Analysis & Opinions - H-Diplo

Johnston on Hardt, 'NATO's Lessons in Crisis: Institutional Memory in International Organizations'

| Mar. 09, 2020

As the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) marks its seventieth anniversary in 2019, it stands between a successful track record of longevity and an array of beguiling challenges. Taking stock of external threats to the alliance, internal discord among the allies, and looming challenges on both technological and geopolitical horizons, former US ambassadors to the alliance recently concluded that NATO at seventy is “an alliance in crisis.”[1] If that is true, there could hardly be a more timely or important book for the understanding or practical dealing with such a situation than Heidi Hardt’s NATO’s Lessons in Crisis: Institutional Memory in International Organizations. In fact, Hardt’s book is even more than that: not only a contribution to literature about the transatlantic alliance but also a source of important insights about organizational learning in general and an example of first-rate research design and methods.

Hardt’s central question is “how and why do international organizations develop institutional memory from strategic errors?” (p. 4). Her remarkable answer is that formal learning processes in such organizations may hurt more than they help. Such formal processes, Hardt argues, often deter leaders from sharing their lessons within the international organizations they serve. With both professional and political disincentives to using the formal processes (especially to report failure), organizational leaders turn instead to informal methods and interpersonal networks for sharing knowledge. Organizational elites are the key actors in this analysis.

NATO’s Lessons in Crisis features both a clearly articulated and rich set of methods and newly collected data for examining the effect of elite knowledge on institutional memory. Hardt conducted interviews and a survey experiment with 120 NATO elites, including most of the ambassadors and senior military representatives in the national delegations to the alliance as well as all assistant secretaries general and other non-national leaders in NATO’s international bureaucracy. The book’s helpful appendix—and Hardt’s expanded online appendix—includes a detailed list of survey questions and a curated selection of responses.[2] Hardt applies findings from these elite sources and other NATO documentation to three case studies of recent NATO crisis management experiences: the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan, Operation Unified Protector in Libya, and NATO’s response to the Russian annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. The result is a mixed method research design that succeeds in contributing to knowledge about its chosen research question as well as in exemplifying the merits of qualitative methods in political science.

NATO’s Lessons in Crisis is timely, accompanying a surge of interest in allied lessons learned.[3] Jörg Noll and Sebastiaan Rietjens share Hardt’s critical view of some of NATO’s established processes in their book chapter “Learning the Hard Way: NATO’s Civil-Military Cooperation,” while Tom Dyson’s Organisational Learning and the Modern Army complements Hardt with more detailed inside knowledge of NATO lessons learned processes and organizations.[4] A 2019 conference, Afghanistan: Lessons Learned, held at the University of St. Andrews, convened leading international perspectives on the conflict and led to a multipart series in Parameters.[5] Whereas other works also do much to illuminate the NATO alliance, its internal processes, and its external impacts, the greatest contribution of NATO’s Lessons in Crisis may be less about NATO itself than about a general understanding of learning in international institutions.

Institutional memory is Hardt’s key concept. She argues that most studies of change and learning in international organizations do so “without explaining the development of institutional memory that informs those changes” (p. 7). Other scholarship treats institutional memory “as a given” (p. 9). By contrast, Hardt identifies institutional memory as the book’s “dependent variable,” explaining that it “determines how knowledge is retained across time and space” (pp. 22, 3). Students of organizational change may find the concept of institutional memory a potentially useful independent or intervening variable for their own analyses. But NATO’s Lessons in Crisis is clearly about the sources and development of institutional memory.

Hardt draws several important detailed insights that complement the book’s main conclusion that formal lessons learned processes are often less effective than intended. The main reasons for the formal processes’ shortcomings are structural, specifically the reputational and political risks of openly reporting failure in such a system. A clear theoretical and policy-relevant implication of this structural analysis is the significance of anonymity in the design of such formal processes. But NATO’s Lessons in Crisis also underscores the importance of informal processes, especially interpersonal networks and norms; institutional memory is a “social construction” (p. 33). An important finding here relates to the importance of the bureaucratic actors of international institutions, especially secretariat members, in developing institutional memory through their insider knowledge and normative entrepreneurship. According to Hardt’s findings, a mere seven NATO secretariat members “were central in the organization’s knowledge network” (p. 199)! These seven, moreover, shared common demographic characteristics: they were mostly older in age, experienced over many years working at NATO, and all from countries other than the United States. This finding bears further study, both for its potential theoretical contribution to knowledge about the powers of international bureaucracy and for practical understanding of the role of the United States in the alliance. Scholars and practitioners alike will find these and other insights fertile ground for further research on learning in international institutions.

The worst that may be said about NATO’s Lessons in Crisis is that readers may find themselves wanting more of it. Hardt is commendably clear and thorough about explaining what the book does not address and why. Discipline in adhering to the research question and design is an obvious strength. Yet big questions about the alliance and international organizations remain within reach but unanswered.

Hardt chooses to focus on NATO’s learning from errors. This is certainly worthwhile, and fixing mistakes may be of the greatest importance in NATO’s high-risk business of international security. But for a seventy-year-old alliance that has outlasted so many others and is generally lauded as both successful and adaptable, readers may want to know more about NATO’s successes. Indeed, experienced NATO hands would be quick to point out that a common formula in formal lessons learned processes involves the identification of best practices to “sustain” as well as those to “improve.” Hardt explains that successes are often made public while failures are not. But it is not entirely clear how public disclosure outside the organization affects the book’s key variable: institutional memory within it.

The further refinement of cases of “strategic” errors from the twenty-first century invites two other quibbles. The first is about distinctions between “strategic” and other kinds of errors. Hardt is thorough about defining this term as well as noting the problems some of her interviewed population also raised with the concept. Yet “strategic” is a murky, contested term with specific technical meaning in military and business circles but commonly (if inaccurately) employed as a synonym for policy or grand importance.[6] Readers may appreciate the effort to scope the study but may also become unnecessarily distracted or confused with these debates. More importantly, readers may want to know more about whether Hardt’s arguments and insights could apply more directly to nonstrategic situations. Hardt reports that “non-elites” do report “tactical” lessons through formal channels (p. 18). But there is other evidence that NATO practitioners also see similar shortcomings with the alliance’s formal lessons learned practices at the tactical level.[7] A fuller examination of this point may actually extend Hardt’s chief criticism of formal lessons learned processes and would surely offer the opportunity to engage more fully with bottom-up theories of institutional memory and organizational learning as well as elite-centric, top-down conceptions.

The second quibble with case selection is in the focus on recent, twenty-first-century experience. Hardt reports that the NATO officials she interviewed most frequently cited examples of strategic errors in Afghanistan, Syria, and Ukraine—that is, the three cases examined in the book. She reasonably assesses that interviewed officials cited these cases because NATO’s activities there were “the most recent operations in memory” (p. 66). But given the centrality of institutional memory and elite knowledge to the book’s analysis, this observation deserves a more critical assessment. Is institutional memory short?[8] Has the depth or quality of institutional memory changed over time? Are there insights from institutional memory during other periods of history that might aid our current understanding?[9] To limit case studies of institutional memory only to those cases identified by that same memory seems a missed opportunity.

Hardt correctly identifies the lack of access to recent classified information in archival sources as a potential limitation of the study. But excellent archives do exist for other periods in NATO history, which argues further for a consideration of institutional memory from other cases. Not only would a consideration of such archival sources and historical cases further strengthen the excellent theoretical contributions of the book as written, but it would also offer an opportunity to connect insights about institutional memory and NATO’s lessons in crisis to the most pressing strategic challenges facing the alliance today.

NATO is now several years into a generational shift in its priorities and preoccupations. Particularly following the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, NATO summits in Wales that year and Warsaw in 2016 indicated a shift in the allies’ attention away from expeditionary crisis management and a return to older priorities for deterrence and defense. These are priorities for which an appreciation of NATO’s institutional memory is especially important and relevant. The shift has reignited the 1990s era debate on NATO enlargement, for example.[10] The demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, revival of great power competition, and consideration of new technologies and character of conflict recall genres of challenge that NATO has addressed before—but not in recent memory.

Ultimately, however, the inattention to these matters reflects not so much shortcomings as reasonable judgments about the inevitable need to prioritize and scope. NATO’s Lessons in Crisis contributes importantly to knowledge about NATO and institutional memory in international organizations. NATO experts will find new data and insight into the shortcomings of the formal lessons learned processes, even if they will have to connect the dots to today’s top challenges (or crisis?) through further study. Hardt makes an important contribution to theoretical knowledge about institutional learning, especially through the conceptual contribution of institutional memory. Students of qualitative methods and research design in political science will find NATO’s Lessons in Crisis a first-rate example. All readers will appreciate the superb organization, clarity, and accessibility of Hardt’s writing and thought. Highly recommended.


[1]. Douglas Lute and Nicholas Burns, NATO at Seventy: An Alliance in Crisis, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School, February 2019,

[2]. Heidi Hardt, “Online Resource of Supplementary Materials for Lessons in Failure: Institutional Memory in International Organization Crisis Management,”

[3]. Hardt herself deserves credit for leading contributions to this literature—not only in NATO’s Lessons in Crisis but also in important articles on “how NATO remembers” and “who matters for memory” in international organization crisis management. Heidi Hardt, “How NATO Remembers: Explaining Institutional Memory in NATO Crisis Management,” European Security 25, no. 5 (2016): 1-29; and Heidi Hardt, “Who Matters for Memory: Sources of Institutional Memory in International Organization Crisis Management,” Review of International Organizations 13, no. 3 (September 2018): 457-82.

[4]. Jörg Noll and Sebastiaan Rietjens, “Learning the Hard Way: NATO’s Civil-Military Cooperation,” in Theorising NATO: New Perspectives on the Atlantic Alliance, ed. Mark Webber and Adrian Hude-Price (New York: Routledge, 2016), 223-42; and Tom Dyson, Organisational Learning and the Modern Army: A New Model for Lessons-Learned Processes (New York: Routledge, 2019).

[5]. “Afghanistan’s Lessons: Part I,” Parameters 49, no. 3 (Autumn 2019); and “Afghanistan’s Lessons: Part II,” Parameters 49, no. 4 (Winter 2019-20).

[6]. An entire literature exists on this topic. For a seminal exposition of the problem, see Hew Strachan, “The Lost Meaning of Strategy,” Survival 47, no. 3 (Autumn 2005): 33-54.

[7]. Dyson, Organisational Learning and the Modern Army; Seth A. Johnston, “NATO’s Lessons,” Parameters 49, no. 3 (Autumn 2019): 11-25; and Craig Witlock, “At War with the Truth,” The Afghanistan Papers: A Secret History of the War (series), The Washington Post, December 9, 2019,

[8]. Perhaps, yes: “The culture of NATO can best be described as one that prioritizes reacting to the crisis that has most recently occurred” (p. 188).

[9]. For example, one common NATO technique for consolidating lessons is to commission a report from an external group of high-level experts. Historical examples include the reports of the “Three Wise Men” in the 1950s, the Harmel Report in the 1960s, and the group of experts chaired by former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright before the current 2010 NATO Strategic Concept. Each of these reports led to significant and long-lasting change in the alliance, but none of them fit the ideal type “state silo” or “IO repository” explanations for institutional memory. Such an external commission was a subject of debate at the 2019 NATO Summit in London. 

[10]. See, for example, Mary E. Sarotte, “The Convincing Call from Central Europe: Let Us into NATO—NATO Enlargement Turns 20,” Foreign Affairs, March 12, 2019, James M. Goldgeier, Not Whether but When: The U.S. Decision to Enlarge NATO (Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution, 1999); and Joshua Shifrinson, “Deal or No Deal? The End of the Cold War and the U.S. Offer to Limit NATO Expansion,” International Security 40, no. 4 (Spring 2016): 7-44.

  – Via the original publication source.

For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Johnston, Seth.“Johnston on Hardt, 'NATO's Lessons in Crisis: Institutional Memory in International Organizations'.” H-Diplo, March 9, 2020.