Stefanie Babst, who held senior posts in the alliance for 22 years, says there is a lack of strategic foresight among some of its most powerful figures
April 07, 2023
Nato this week celebrated both its 74th birthday and the christening of its 31st member, Finland. The 32nd, Sweden, is expected to be baptised in the summer. The alliance appears to be full of purpose and in rude health by the standards of any septuagenarian, especially one that suffered a mid-life crisis after the fall of the Berlin Wall and was then pronounced “brain-dead” at the age of 70. Behind the scenes, however, its faculties may not be as sharp as they seem, according to an insider’s account that will be published in Germany this month.
Stefanie Babst, a German security analyst who held senior posts in Nato for 22 years, including six as its deputy assistant secretary-general and eight as the head of its in-house strategic think tank, portrays an organisation hobbled by national politicking, bureaucratic sclerosis and institutional myopia.
By her telling, the daily summits of the alliance’s council are essentially a diplomatic form of Japanese Noh theatre in which the member states’ representatives go through the same “ritualised” motions without risking anything that might resemble a lively or forward-thinking discussion. This, Babst claims, results in “tunnel vision” at Nato’s highest levels that too often leaves it reacting to events instead of anticipating or shaping them.
In 2012 Babst was appointed to run its new strategic foresight department, tasked with forecasting the threats the coming years would bring and identifying the alliance’s “blind spots”. Her team, a mixture of seasoned military officers, younger soldiers and diplomats, very quickly settled on Russia.
Over the next few months the unit modelled the ways in which President Putin might try to subjugate Ukraine and other eastern European states such as Moldova. The report was circulated at the top of Nato.
In her book Sehenden Auges, whose title could loosely be translated as Eyes Wide Open, Babst recalls that the analysis was praised as a “smash hit” and a technical masterpiece. Yet some member states, she was told, simply had “fundamental reservations” about a change of strategy towards Russia. No further action would be taken. Four months later, Russia invaded Crimea.
This set a pattern. Many government departments in wealthy nations, including the UK’s Cabinet Office, the German chancellery and at least four other ministries in Berlin, have established similar “horizon-scanning” desks to get ahead of geopolitical, economic and technological trends.
Often, though, like the senator issuing futile warnings about post-Soviet Afghanistan at the end of Charlie Wilson’s War, they struggle to get a serious hearing. In the perma-shambles of day-to-day politics, today’s problems will almost always take precedence over tomorrow’s hypotheticals, however grave and imminent they may seem.
That much the same thing would happen in Nato, an organisation whose credibility depends on a solid grasp of strategy, is less self-evident. Yet time and again Babst and her team found their warnings falling on deaf ears, either because they were regarded as politically inconvenient by some member states or because they would simply have required a degree of uncomfortably open-ended discussion. “Around 2013 we tried very hard to bring China to the attention of the secretary-general,” Babst said. “I got a bloody nose for quite some time because China was considered to be, yes, a strategic player, but not really a meaningful danger on the radar screen.”
Babst estimates that she had to spend at least as much time waging internal lobbying campaigns to get Nato’s upper panjandrums to look at her unit’s research as she did on the research itself. She claims that some of its most powerful figures — including Jens Stoltenberg, the outgoing secretary-general, and Lord Peach, the former head of the RAF who chaired Nato’s military committee from 2018 to 2021 — showed little or no interest in the strategic foresight reports. “I found it extremely frustrating to realise that probably 20 per cent of the topics made it to the decision-making level and the rest kind of drowned,” she said.
In Babst’s analysis, President Macron of France was not wholly off the mark with his diagnosis of brain death. Too often, she writes, Nato’s top officials busy themselves remorselessly with “filler topics”, but “busyness can’t replace politically targeted or strategic action, it can’t hide the fact that the organisation’s actual policy output is frequently really meagre”.
Within the West, Babst reserves her most scathing criticism for her home country. Since the second Russian invasion of Ukraine began last year there have already been half a dozen prominent books in which German authors take their state to task over its embrace of Russia and its dearth of strategic vision. What makes Babst’s account unusual is that her long years in Nato have left her with something like an outsider’s perspective.
“What I noticed in many informal meetings and dinners and receptions was that at some point the negative gossiping about Germany started to become stronger and moved more to the fore,” she said. “The underlying narrative was that Germany likes to preach, it likes to occupy the moral high ground, it likes to portray itself as the model pupil, but the reality is very different.”
Babst is worried by signs that Germany may be preparing to try to restore some kind of accommodation with Russia if there is a lull in the fighting. She argues that Berlin needs to relearn the lesson of George F Kennan’s “long telegram” of 1946 which proposed “containing” the Soviet Union as a matter of the highest priority.
“[Putin’s regime] has already deployed hybrid warfare, aggressive energy policies and other forms of aggression in our countries,” she said. “This will continue as long as this regime remains in place. We need to contain Russia. That would mean there will be a kind of Russian North Korea on one side and a new Iron Curtain coming down across a part of Europe.”
Oliver Moody is Berlin correspondent at The Times and Sunday Times, covering Germany, Scandinavia, central Europe and the Baltics. He joined The Times’s graduate trainee scheme in 2011 and has since worked for the newspaper as a general reporter, leader writer, and science correspondent before moving to Berlin in 2018. The same year he was named science and data commentator and young commentator of the year at the UK Comment Awards.