Who matters for memory: Sources of institutional memory in international organization crisis management


Scholarship on organizational learning has explored how international organizations (IOs) reform but has paid little attention to the origins of institutional memory. For IOs engaged in crisis management operations, acquiring knowledge about strategic errors is necessary for adopting reforms that could save lives. This study seeks to identify the sources that affect whether or not IO elites will contribute knowledge to an IO’s institutional memory in crisis management. The study employs a survey experiment in the field on 120 NATO elites who decide on and plan operations. Findings indicate that when the United States introduces knowledge of a strategic error, NATO elites are significantly less likely to share it. This deterrent effect on knowledge-sharing illustrates an unexpected way in which the US influences international crisis management. The study also finds that an IO’s secretariat can somewhat increase elites’ likelihood of contributing to the IO’s institutional memory.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    Subsequent research on institutional memory in IOs appears in the author’s forthcoming book, Lessons in Failure: Institutional Memory in International Organization Crisis Management (Oxford University Press).

  2. 2.

    Author interview with NATO military elite, Mons, Belgium, April 6, 2015.

  3. 3.

    See also Smith, Europe’s common security and defense policy: Capacity-building, Experiential Learning and Institutional Change, forthcoming.

  4. 4.

    I registered this study in December 2014 with the Institutional Review Board (IRB) – my university’s human subject ethics committee. The IRB registration constitutes pre-registration of the experiment.

  5. 5.

    See also Smith, Europe’s common security and defense policy: Capacity-building, Experiential Learning and Institutional Change, forthcoming.

  6. 6.

    Author interview with IS elite, Brussels, Belgium, February 9, 2015.

  7. 7.

    See Online Resource for further discussion of the term ‘strategic error’.

  8. 8.

    I initially included a fourth hypothesis concerning the international media as a source. Upon further reflection, I concluded that there was only limited theoretical support (and consequently no empirical support) for this hypothesis to include it here. I discuss this dropped hypothesis and present results from it in the Online Resource.

  9. 9.

    The percentage of those staff holding indefinite contracts is gradually decreasing as they retire and incoming staff are instead granted three-year contracts.

  10. 10.

    I thank an Anonymous reviewer for this point.

  11. 11.

    I used power analysis to identify a sample size (n = 30 per group) necessary to detect a substantively meaningful difference between the treatment and control groups at a 0.10 significance level, using a one-tailed test of difference in means, and holding the power of the test constant at 0.51. I considered a difference to be substantively meaningful if there was a difference between the control and treatment group of at least 0.34. (This number corresponds to a difference along a 0–1 scale – converted from the original 5-point scale.) As a limitation, I acknowledge that since the sample size is small, I may not be able to detect effects below 0.34.

  12. 12.

    Of the 120 elites, 18 were unable to meet in person due to scheduling conflicts and instead participated by emailing their survey responses.

  13. 13.

    Of the 120 subjects in this study, 30 subjects received an IS treatment, 30 received a US treatment, 30 received an international media treatment and 30 received a placebo.

  14. 14.

    Author interview with an IMS elite, June 16, 2015.

  15. 15.

    Author interview with an Assistant Secretary General to NATO, March 13, 2015.

  16. 16.

    Author Interview with a Permanent Representative to NATO, March 11, 2015.

  17. 17.

    I thank an Anonymous Reviewer for this suggestion.

  18. 18.

    See Online Resource for comparisons with individual regression models.

  19. 19.

    Author interview with an IS elite, Brussels, Belgium, April 2, 2015.


  1. Abbott, K., & Snidal, D. (1998). Why states act through formal international organizations. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 42, 3–32.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Abbott, K. W., & Snidal, D. (2010). International regulation without international government: Improving IO performance through orchestration. The Review of International Organizations, 5(3), 315–344.

  3. Aberbach, J., & Rockman, B. (2002). Conducting and coding elite interviews. Political Science & Politics, 35(4), 673–676.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Aldrich, R. J. (2009). Global intelligence co-operation versus accountability: new facets to an old problem. Intelligence and National Security, 24(1), 26–56.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Allegret, J.-P., & Dulbecco, P. (2006). The institutional failures of International Monetary Fund conditionality. The Review of International Organizations, 2(4), 309–327.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Argote, L. (2011). Organizational learning research: Past, present and future. Management Learning, 42(4), 439–446.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Auerswald, D. P., & Saideman, S. M. (2014). NATO in Afghanistan. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  8. Avant, D. (2016). Netting the empire: Relationships and US roles governing small arms and military and security services. In D. Avant & O. Westerwinter (Eds.), The New Power Politics: Networks and Transnational Security Governance. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  9. Avant, D., & Sigelman, L. (2010). Private security and democracy: Lessons from the US in Iraq. Security Studies, 19(2), 230–265.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Axelrod, R., & Borzutzky, S. (2006). NATO and the war on terror: the organizational challenges of the post 9/11 world. The Review of International Organizations, 1(3), 293–307.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Baldwin, R. (2016). The World Trade Organization and the future of multilateralism. The Journal of Economic Perspectives, 30(1), 95–115.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Barnett, M., & Finnemore, M. (2004). Rules for the world. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  13. Benner, T., Mergenthaler, S., & Rotmann, P. (2011). The new world of UN peace operations. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  14. Berman, S. (2012). Ideational theorizing in the social sciences since “policy paradigms, social learning, and the state.” Governance, 26(2), 217–237.

  15. Blease, D. (2010). Lessons from NATO’s military missions in the western Balkans. Connect, 9(3), 3–18.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Butler, D. M., et al. (2014). Ideology, learning, and policy diffusion: Experimental evidence. American Journal of Political Science, 59(4), 37–49.

    Google Scholar 

  17. Campbell, S. P. (2008). When process matters: The potential implications of organisational learning for peacebuilding success. Journal of Peacebuilding & Development, 4(2), 20–32.

  18. Cilliers, J., Boshoff, H., & Aboagye, F. (2010). Somalia: The intervention dilemma. Pretoria: Institute for Security Studies.

  19. Clair, J. A., & Waddock, S. (2007). A “total” responsibility management approach to crisis management and signal detection in organizations. In International Handbook of Organizational Crisis Management (pp. 299–313). Thousand Oaks: SAGE.

  20. Daalder, I. H., & Lindsay, J. M. (2003). America unbound. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

  21. Dafoe, A., Renshon, J., & Huth, P. (2014). Reputation and status as motives for war. Annual Review of Political Science, 17(1), 371–393.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Davies, P. H. (2001). Spies as Informants: Triangulation and the Interpretation of Elite Interview Data in the Study of the Intelligence and Security Services. Politics, 21(1), 73–80.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Dijkstra, H. (2012). Efficiency versus sovereignty: Delegation to the UN secretariat in peacekeeping. International Peacekeeping, 19(5), 581–596.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Dijkstra, H. (2015). Functionalism, multiple principals and the reform of the NATO secretariat after the Cold War. Cooperation and Conflict, 50(1), 128–145.

  25. Domke, D., et al. (2000). Elite messages and source cues: moving beyond partisanship. Political Communication, 17(4), 395–402.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Dragojlovic, N. (2013). Leaders without Borders: Familiarity as a moderator of transnational source cue effects. Political Communication, 30(2), 297–316.

  27. Dreher, A., Sturm, J. E., & Vreeland, J. R. (2009). Global horse trading: IMF loans for votes in the United Nations Security Council. European Economic Review, 53(7), 742–757.

  28. Druckman, J. N. (2001). On the limits of framing effects: Who can frame? The Journal of Politics, 63(4), 1041–1066.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Eagly, A., & Chaiken, S. (1993). The psychology of attitudes. Fort Worth: Harcourt, Brace and Janovich.

    Google Scholar 

  30. Entman, R. M. (2004). Projections of power. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    Google Scholar 

  31. Faleg, G. (2017). The EU's Common Security and Defence policy: Learning communities in international organizations. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

  32. Findley, M. G., Nielson, D. L., & Sharman, J. C. (2013). Using field experiments in international relations: a randomized study of anonymous incorporation. International Organization, 67(04), 657–693.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Foot, R., MacFarlane, S. N., & Mastanduno, M. (Eds.). (2003). US hegemony and international organizations: The United States and multilateral institutions. New York: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  34. Fortna, V. P., & Howard, L. M. (2008). Pitfalls and prospects in the peacekeeping literature. Annual Review of Political Science, 11(1), 283–301.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  35. Gallup. (2003). Many Europeans oppose war in Iraq. USA Today. Available at: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/world/2003-02-14-eu-survey.htm.

  36. George, A., Hall, D., & Simons, W. (1971). The limits of coercive diplomacy. Boston: Little Brown & Co.

  37. Gerber, A. S., & Green, D. P. (2012). Field experiments. New York: W W Norton & Company.

  38. Gherardi, S. (2009). Organizational knowledge. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons.

  39. Goldsmith, B. E., & Horiuchi, Y. (2009). Spinning the globe? U.S. public diplomacy and foreign public opinion. The Journal of Politics, 71(03), 863–813.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  40. Gourlay, C. (2004). European Union procedures and resources for crisis management. International Peacekeeping, 11(3), 404–421.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  41. Gribble, R., et al. (2014). British public opinion after a decade of war: Attitudes to Iraq and Afghanistan. Politics, 35(2), 128–150.

  42. Gutner, T., & Thompson, A. (2010). The politics of IO performance: A framework. Review of International Organizations, 5, 227–248.

  43. Haas, E. (1990). When knowledge is power. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Habyarimana, J., Humphreys, M., Posner, D., & Weinstein, J. (2009). Coethnicity. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

  45. Hafner-Burton, E., & Montgomery, A. (2008). Power or plenty: How do international trade institutions affect economic sanctions? Journal of Conflict Resolution, 52(2), 213–242.

  46. Hafner-Burton, E. M., Hughes, D. A., & Victor, D. G. (2013). The cognitive revolution and the political psychology of elite decision making. Perspectives on Politics, 11(02), 368–386.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  47. Hafner-Burton, E. M., et al. (2014). Decision maker preferences for international legal cooperation. International Organization, 68(04), 845–876.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  48. Hardt, H. (2013). Keep friends close but colleagues closer: Efficiency in the establishment of peace operations. Global Governance, 19, 377–399.

  49. Hardt, H. (2014). Time to react: The efficiency of international organizations in crisis response. New York: Oxford University Press.

  50. Hardt, H. (2016a). From states to secretariats: Delegation in the African Union Peace and Security Council. African Security, 9(3), 161–187.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  51. Hardt, H. (2016b). How NATO remembers: Explaining institutional memory in NATO crisis management. European Security, 25(5), 1–29.

    Google Scholar 

  52. Harnisch, S. (2011). Conceptualizing in the minefield: Role theory and foreign policy learning. Foreign Policy Analysis, 8(1), 47–69.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  53. Hayes, D., & Guardino, M. (2011). The influence of foreign voices on U.S. public opinion. American Journal of Political Science, 55(4), 831–851.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  54. Herrmann, R., & Choi, J. K. (2007). From prediction to learning: Opening experts’ minds to unfolding history. International Security, 31(4), 132–161.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  55. Hirschmann, G. (2012). Organizational learning in United Nations' peacekeeping exit strategies. Cooperation and Conflict, 47(3), 368–385.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  56. Howard, L. M. (2008). UN peacekeeping in civil wars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  57. Hurd, I. (2008). After anarchy: Legitimacy and power in the United Nations security Council. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

  58. Johnson, T. (2014). Organizational progeny. New York: Oxford University Press.

  59. Kang, H., et al. (2011). Source cues in online news: Is the proximate source more powerful than distal sources? Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 88(4), 719–736.

  60. Kay, S., & Kahn, S. (2008). NATO and counter-insurgency: Strategic liability or tactical asset? Contemporary Security Policy, 28(1), 163–181.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  61. Khong, Y. F. (1992). Analogies at war. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  62. Knopf, J. (2003). The importance of international learning. Review of International Studies, 29, 1–24.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  63. Kollars, N. (2014). Military innovation’s dialectic: Gun trucks and rapid acquisition. Security Studies, 23(4), 787–813.

  64. Kuklinski, J. H., & Hurley, N. L. (1994). On hearing and interpreting political messages: A cautionary tale of citizen cue-taking. The Journal of Politics, 56(3), 729–751.

  65. LaPalombara, J. (2003). The underestimated contributions of political science to organizational learning. In M. Easterby-Smith & M. Lyles (Eds.), Handbook of organizational learning and knowledge (p. 137–160). New York: Oxford University Press.

  66. Layne, C. (2000). US hegemony and the perpetuation of NATO. Journal of Strategic Studies, 23(3), 59–91.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  67. Lebovic, J. H., & Voeten, E. (2006). The politics of shame: The condemnation of country human rights practices in the UNCHR. International Studies Quarterly, 50(4), 861–888.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  68. Lebow, R. N. (2006). The memory of politics in postwar europe. In R. Lebow, W. Kansteiner & C. Fogu (Eds.), The politics of memory in postwar Europe (p. 1–39). Durham: Duke University Press.

  69. Levy, J. S. (1994). Learning and foreign policy: Sweeping a conceptual minefield. International Organization, 48(02), 279–312.

  70. Lipson, M. (2010). Performance under ambiguity: International organization performance in UN peacekeeping. Review of International Studies, 5(3), 249–284.

  71. MacPhail, L., & Edmondson, A. (2011). Learning domains: The importance of work context in organizational learning from error. In D. Hofmann & M. Frese (Eds.), Errors in Organizations (p. 177–198). New York: Routledge.

  72. McDermott, R. (2011). New directions for experimental work in International Relations. International Studies Quarterly, 55, 503–520.

  73. Mintz, A., Redd, S. B., & Vedlitz, A. (2006). Can we generalize from student experiments to the real world in political science, military affairs, and international relations? Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50(5), 757–776.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  74. Mintz, A., Yang, Y., & McDermott, R. (2011). Experimental approaches to international relations. International Studies Quarterly, 55(2), 493–501.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  75. Moorman, C., & Miner, A. S. (1998). Organizational improvisation and organizational memory. The Academy of Management Review, 23, 698–723.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  76. NATO. (2011). The NATO lessons learned handbook. Second Edition. Lisbon: NATO.

  77. NATO. (2015). Defence expenditures data for 2014 and estimates for 2015, Available at: http://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_120866.htm.

  78. Nicholson, S. P. (2011). Dominating cues and the limits of elite influence. The Journal of Politics, 73(04), 1165–1177.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  79. Orlikowski, W. J. (2002). Knowing in practice: Enacting a collective capability in distributed organizing. Organization Science, 13(3), 249–273.

  80. Pillar, P. R. (2011). Intelligence and U.S. Foreign Policy: Iraq, 9/11, and Misguided Reform. New York: Columbia University Press.

  81. Pouliot, V. (2010). International security in practice: The politics of NATO-Russia Diplomacy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  82. Renshon, J. (2015). Losing face and sinking costs: experimental evidence on the judgment of political and military leaders. International Organization, 69(3), 659–695.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  83. Rynning, S. (2012). NATO in Afghanistan: The liberal disconnect. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  84. Sagan, S. D. (1994). Organized for accidents. Security Studies, 3(3), 509–520.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  85. Sagan, S. D. (1995). The limits of safety. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  86. Shellman, S. (2006). Process matters: Conflict and cooperation in sequential government-dissident interactions. Security Studies, 15(4), 563–599.

  87. Smith, H. (1994). Intelligence and UN peacekeeping. Survival, 36(3), 174–192.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  88. Stevenson, J. (2007). The Somali Model? The National Interest, 90, 41–45.

    Google Scholar 

  89. Tansey, O. (2007). Process tracing and elite interviewing: A case for non-probability sampling. PS: Political Science and Politics, 4(4), 765–772.

  90. Weaver, C. (2010). The politics of performance evaluation: Independent evaluation at the International Monetary Fund. The Review of International Organizations, 5(3), 365–385.

  91. Weiss, T. G., & Thakur, R. (2010). Global Governance and the UN. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  92. Yost, D. S. (2014). NATO’s balancing act. Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press.

Download references


I thank the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute for hosting me as I carried out the majority of the research for this study. I also thank the following scholars for their helpful feedback: Karisa Cloward, Brett Ashley Leeds, Alan Jacobs, Brigid Laffen, Ulrich Krotz, Jeffrey Knopf, Emilie Hafner-Burton, Martha Feldman, Maria Bermudez, Davin Phoenix, Michael Tesler, Ines Levin, Alexandra Raleigh, Marina Henke, Daniel Nielson, Brad LeVeck, Etel Solingen and Leslie Johns. I am grateful to participants who provided feedback on presentations of early drafts at the EUI Global Governance Programme, International Studies Association, the American Political Science Association, the ISSS-ISAC Conference, the Department of Political Science at Northwestern University, the Center for Organizational Research at the University of California, Irvine, the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Los Angeles and the University of California Conference on International Cooperation. I thank Alexandra Raleigh and Mary Anne Mendoza for their research assistance. I thank also the participants in this study, as well as the many administrative staff who helped facilitate my meetings with participants following my requests. I am grateful to the Fulbright Commission for funding this research through my Fulbright Schuman EUI Chair Fellowship.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Heidi Hardt.

Electronic supplementary material


(DOCX 3555 kb)


(DO 13 kb)


(DTA 15 kb)



Table 5 Subject pool
Fig. 2

Recording for one’s self or successors versus discussing with colleague

Table 6 Effect of US source cue on recording the error for self or successors

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Hardt, H. Who matters for memory: Sources of institutional memory in international organization crisis management. Rev Int Organ 13, 457–482 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11558-017-9281-4

Download citation


  • Institutional memory
  • NATO
  • Crisis management
  • International security
  • Organizational learning
  • United States
  • International organization