Today was an extremely exciting and interesting day. After a little over a week of really information intensive lectures, we had our first site visits today to NATO headquarters and the EU Parliament. Today I’ll be writing about our NATO visit, and the Parliament visit will be covered in tomorrow’s blog post.

When we first arrived at NATO, we went through some pretty tight security checks. We were required to show our passports for identification verification, followed by a full body scan, similar to airport security methods.

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After getting through the security precautions, we were met and guided by Alison Smith, who works in the Engagements Section and Public Diplomacy Division of NATO, who escorted us to the Martino Conference Room.

From there, we were shown a video outlining the history of NATO, which gave us a nice refresher on our lecture material from the past week. After a couple minutes, Dr. Jamie Shea, Deputy Assistant Secretary General, Emerging Security Challenges Division, met us in the conference room and we began our briefing and discussion on NATO’s current political agenda.

Dr. Shea gave us some really interesting insight on NATO and both its current and future state. In terms of NATO’s present state, Dr. Shea described it as Charles Dickens began his book “A Tale of Two Cities” – “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” Essentially, NATO is in a good place right now because there is simply so much to deal with right now in terms of security, especially in regards to Russia, Ukraine, and the Middle East.¬†At the same time, however, Dr. Shea called this a “sobering time” as well, meaning NATO is being stretched in a way that it hasn’t for a while, for the same reason of just having so many security issues to prevent and control.

In looking at Russia specifically, Dr. Shea discussed the fact that NATO doesn’t know exactly how to deter Russia and Putin. He compared the situation to the story of Goldilocks and the 3 Bears – “not too hot, nor too cold.” In other words, there’s a balance that NATO needs to find in order to stabilize the situation.

A second issue Dr. Shea brought up was the US – European Burden Sharing Issue. The U.S. does not want to pick up European slack like they did in the Cold War, so Dr. Shea mentioned tensions between the U.S. and Europe in terms of responsibilities and burden sharing in NATO, which spurred the famous 2% rule – in which all NATO countries are required to spend at least 2% of their GDP on NATO outlined security spending.

The third issue Dr. Shea mentioned was the dilemma of whether or not we are fighting the right war. He brought up the idea of a hybrid war, in which countries conduct aggression in order to sabotage other countries. He also mentioned the question of whether every country is vulnerable, where we are vulnerable, and how we would protect these vulnerable areas.

In terms of the Middle East, Dr. Shea called this area much more difficult to handle in comparison to the situation in Eastern Europe. He discussed the fact that NATO really doesn’t know quite where to start – with Tunisia, Libya, President Assad, or somewhere else? Dr. Shea also brought up the question of whether or not there is a military solution to the problems in the Middle East, and essentially, a lot of money has been spent on helping the issues, but it hasn’t gone anywhere really, so NATO has faced quite a bit of scrutiny and criticism in this regard.

Overall, Dr. Shea gave us an excellent overview on NATO’s current situation, as well as a lot of insider information on NATO’s future and where it’s headed.

The next person who spoke with us was Jennifer Tierney, Political Officer for the United States Mission to NATO. Tierney specifically mentioned that she works in detail with the Ballistic Missile Defense and Arms Control / Disarmament Council.

Tierney began the discussion by talking about the importance of tracking NATO’s development from summit to summit; she called it “Wales to Warsaw.” She then outlined the main topics that will be covered at the Warsaw Summit in this coming July.

The first topic Tierney brought up was Defense and Deterrence, focusing primarily on the “Readiness Action Plan,” which is intended to model the NATO ally forces for the new security environment, given that threats are moving much more quickly than they ever have before. Tierney also brought up the “Very High Readiness Joint Task Force,” which is a NATO quick reaction task force that will ideally be in a constant state of readiness to deploy anywhere necessary.

Tierney then brought up the Ballistic Missile Defense Capability, and the idea of Initial Operating Capability, which is the goal in which NATO wants to have full capabilities at even the lowest level countries. There are two parts – land and sea-based, and most contributions are from the U.S. The two countries that BMD’s are developing on that Tierney mentioned are Romania, which is operational currently, and Poland, which is just beginning. BMD development will ideally not end at Warsaw, but hopefully will continue developing, especially in terms of the Initial Operating Capability.

Tierney also talked a bit about correcting Russia’s behavior, and how it’s essential to bring it back to compliance with NATO standards and rule of law. Tierney emphasized the importance of some type of dialogue, and the idea that NATO simply “can’t let Russia get away with what it’s done.”

The second main topic Tierney discussed was Projecting Stability, where she brought up the idea that NATO can’t only focus just on Russia, and that there needs to be a 360 degree approach to security and threats. There were three main threats that NATO faces other than Russia and countries in Eastern Europe – maritime threats, North Africa / ISIL, and cyber threats, which is a constantly increasing and changing area, and NATO isn’t quite sure about its role in the issue. Tierney also brought up the idea of burden sharing, mentioning that the U.S. is the main leader in NATO, with France being the country that spends the least on NATO related expenses.

Finally, Tierney talked about EU and NATO relations, which was a nice bridge, I felt, between our two main topics of discussion in lecture. She mentioned that there is a bit of tension in NATO and EU relations, especially in terms of the migrant crisis. EU and NATO cooperation, Tierney said, will be discussed at the Warsaw Summit this summer, which is a U.S. led effort.

Some other interesting things Tierney touched on were the implications of Brexit on NATO, and the fact that there really isn’t a huge projected detrimental impact on NATO if Britain chooses to leave the EU. She also briefly discussed NATO in Asia and the importance of NATO partnerships with a number of other friendly countries, and the fact that through these partnerships, NATO understands other countries’ individual concerns.

Lastly, we got to speak with Francois Delatour, the French Delegation Representative to NATO. He spoke a lot about the challenge to make countries and member states invest in their security in NATO, and he mentioned that France’s contribution to NATO is almost up to the 2% requirement. I thought this was really interesting, because the U.S. Representative, Tierney, actually used France as an example for a country in NATO that does not pull its weight in terms of NATO spending. I think this was just one example of governmental differences, as well as differences in perspective.

Francois talked a little bit about future NATO challenges, and he brought up a really interesting point about NATO’s values changing. He mentioned that the alliances’ values are under “attack” so to speak, because it’s difficult to take the moral high ground when having to condemn Russia and other countries, and talk about migrant rights.

During lunch, we also got the change to speak with Jose Naves-Fidalgo, who is a current host parent and works in Human Resources and IT in NATO. He is currently launching a program or database that holds all of NATO’s documents, which will be incredibly helpful and convenient for future use. He spoke to us about his current projects as well as his past experiences at NATO, which was really interesting to hear about.

One thing I found really interesting was that all three of our main speakers mentioned one of the same things – the fact that it is becoming exceedingly difficult to come to consensuses with 29 member states in NATO, especially considering that the organization intends on growing even further. I thought it was really curious that all three of the people we spoke with brought up this point as a main driving factor for the future of NATO, so it’ll be really interesting to see how this affects NATO and its functioning overall in the coming years.

Overall, it was a fantastic day, and a great start to our site visit series. I’m really looking forward to the rest of our visits.