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Educating a new elite

Colonel Ralph D. Thiele marks the 50th anniversary of the NATO Defense College by describing how the institution has expanded its courses and activities to include citizens of Partner countries.

Purpose-built: the NATO Defense College moved into new premises in autumn 1999 (© NATO - 57Kb)

Fifty years after NATO's first Supreme Allied Commander, General Dwight D. Eisenhower, founded the NATO Defense College, the rationale behind its creation, namely the need to develop individuals capable of adapting to a new security environment, remains as valid as ever. With the end of the Cold War, the demise of the Warsaw Pact and the emergence of new, multi-faceted and unpredictable security threats, NATO has succeeded in making itself the cornerstone of Euro-Atlantic security. But the need for individuals able to innovate, think laterally and come up with creative solutions has never been so great.

As countries that were enemies for more than 40 years became NATO Partners, the Defense College has moved with the times and evolved to cater for the needs of their military establishments as much as those of Alliance members. Increasingly, the Defense College has opened its doors to senior representatives of Partnership for Peace and Mediterranean Dialogue countries, inviting them to participate in the full range of educational activities, together with their NATO counterparts. Indeed, for several years now the Defense College has been running practically all its courses — the Integrated PfP/OSCE, NATO General and Flag Officers', NATO Reserve Officers' and Senior Courses — within the Partnership for Peace framework. This is also the case for its activities, including the Conference of Commandants, co-sponsorship of International Research Seminars and the Fellowship Programme. Every year, four fellows - two from Partnership for Peace and two from Mediterranean Dialogue countries - are sponsored to carry out their own security-related research at the Defense College.


Like the Defense College, the NATO School (SHAPE) at Oberammergau, Germany, has adapted its intake and curriculum in the past decade to cater for increasing numbers of students from Partner countries. In 2000, 5,818 students from 47 countries attended courses and conferences at the school, of whom only 4,722 came from Alliance member states.

Students from countries active in the Partnership for Peace and the Mediterranean Dialogue gain insight into how NATO works and participate in courses, including subjects as diverse as crisis management, resource management, civil-emergency planning and civil-military cooperation. Organisations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees also regularly send students and speakers.

As NATO has become increasingly involved in peacekeeping, the School has supported ongoing military operations and developed courses to assist the peace processes. In this way, commanders and staff with field experience are able to pass on lessons learned to course participants. In addition, a security cooperation course has been organised specifically for civilian and military personnel from Bosnia and Herzegovina, aimed at building confidence and instilling a spirit of openness and cooperation among participants.

Oberammergau also hosts a number NATO symposiums and conferences. The most significant is the annual Defence Planning Symposium to which Partner representatives have been invited since 1999.

The focus of courses at the Defense College is not tactics or operational techniques, but international politico-military issues at the strategic level. In addition, all courses provide a forum for exchanging information, building consensus and improving understanding and cooperation between Alliance and Partner countries. With course members coming from some 50 nations and a multinational staff and faculty, the Defense College is a truly multinational institution, which promotes an Alliance — as opposed to a national — viewpoint. The objective is not to teach but to provide a learning environment for expanding students' horizons, so that course members see for themselves that consensus and bonding is possible even among people with the most varied backgrounds. The Defense College provides an exceptional learning opportunity, but it is up to course members to make the most of it.

Courses tend to generate their own team spirit, which in turn develops into a useful network of contacts between course members from NATO and Partner countries. This esprit de corps helps to overcome barriers that may have existed before, as well as strengthening trust between the respective nations. The spirit of consensus runs like a thread through the course members' daily life. Moreover, since all discussions take place on a non-attributable basis, participants are able to speak their mind.

Course members of different ranks and from all services and diplomatic and governmental departments learn to understand each other. The time and effort they invest in establishing trust and friendship with their peers is repaid in kind. They develop and improve a sense of solidarity, cooperation and understanding with fellow course members. They also find that it is possible to have an open exchange of ideas and to reach group consensus, without sacrificing individual or national identity. Beyond the academic programme, deep bonds develop between course members and their families as a result of the extensive social and cultural side to life in Rome.

In autumn 1999, the Defense College moved into new, purpose-built premises so that it can properly serve the needs of future generations. Organisational structures and processes have been streamlined and adapted. On the academic side, over the past few years the Defense College has focused on four areas. These are adapting the curriculum to the fundamental security tasks contained in NATO's new Strategic Concept; using the new facilities to educate more people from NATO, Partnership for Peace and Mediterranean Dialogue countries, as well as to take on more activities; engaging the best speakers; and developing the newly established capacity for research-related activities. Like NATO itself, the Defense College now has the capacity to respond to the fundamentally changed security environment and to take on new tasks appropriate to its new missions and Partners.

Since April 2000, the Defense College has supported the Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defence Academies and Security Study Institutes, a group that helps forge new partnerships between defence academies and practioners, scholars and experts in Partner and NATO countries. In this way, the Defense College is serving as a focal point within NATO for the Consortium. It is also participating as a full member in the guiding secretariat working group, harmonising the activities of the Conference of Commandants with the Consortium, and participating in selected Consortium working groups, particularly where strategic-level education is discussed.

Early this year, the Defense College sponsored an international week at the Ukrainian National Defence Academy. In this way, it was able to offer Ukrainian students a unique and qualitatively different academic introduction to Euro-Atlantic security. Judging by their reactions, particularly in the small group discussions, it seems that the initiative was greatly appreciated. This event was not just important in its own right, but also as part of a broader process of helping transform Ukraine's military education and may serve as a precedent for similar activities elsewhere. As the Defense College celebrates its 50th anniversary this autumn, it remains committed to playing the educational role envisaged by its founding father. As in the past, it will continue to supply Alliance and Partner countries with men and women who have the courage to grasp the security challenges of the 21st century and whose minds are equipped to deal with them effectively.

More information on the NATO Defense College and its courses can be found at:

More information on the Partnership for Peace Consortium of Defence Academies and Security Studies Institutes can be found at:

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