do not sufficiently increase their defense spending.

Trump’s narrow focus on burden-sharing has left little room for debate on NATO’s actual performance. It is past time to move the discussion past basic financial metrics and focus more on evaluating how and what NATO has learned from its decades of international crisis management. Collectively identifying strategic lessons and adapting accordingly is important if NATO is to continue providing for the security of all member states. Such an evaluation can provide insights about NATO’s performance above and beyond measuring what percentage of GDP each member state is devoting to defense spending. Organizations that learn from the past are more likely to succeed.

My new book, NATO’s Lessons in Crisis, finds that the alliance is actively learning from its current and past military operations. The alliance’s learning capacity constitutes one of many reasons for the United States to continue investing in the alliance. NATO’s capacity for change in the face of strategic problems suggests that its operations are becoming better suited for increasingly dynamic conflict environments. Moreover, the alliance brings more than a decade of experience in Afghanistan to the table. It also functions as a forum for cooperation on shared security interests (e.g. arms control, counterterrorism, cybersecurity). Choosing to participate in multilateral operations via NATO allows the United States and other allies to divide up labor, spread the costs, benefit from states’ different comparative advantages, enhance the local and international legitimacy of operations and learn from one another’s mistakes. NATO’s bistrategic command structure also provides unique infrastructure for conducting operations.

Today, however, NATO finds itself at a critical point in terms of its capacity to learn. Specifically, my research indicates that NATO is at risk of losing its ability to learn from strategic failures. My research into NATO’s learning processes draw on a survey experiment and my one-on-one interviews with 120 NATO elites — including ambassadors, military representatives, assistant secretary generals, and other military and civilian leaders. (I define elites as individuals who play unique-high level roles in the strategic decision-making and planning of crisis management operations, such as ISAF. Their experiences made their knowledge and assessment of errors particularly valuable.)

In this article, I describe several key problems with NATO’s learning processes and highlight several strategic lessons that leaders took from the alliance’s military operation in Afghanistan. Based on this, I propose four ways to fix NATO’s learning problems – problems ranging from institutional disincentives to participate in formal learning processes to loss of knowledge due to personnel turnover. Policymakers deserve to understand how this aging bureaucracy is learning at a time when allies are contemplating future investments in the alliance.

It is important for NATO to engage in crisis management learning for several reasons. First, not all member states participate in learning processes at the national level. Among those that do, some (e.g. the United States’ Center for Army Lessons Learned) do so during the operations, whereas others wait until an operation is complete to conduct formal assessments. Second, the states that do employ formal learning processes do not automatically share their lessons with other member states. For example, my interviews indicated that most NATO elites had not seen lessons learned reports from other allies. Despite serving together in operations – be it in Libya or Afghanistan – different allies can and do often draw different lessons from the same military experiences. Thus, it is important for NATO –the organization through which operations occur – to be involved in the collection and circulation of strategic knowledge on crisis management. As leaders in the organization age and begin to leave – taking with them their institutional memory – it will be even more important to update NATO’s capacity to learn.

How NATO Identifies Strategic Lessons

Capturing knowledge in any globally deployed multinational organization presents enormous challenges —from relaying information across borders and bureaucratic levels to accommodating different countries’ respective learning cultures. Moreover, like other international organizations, NATO suffers from high turnover. The average civilian or military officer assigned to NATO rotates out about every three years. Following reductions in defense spending and contributions, NATO responded by shortening job contracts and limiting hiring. Many positions remained open for months at a time between rotations, meaning that when an individual would finally arrive at a given post, he or she would have little information about the work of his or her predecessor.

NATO has a dedicated infrastructure, called the NATO Lessons Learned Process, in place for learning from the past. According to the process:

everyone within an organization needs to be involved in learning lessons for the Lessons Learned Capability to be successful … The stakeholders must be the ones who learn. Likewise, stakeholders are likely the first, and often only, personnel who will be aware of potential lessons—observations and lessons identified—since it is they who are most closely involved with the issue.

The learning infrastructure includes a lessons learned office that facilitates the identification and analysis of lessons, provides training for lessons learned staff officers and has procedures for assisting in the implementation of those lessons. The formal infrastructure is critical for maintaining the alliance’s institutional memory.

However, despite the infrastructure’s importance, elites within the alliance have come to engage in capturing strategic lessons through unconventional means. That is, most NATO elites have opted for using informal processes (e.g. interpersonal networks) instead of employing the formal processes that were specifically designed for the organization. My research indicates that elites deliberately avoid using formal learning processes because of reputational risks. Reporting strategic errors can jeopardize one’s job as well as political relations among allies. According to interviewees, if an elite reports about who (or which states) did what wrong in a given operation, there may be career consequences for him or her and could even risk future cooperation among specific allies. By choosing to pass along sensitive knowledge privately rather than publicly, elites avoid openly challenging what one permanent representative described as the idea that NATO is ‘infallible’.

As a result of this proclivity for informal learning, NATO’s institutional memory is not primarily held in archives or official learning documents. Rather, it is concentrated in a few central individuals who connect a vast, transnational network of political and military elites. Knowledge flows quietly through an extensive but inherently unreliable and unsystematic interpersonal knowledge network, while lessons-learned databases and reports are rarely consulted. Such minimal reporting through formal channels is problematic because of the risk that critical lessons are lost when people rotate out of the organization. As more self-described ‘old-timers’ reach the age of 65 — the age of NATO’s mandatory retirement — NATO loses more of its ‘lessons,’ increasing the risk that strategic errors will be repeated. Many of those elites who are retiring now are individuals with decades of experience being involved in planning NATO’s earliest operations and have clear memories of what worked and what didn’t during the Cold War.

Remembering ISAF

What are some of the lessons that NATO elites discuss in the corridors and on the phone? One area on which NATO elites have spent countless hours privately reflecting on errors is the alliance’s operation in Afghanistan – the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). In the more than a decade that ISAF was operational, NATO allies — particularly the United States — contributed thousands of troops and billions (if not trillions) of dollars toward stabilizing Afghanistan and fighting the Taliban. Here, I offer a few excerpts from my interviews with NATO elites about some of these private lessons learned.

When asked about strategic errors that were made in ISAF, approximately one in three elite interviewees cited decisions that led to high numbers of civilian casualties. Elites argued that the absence of a zero-tolerance policy toward civilian casualties in operational plans meant that the prevention of such casualties was deprioritized in relation to other aspects of the mission. One interviewee provided one example in which the tactical use of force escalated to the level of a strategic error:

In 2008, I think it was July or August, we had an instance where … ISAF, working with the Afghan commanders, went to strike a group of known Taliban targets and used excessive force … [They] knew they had some civilian casualties they caused and thought it was in the single digits. They actually thought it was four or five, and … a number of 20 or so insurgents. But they didn’t take the time to do a thorough inspection of the damaged compounds or houses, and, as a result, after they left, we knew that the Taliban forces and others came in and exposed the fact that there were certainly dozens of killed that were underneath the rubble. And I say excessive force because it was usually air strikes.

Additionally, elites remarked on the significant information gap between the strategic decision-making at headquarters and what NATO forces were experiencing in the theater of operations. In the words of one interviewee, political decision-makers had difficulties ‘accepting the reality’ of the fight with the Taliban. Elites also argued that one of the most significant lessons from the decades in Afghanistan was the importance of investing sufficient resources upfront. For many, the 2009 surge came too little too late. Elites indicated that NATO allies underestimated the costs of the war from day one.

However, as noted above, the design of NATO’s formal learning processes inadvertently discourages elites from using them due to lack of appropriate incentives. In one respect, in interviews, elites indicated that they believed discussing past failures in formal settings was unacceptable. Few elites felt they needed to contribute to online learning databases. Moreover, few received training in NATO’s learning process and had nothing built into their job description to suggest that passing on lessons should be a priority.

Even in cases where a NATO body such as Allied Command Transformation or Allied Command Operations requested the drafting of a lessons learned report on a specific military operation, many individuals writing the reports described engaging in self-censorship out of necessity. They perceived that information deemed too critical of NATO or a given ally would likely be redacted by those requesting the report. As a result, even when reports were completed, endorsed and circulated, few elites chose to read them. They said that the reports were too watered-down, focused too much on tactical lessons, and didn’t offer sufficient insights to assist their strategic decision-making. These institutional barriers reinforced elites’ preference for circulating strategic knowledge through informal processes. They turned to interpersonal networks and private documentation due to what they viewed as a lack of a viable alternative.

Four Reforms to Improve Learning at NATO

Given that many of NATO’s central players are retiring, the organization is now challenged to find ways to formally retain strategic knowledge, enhance knowledge circulation, and update its existing learning system. The following four recommendations for reform begin to address these challenges, and I expand upon them in my book.

First, existing reporting systems could be reformed to ensure that if individuals do want to report what they perceive as strategic errors, they have an anonymous means of doing so. According to interviews and NATO documentation, the NATO Lessons Learned Portal (NLLP) — an online learning repository — does not appear to guarantee such anonymity. (I cannot personally verify this observation since I do not have access to classified systems.) If elites were to know that their identities would be protected from supervisors and/or capitals, etc., they might be more likely to contribute their observations through this formal process.

Second, expanding training about NATO’s existing lessons learned process would help spread the understanding that learning is not the sole provenance of the lessons learned office, which is the Joint Analysis and Lessons Learned Centre. Rather, each person at NATO has a responsibility to identify and contribute lessons in accordance with the alliance’s formal process. One theme that emerged from my interviews was that many elites did not understand that they too were obligated to contribute lessons. Such training could be wrapped into the requisite security induction that all NATO officials already receive upon arrival.

Third, NATO civilian and military bodies — from the International Staff to the Allied Command Operations — could require to the extent possible that incoming elites have one week overlap with predecessors and that predecessors need to leave behind exit documents. Currently, there is significant variation in requirements and practices regarding handovers across NATO bodies and within the offices of NATO bodies. Many offices have none at all. In cases where overlap is not feasible (e.g. with permanent representatives), NATO bodies and leaders can encourage delegations and offices to collect and pass on the contact information of an outgoing individual to his or her successor. My research indicated that in their communications with predecessors, incoming elites most valued information that they received about existing networks (e.g. key individuals) that their predecessors shared with them.

Fourth, NATO should consider relocating its lessons learned office. The office retains significant value for drafting tactical and operational lessons and — with the right reforms — has the potential to contribute more strategic lessons. However, it is currently based in the suburbs of Lisbon, Portugal. Individuals across NATO – both within the office and in other offices – have expressed frustration with the fact that there was limited contact between the lessons learned office and other NATO bodies because of the geographic distance. Strategic decision-making and planning occurs elsewhere — in Brussels, Belgium, in Mons, Belgium, and in the capitals. As a result, elites from the lessons learned office who were drafting reports were largely left on the periphery of NATO’s knowledge networks.

NATO leaders have come to develop institutional memory of past failures in crisis management by heavily relying on informal processes, be it through private phone calls, chats in the cafeteria or food-for-thought papers (which do not require the formal approval of 29 countries). Certainly, the centrality of interpersonal networks has ensured that certain key lessons are passed on across time and space. However, the ongoing exodus of individuals on indefinite contracts — many leaving with decades of experience —that the organization needs to reassess its existing systems for capturing knowledge. Without reform, NATO risks losing valuable lessons it has learned, particularly over more than a decade of combat and training in Afghanistan.


Heidi Hardt is an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Irvine. She is the single author of two books: NATO’s Lessons in Crisis: Institutional Memory in International Organizations (Oxford University Press, 2018) and Time to React: The Efficiency of International Organizations in Crisis Response (Oxford University Press, 2014). She has also published numerous articles and chapters on NATO, multilateral military operations and peacekeeping.

Image: NATO

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