On Tuesday, June 11, the students of the European Union program traveled from The Hague, Netherlands to the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium. SHAPE is the headquarters of the Allied Command Operations (ACO) which is one of two military commands of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) – the other being Allied Command Transformation (ACT) in Norfolk, Virginia. The ACO’s mission is “to prepare for, plan and conduct military operations in order to meet Alliance political objectives.” The students were greeted by a public relations director upon arrival, then immediately briefed on the basics of NATO, and specifically how it interacts with SHAPE. Further in the brief, students were informed of the organization of the ACO and ACT in regards to SHAPE. SHAPE is led by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe or SACEUR who is currently United States General Tod D. Wolters. The SACEUR plays not only this leadership role, but is also the Commander of US-European Command. Next in the line of command are the Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe or DSACEUR, the Chief of Staff, and the Vice Chief of Staff, consecutively. The SACEUR works closely with NATO and the Comprehensive Crisis and Operations Management Center (CCOMC) to understand the political breadth of situations. CCOMC is the body that enables SACEUR’s decision-making by putting his orders into action. As of right now, the ACO has two main strategies outside of their key core tasks discussed later in the post. They are defined as the Eastern Challenge, where NATO and SHAPE work to deter state actors, and the Southern Challenge, where they work to contain non-state actors and project stability in an otherwise unstable region.

In a continuation of the trip to SHAPE, on Thursday, June 13, the students visited NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. The group was first greeted by former NATO employee and current Georgia Tech distinguished professor, Robert Bell, then sat down for the first briefing with Justin Suni. Mr. Suni works in the public diplomacy department, and he discussed NATO’s current priorities as well as further defining the difference between the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s political machine, and the Military Committee, made up of the ACO and ACT. NATO’s first priority is, of course, their main core tasks: cooperative security, collective defense, and crisis management. He specifically discussed the challenging security environment after the illegal annexation of Crimea, Russia’s destabilization of Ukraine in the Donbass region, and the enlargement of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. NATO’s second priority is deterrence and defense. This includes defense of NATO territory, and an increase in Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) and Tailored Forward Presence (TFP). EFP is NATO’s defense along the Russian border in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland, while TFP is their defense along the Southern parts of the alliance that shows solidarity. NATO’s third priority is a projection of stability. This includes supporting the Middle Eastern and Northern African regions, creating a coalition to defeat ISIS, and assisting other nations beyond NATO’s borders. Lastly, NATO’s final key priority is enhancing the transatlantic bond. As of now, this mostly encompasses the idea of military spending. Only five NATO members spend the 2% of their GDP that member nations promise to give upon joining. In response, a new pledge has been released and signed saying members will attempt to reach this 2% GDP mark by 2024, but many are pessimistic as there is little to no definition on what counts towards military spending. A major question concerning this is whether pension payments to retired military officers are an applicable part of GDP to be counted towards NATO spending.

After Mr. Suni, the group was briefed by Mr. James Hursch on Alliance Management from a U.S. perspective. He began the briefing by giving two quotes that define U.S. alliance management. First, “Sometimes the U.S. manages the alliance, and sometimes the alliance manages the U.S,” and second, “The only thing the alliance hates more than U.S. leadership is when the U.S. doesn’t lead.” After discussing the key points of U.S. leadership within the alliance, Mr. Hursch gave the group a chronological rundown of important events in NATO that changed the landscape of member relations. He also discussed, per curiosity of the group, the difficulties of dealing with differing voices in the U.S. government, and how to speak about the U.S. position with allies without causing too much confusion or distrust.

After Mr. Hursch, Professor Bell briefed the group on NATO’s Nuclear Posture and Policy. NATO’s posture on nuclear weapons is, “as long as nuclear weapons exist we will remain a nuclear alliance.” NATO promises its members that it will retain the full range of weapons necessary to maintain adequate defense measures, and, at this time, nuclear weapons encompass that. NATO’s nuclear policy, however, is much different. NATO preaches heavily for nonproliferation, arms control, and nuclear armaments, and is in full support of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) and the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT). On the other hand, NATO does not view the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in such a favorable light. This treaty is in direct violation of their promise to member nations, and NATO has no intention of accepting it.

Following Professor Bell’s discussion, the group was treated to a delicious three-course meal from NATO where many students had the opportunity to sit with some of the briefers and discuss topics that weren’t covered or they wanted to speak more in depth about. After the lunch came to a close, the group continued the day by participating in a Q&A with a panel made up of Mr. Milos Nikolic from the NATO Montenegrin Delegation and Ms. Tina Tarvainen from the Finnish Mission to NATO. During the panel, students got an in-depth look at how NATO membership can be crucial for nations such as Montenegro, which needed the strength, security, and partnership after declaring independence in 2006. In an interesting reversal, Finland works closely with NATO, and has been offered acceptance, but doesn’t want it. For Finland, their cooperation with NATO and the possibility to join in the future is the assurance and security they need. For the final briefing of the day, Mr. Diego Ruiz Palmer and Mr. Bell discussed their individual perspectives of working on an international staff. The students were also given time to ask questions pertaining to their own future careers, many of whom aspire to work at organizations like NATO.