There is hardly any comparable institution uniting two continents separated by an ocean, 28 countries, numerous partner countries, various peoples, governments and, last but not least, singular interests. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization unifies a mutually shared set of values such as liberty, democracy, human rights or the rule of law. After 1990, NATO redefined its tasks and distinguished itself as the protector of these values in an unstable, ever-changing and complex world within its area of responsibility - if legitimated by global institutions such as the UNO.
Thus, NATO is locally defined, yet its operations are being led in a global dimension. However, Europeans like me regard a lot of NATO actions as "American", while Americans might consider it vice versa. How is it that a "NATO spirit" has not been incorporated? Why do people not perceive this institution as an entity?
Besides politicians, who negotiate the normative framework and vote for representatives, soldiers and their families are the most important puzzle pieces in this matter. It is they who fulfill the missions, bear the risks and embody the strength of NATO. In turn, soldiers represent a part of society in general and thus could be able to assist spreading this "NATO spirit" by communicating, exchanging opinions or celebrating potential successes.
Being a soldier myself, I got in touch with quite a lot of NATO issues: I took part in maneuvers, I trained with other NATO soldiers, and I saw the effectiveness of joint and combined NATO operations. Still, there was no feeling of "belonging together." We mostly ate separately, shared our dorm room with national comrades, etc. I was wondering what distinguished us from each other... Experience? Training? Language?
Despite all the exchange and schooling programs that already exist, I suggest a mandatory NATO experience for all soldiers; this means sending every soldier to a "NATO Academy" in another NATO country, chosen at random, for a minimum of three months.
In almost all NATO member states, professional armed forces have replaced compulsory military service. These volunteers have to be professionally prepared for their tasks on a multi-nationally equipped and manned battlefield. After basic training, there should subsequently be a "NATO training phase." Therefore, every member country establishes a "NATO Academy" in order to provide a national contribution to a common education. Certainly, officer cadets, NCO cadets, and lower ranks need individually tailored training and classes which enable them to succeed in future missions. Nonetheless, multinational trans-rank cooperation maneuvers should be an essential part of this chapter.
Moreover, language programs will foster integration, understanding, and the ability of our soldiers to interact with other nations. I would like to stress that it is not only the English language that should be taught; surely the language of the host country and other languages that might be sensible for future deployments would also be of worth. Consequently, the knowledge of various languages really contributes to the fact that a multinational organization consists of a variety of tongues. With NATO making its soldiers more cosmopolitan, it will become more present. On and above the language, soldiers will also get to know the mentality of the country they visit which will enable them to improve communication among the nations.
Potential opponents will criticize that building up new casernes, new class rooms, or new dormitories will cost a lot of money. Furthermore, new language teachers will have to be engaged and paid.
I say: Yes, it will cost money - since nothing is for free. However, given the reduction and specialization of the national armed forces in many countries, there are abandoned casernes. The infrastructure that is necessary to fulfill this venture is available in every member state. For many countries, this will be an incredible chance to create new jobs, to reanimate historic buildings, and to present themselves to their partners. And yes, it will demand a lot of organization and coordination. But it is a lot better to bring one giant innovative and transnational project to life than to try to catch up with other organizations by coating breadcrumbs in an endless manner. Moreover, the reputation of NATO might be evaluated anew in many countries. Soldiers being taught in an international class will develop a feeling of identification with NATO, especially if they are well grounded in mutual tactical knowledge.
Finally, I would like to point out that the creation of mutual identity, belonging together, or however you want to phrase it, starts at the base: with the soldiers. If we start now creating an international bond among the next generation of military leaders, there will not be an "us" and "them" any more, only an "us".
Ten-hut! Start acting now, do not ask too many questions and please: Forget about power games - at least for once! Act mutually, act wisely and act now!
Stephanie Baulig is a First Lieutenant, currently studying politics and social sciences at the University of the Federal Armed Forces in Munich, a student assistant for International Studies, and a certified translator.