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NATO School Oberammergau and constructivism

https://global-strategy.org/nato-school-oberammergau-and-constructivism/ NATO School Oberammergau and constructivism 2021-02-07 19:00:06 Ignacio Nieto Blog post Política de Defensa Europa
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On April 4th, 2019 NATO embarked on its eighth decade of providing the Transatlantic connective tissue that helps safeguard the freedom, prosperity, and security of close to 1-billion citizens. One enduring trait of the Alliance as it evolved over 70 years to respond to current and emerging challenges and opportunities is its reliance on education and train to enhance human and technical interoperability. 

Since the opening of the NATO Nuclear School in 1953, Allies and partners have relied on an academic institution in the Bavarian Alps to deliver the education necessary to lay the foundation and build Alliance strength and resolve.  Today, NATO School Oberammergau continues to fulfill this role through a deliberate, multinational classroom environment that relies heavily on the principles of constructivism in adult learning. This article provides an overview of the theory of constructivism and the critical role that the NATO School Oberammergau (NSO) currently plays in the international arena by adhering to constructivist principles through its delivery of Alliance education and training. Perceptions are important, sometimes more important than reality since our ideas may be governed by perceptions. If one starts from the assumption, stemmed from perceptions, that NATO is the military branch of the Western countries to shape the world to its collective will, then Alliance credibility suffers. Additionally, NATO’s cohesion is at stake when inaccurate perceptions like this persist.

NATO is a political and military alliance and in its first pillar, the stated mission is to promote democratic values and enable members to consult and cooperate on defense and security-related issues to solve problems, build trust and, in the long run, prevent conflict.

While in the short run, the military power of NATO can help to solve conflicts, notably by undertaking crisis management operations, NATO envisions the long-term approach to prevent conflicts through promotion of its values. This is the strongest NATO commitment to international security and also the best way to meet NATO’s end state of a European continent free and at peace with itself.

Unfortunately, this vision is not always well perceived or known across the globe. Sometimes, actions taken by NATO nations result in misperceptions of NATO’s role and purpose. This is relevant since some countries perceive that NATO is inclined towards pursuing an aggressive military approach to challenges. This perception limits cooperation and interaction outside the Alliance when dialogue, even between adversaries, is necessary to prevent conflict. In this vein, NSO is a crucial piece of the NATO perception puzzle since it is a military institution which does not employ the use of force. This is relevant and makes NSO unique in its role as a constructivist NATO military body.


For some years, constructivism attempted to explain the behavior of states in the international arena. The constructivist paradigm sees the world as socially constructed and emphasizes the social construction of reality. It espouses the view that perceptions play a key role when it comes to interpreting reality. It emphasizes non-material factors such as identities, norms and values, and downplays cost-benefit assessments in favor of standards such as legitimacy or appropriateness.

In constructivism, actors and their dispositions are socially constituted, and this is key to understanding how they interpret International Community (IC) interactions. These actors, normally the states but also the international institutions and organizations, shape the nature of the IC through their interactions. In this construct, to shape is to build constructs, both physical and nonphysical. This could include committees or working groups, or intangible constructs like identities or perceptions.

Moreover, these constructs vary across time and can be also voluntarily modified because this construct is subject to social changes. Thus, social interactions might trigger changes in identities. If NSO is able to influence the social realm between two actors, it could result in shaping their engagement in the international relations (IR) arena i.e., shaping their constructs. Eventually, NSO can influence actors’ levels of cooperation and engagement. In practical terms, the individual education and training delivered at NSO, through promotion of NATO values, is a key factor in IR development.

But what does the term identity encapsulate? There are multiples definitions but it is agreed that identity is rooted in an individual’s self-concept derived from perceived membership in a relevant social group. Identities are not grounded in material forces but the result of the ideas and its social constructions. In this vein, identity is a product of social interaction since it is a subjective term and the social structures or constructs help define each other and build up a common set of norms and values. Eventually there might also transfer from one system the norms and values of other system.

We need to understand that states can have multiple identities; some of them, socially constructed through interaction with other actors. When it comes to individuals it is easier to understand since we do have multiple identities: for instance, identity as parents or as workers. In every community in which we participate, we have different identities and they complement each other building up our personality. Hence the different identities do not exclude one another, they coexist. 

For states, the identity and the perception of the others’ behavior is important since they influence the level of engagement. Those organizations well understood by us will benefit from more engagement, increasing aspects such as trustworthiness, for example. Identities become the central determinants of state behavior and identities are socially constructed based on a set of ideas and perceptions.

 Identities and norms are key and central to constructivism. Norms can be defined as the rules a society abides by and normally are aligned to an identity. Although there are different types of norms, what is commonly accepted is if one nation adopts a set of norms linked to an international community, one should then adhere to its identity, and it is reasonable to expect that it will become accepted as one of them in terms of constructivism.

What comprises the best set of values in the international arena has been a frequent subject of discussion. The actions taken by some countries must not be linked up to their level of prosperity or risk of being in conflict. The Global Peace index 2020[i] provides a unique insight of the more stable and peaceful countries in the world. The output is clear: European countries are on top of the list. Our set of values and norms, including democracy as a norm, are the best contributors to stability and peace.

We need to dig into the peace concept, divided into negative peace (defined as the absence of violence or fear of violence) and positive peace (the attitudes, institutions and structures that create and sustain peaceful institutions). The second one must be our goal. According to the Positive Peace Report[ii], Democracies consistently have the strongest level of Positive Peace and along with high-income countries, dominate the top 30 countries in the Positive Peace index. Particularly interesting is the rank assigned to the European countries, almost all of them on top of the list.

It is not required to impose our set of values and norms, but rather to show our culture and let other nations decide to adapt our values and norms in their respective countries. In a long term, the process is about offering a particular common identity to the others. This process sometimes is called socialization: the internalization of the practices and beliefs of a community.

The NATO SCHOOL Oberammergau

In accordance with Education and Individual Training Directive (E&ITD) BI-SC 075-002, NATO Education and Training activities are core functions for preparing the NATO Command Structure & NATO Force Structure for current & future missions in accordance with the Alliance’s level of ambition. NATO conducts E&T to ensure headquarters and forces are ready, effective and interoperable.  NATO E&T also strengthens relations with Partner nations and non-NATO entities and this fortifies cooperative security. NATO E&T activities can provide a visible deterrence and can be an effective assurance measure. NATO E&T ultimately contributes to the demonstration of the strength and resolve of the Alliance.

Located in southern Germany, the NSO is NATO’s premier facility for training and education at the operational level. NSO conducts hundreds of multinational programmes annually in direct support of current and developing operations, strategy, policy, doctrine and procedures.

The student population is diverse, military and civilian, representing NATO nations, partner nations and international organizations – all coming together in a cooperative learning environment to create the shared understanding and interoperability that is at the core of successful multinational operations.

NSO is heavily involved in training and education NATO Partners[iii]: it hosts close to 950 students annually from variety of organizations such as the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue, Istanbul Cooperation Initiative or Partners Across the Globe. This figure makes NSO an important factor to send messages and to impart Alliance culture and values.

While most of the students attend in-residence courses, NSO also has the capability to bring training to the customer through Mobile Education and Training Teams (METTs) and Advanced Distributed Learning (ADL). These methods provide the customer with greater flexibility regarding the time and place of learning and can be more cost-effective solutions. NSO, following the training plan approved by NAC, conducts several intelligence-focused METTs, and it is planned to expand such interactions in 2019.

Beyond the Academic engagement

The foundations of NATO were officially laid down on 4 April 1949 with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, more popularly known as the Washington Treaty. In the preamble of the Treaty, the signatory states declared themselves determined to safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law. Therefore, NATO members form a unique community of values committed to these principles. Embracing these values and principles is the first step towards a common identity. We cannot forget that identity frames the interests and also the nation’s constructs in the international realm.

At the Warsaw Summit in 2016, the NATO nations agreed on the importance of engaging with partners and called for more engagements since they strongly believe this partnership contributes to projecting stability and strengthening security outside NATO territory.

NATO’s partnerships are beneficial to all involved and contribute to improved security for the broader international community. NATO offers different means to access education, training and exercises; one of them is the NATO School Oberammergau.

 Currently NSO, as a NATO Training Provider and also as a part of the NATO approved/MPD (Military Partnership Directorate) training plan developed by the relevant NATO entity, encompasses in its portfolio 98 courses that are North Atlantic Council approved for Partners. This pool of courses and students makes NSO important not only in terms of learning military ways and means but also in understanding NATO culture, values and norms.

Thus, NSO is normally one of the first stepping stones to sharing liberal-democratic ideas and values. It is a part of an overarching process to guide a partner nation’s approach to NATO through its most important component, its member nations. NSO is one of the best and effective assurance measures for spreading Alliance culture and norms. We must consider that the behavior of nation-states is showcased by its people in multinational settings and normally influences the decision-making processes of governments.  An ability to influence people brings with it an opportunity to constructively influence a respective nation´s behavior.

Every single student joining NSO has the opportunity to measure the values of the institution with national values, respectively. The students also reconcile what they have experienced with their previous ideas and experiences. The experience in Oberammergau, learning NATO cultural norms alongside Alliance military principles, helps shape the attendee’s interests and constitutive beliefs of the institution that is NATO.  The result is not a change in national identity but enrichment.  This is key to social constructivism because it focuses on an individual’s learning that takes place through his or her interactions in a group.

The NSO education experience is nothing to do with neither changing national identity nor altering cultural modality, but understanding culture in order to enhance the military relationship between the Alliance and its partners. Strengthened values and norms can induce positive effects in the perception of partners who may gain motivation and inspiration towards NATO membership after their NSO engagement.

Likewise, human nature is prone to cooperate and to understand others’ points of view. The NSO environment at Oberammergau not only facilitates this cooperation but also stimulates the engagement. Furthermore, there are several factors during the course that influence the process, such as the syndicate work the courses normally integrate in their curricula. Participating in syndicate work allows students to clarify and transfer their knowledge, while enabling the entire student group to more completely understand NATO values since they form the foundation for life at NSO. Syndicate work builds a strong foundation for communicating ideas orally and normally these ideas incorporate messages directly related to NATO values and principles.

Team-building, and networking are essential parts of NSO courses, resulting in interactions between people and prompting comradeship and friendship. These interactions are more than just syndicate work since they sow seeds of mutual understanding. Afterwards, these seeds grow and bloom in the form of a common identity. This common identity fortifies cooperative security and sends a clear message to the rest of the international community with regards to our strong partnership, resulting in a visible and effective deterrence.


Constructivism sees the world as socially constructed and emphasizes the social construction of reality.  NATO envisions its present and future purpose at the political level with a long-term promotion of democratic values in the valid belief that this approach will help to prevent conflicts, making the world more stable and peaceful.  The number of students NSO is hosting yearly makes its role important in laying the foundation of Alliance human interoperability while gaining NATO education and training through resident and other academic courses. NSO influences and triggers the perception of NATO values and its common set of norms. The political conditions that enable global peace and stability are not a given: peace is a byproduct of the thoughts and ideas of the people who believe, defend, and promote it continually. Individuals seek this reality based on the perceptions and the ideas they gain from experiences like NATO education and training.

NSO operates at the leading edge of learning methodology, working to build appreciation for different cultures to build connection and commonalities in identities. In the long term, NSO spreads NATO’s values across Allied and partner countries that will lean on political perceptions and eventually shape engagement between the partners and NATO at a military level.  NSO and all NATO education and training stakeholders will continue to play an important role in NATO’s eighth decade and beyond, strengthening the Alliance due to their unique capability to foster partnerships, reinforce cooperative security and deterrence while also contributing to actualization of NATO’s purpose in ensuring stability and peace across the globe.

[i] https://www.visionofhumanity.org/maps/#/

[ii] https://reliefweb.int/sites/reliefweb.int/files/resources/Positive%20Peace%20Report%202016.pdf

[iii] NATO cooperates with a range of international organizations and countries in different structures. See NATO Partner’s website https://www.nato.int/cps/ic/natohq/51288.htm

Ignacio Nieto

Capitán de Navío de la Armada Española, Jefe de la Sección de Conducción Estratégica de la División de Estrategia del Estado Mayor Conjunto

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