Analyzing The NATO Topic Using Justification Burdens: Strategic Considerations and An Affirmative Case Selection Checklist

In sharing David Cheshier’s 1981 article “Justification vs. The Counterplan,” I noted the continuing importance of the justification argument in contemporary debates about counterplan theory. If you haven’t yet read Cheshier’s article, I suggest doing so before continuing.

More broadly, I think the concept of the justification argument provides a valuable tool for analyzing a debate topic and generating research ideas for affirmative and negative arguments. In this post, I will use the concept of the justification argument to break down the 2022-2023 high school policy debate topic:

Resolved: The United States federal government should substantially increase its security cooperation with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in one or more of the following areas: artificial intelligence, biotechnology, cybersecurity.

When using this method to analyze a resolution, one starts by identifying each of the affirmative’s “justification burdens” as derived from the resolution’s wording. In other words, what does the affirmative need to “justify” in order to make their prima facie case for the resolution? When making this list, it is helpful to pose the burdens as questions: has the affirmative justified the need for XYZ?

For the NATO topic, there are five main justification burdens that the affirmative must arguably meet. For each burden, I will briefly explain the issues that it raises, the negative strategies it invites, and the strategic considerations the affirmative should therefore consider when selecting and designing their cases. For simplicity’s sake, these five burdens are presented in the order that they appear in the resolution.

After identifying and discussing these burdens, I have also provided a checklist that can be used to vet affirmative case ideas. I hope that students and coaches find this helpful as they begin their summer research.


1. Has the affirmative justified the need for United States federal government action?

The agent question is always important in policy debate. On domestic topics, it most often centers on the comparison of federal vs. state or local government action. In short, could the advantages be obtained from action by another actor? On the NATO topic, the federal vs. state or local issue is less likely to be important, although there might be areas in which coordinated state action or private sector action could accrue some (especially emerging tech-related) advantages.

What about action by NATO itself? Or by one or more NATO member countries acting without U.S. involvement? Or by one or more non-NATO member countries acting without U.S. involvement? Or by a non-NATO international organization? Or — as noted above — by the private sector?

This justification burden will create a set of generic counterplans that will be quite powerful: the NATO CP, the Single Non-U.S. NATO Member Country CP, the Coordinated/Uniform Non-U.S. NATO Member Countries CP, the European Union CP, the United Nations CP, and the Private Sector (Silicon Valley) CP (among others).

To be winnable strategies for the negative, these counterplans need to be paired with disadvantages to U.S. federal government action. Historically, this has included Politics DAs, Spending/Budget Tradeoff DAs, Diplomatic Capital DAs, and Soft Power/U.S. Influence Bad DAs.

For these disadvantages to be credible net-benefits, the negative will need to prove that their counterplan can be enacted without U.S. involvement. While this is usually perfunctory, it might be more complicated than usual on the NATO topic. For example, does action by NATO require explicit approval by the United States? If so, in what form can or would that approval be provided? This will be an important research area during the summer.

From the affirmative’s perspective, this burden highlights the need to prepare a “U.S. action key” advantage. A plan-specific advantage and impact is ideal, but that might significantly limit the number of viable affirmative cases. Generic “U.S. key” advantages typically claim that the plan strengthens U.S. leadership, soft power, credibility, etc. The more generic the advantage, the more easily the negative will be able to impact turn it. Depending on the relative strength of the other arguments in play, that might be fine for the affirmative.


2. Has the affirmative justified the need for action with NATO?

Even if the affirmative proves the need for United States action, could the advantages be obtained without the United States acting with NATO? By the United States acting alone? By the United States acting bilaterally with one or more NATO member countries? By the United States acting bilaterally with non-NATO allies? By the United States acting multilaterally with allies via another organization like the Five Eyes? By the United States acting with another international organization like the EU or UN? By the United States acting bilaterally or multilaterally with non-NATO member countries like China or Russia?

This justification burden invites another series of generic counterplans that will force affirmatives to choose cases with a credible “NATO key” advantage. Broadly, this includes the Unilateral CP, the Bilateral with NATO Member Countries But Not NATO CP, the Bilateral with Non-NATO Member Countries CP, and the Multilateral But Not NATO CP.

To become a winnable negative strategy, these counterplans must be coupled with a “U.S. Action With NATO Bad” DA. These will likely include NATO Bad DAs, U.S. Influence In NATO Tradeoff DAs, and NATO Cohesion DAs. The latter two categories (perhaps best conceptualized as NATO Politics DAs) will likely be more strategic than basic NATO Bad DAs, but this will be an important set of arguments to research during the summer.

For the affirmative, a “NATO key” advantage is essential. While this might seem straightforward, I predict that it will be relatively difficult to simultaneously justify the need for U.S. action and the need for NATO action. Strategically, the negative can present several counterplans in the same debate: the U.S. unilateral action CP, the U.S. bilateral action with NATO member countries CP, the U.S. multilateral action with the EU CP, the non-U.S. NATO member countries CP, and the NATO CP. To be in a strong position to defeat all of these counterplans, the affirmative’s “NATO key” advantage actually needs to be a “U.S. action with NATO key” advantage. That kind of advantage could be used to defeat all of the counterplans mentioned so far, but researching and crafting it is much easier said than done.

Practically, most cases will need to claim a more generic NATO advantage. When researching these advantages, the affirmative should explore the same areas suggested above for negative DAs: the U.S. Influence In NATO Tradeoff DA can become a U.S. Influence In NATO Good Advantage, the NATO Cohesion DA can become a NATO Cohesion Advantage, etc.

For both the affirmative and negative sides of these arguments, it will be especially important to be attentive to inherency and link uniqueness issues. Given the current U.S. relationship with NATO, how will the plan affect the impacts identified? In some debates, these link uniqueness issues will be moot: in order for the negative to win their non-NATO CP and NATO Bad DA, they generally can’t claim that status quo U.S. involvement with NATO solves the affirmative’s NATO Good Advantage. (That’s why the NATO Bad DA is less valuable for the negative than the NATO Politics-style DAs.) Regardless, it is important to distinguish between “generic” NATO Good/Bad arguments and potentially plan-/resolution-specific NATO Good/Bad arguments as you research the topic. The latter will be much harder to find but much more valuable.


3. Has the affirmative justified the need for its (U.S.) security cooperation?

The first two justification burdens have already made affirmative case selection difficult. This one makes it even more daunting. As I noted in my initial analysis of the NATO topic last December, “security cooperation” has a relatively clear definition:

DoD Security Cooperation is defined in Joint Pub 1-02: All DoD interactions with foreign defense establishments to build defense relationships that promote specific US security interests, develop allied and friendly military capabilities for self-defense and multinational operations, and provide US forces with peacetime and contingency access to a host nation. DoD Directive 5132.03 provides DoD-wide policy and describes DoD organizational responsibilities regarding Security Cooperation activities.

DoD Security Cooperation includes International Armaments Cooperation (IAC) activities as well as the various elements of Security Assistance, including Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Building Partner Capacity (BPC). Most DoD Security Cooperation policy, organization, and activities (other than IAC) are led and managed by USD(Policy) rather than USD(Acquisition & Sustainment) and USD(Research & Engineering), but many U.S. Government/DoD Security Cooperation activities are implemented through USD(A&S), USD(R&E), and DoD Component acquisition-related IA&E efforts.

“Its security cooperation with NATO” was an odd choice for the resolution’s mechanism because the United States does very little (if any) security cooperation with NATO as a whole. Instead, its security cooperation activities are primarily bilateral, with NATO member countries among the largest partners. This limits the number and quality of available solvency advocates in ways that are likely to necessitate “square peg-round hole” approaches to argument construction.

In terms of debate strategy, even an affirmative that has justified the need for U.S. action and the need for U.S. action with NATO has not done enough. The affirmative must also more specifically justify the need for U.S. security cooperation with NATO. Could the advantages be obtained by other forms of U.S. action with NATO? If so, the affirmative has not justified the resolution.

The range of possibilities here is difficult to identify at this early stage of the research process. What are the alternatives to security cooperation? This should be a major area of summer exploration, but a promising idea described by Kevin McCaffrey on the MSU Debate Blog (scroll to “An Early Attempt to Limit the NATO Topic”) is that security cooperation includes only activities conducted by the Department of Defense. Therefore, the affirmative must justify the need for DOD action rather than action by the Department of State (or another agency).

This creates at least one more generic counterplan: the Department of State CP. It might also create additional counterplans that propose action by other agencies or even action by the Department of Defense via other mechanisms than security cooperation, but further research will be required to vet these ideas.

Whether this genre of negative strategy is viable will depend on two primary factors: (1) whether the negative can prove that “its security cooperation with NATO” should be defined to exclude the counterplan’s mechanism (i.e., that the counterplan is mutually exclusive with the plan), and (2) whether the negative can construct credible disadvantages to increased U.S. security cooperation (i.e., that the counterplan is net-beneficial).

Regarding the former issue, McCaffrey’s research (.docx link) suggests that this will be a viable but debatable basis for competition. Regarding the latter issue, it seems likely that net-benefits will include Security Cooperation Tradeoff DAs, DOD Budget Tradeoff DAs, DOD Influence Bad/DOS Influence Good DAs, and perhaps Politics DAs with DOD-specific links.

How strong these DAs will need to be in order to win competitive debates will depend on the existence and quality of the affirmative’s “security cooperation key” advantages. When selecting a case, the affirmative will need to (as much as possible) craft one or more advantages that prove the need for U.S. security cooperation. Based on my early research, this will be extremely difficult. Practically, it will likely require relying on more expansive definitions of “security cooperation” that include diplomatic activities. Otherwise, the Bilateral Action With NATO Member Countries CP seems like it will be difficult to defeat.

It is also important to remember that the negative can simultaneously propose the Non-Security Cooperation CP (with a Security Cooperation Tradeoff-style DA) and the Bilateral Security Cooperation With NATO Member Countries CP (with a NATO Influence Tradeoff/Politics-style DA). The affirmative will need a “security cooperation key” advantage to defeat the former strategy and a “security cooperation with NATO” key advantage to defeat the latter strategy.

Again, this latter advantage is much easier to name than to research and construct. If the affirmative can craft a credible one, they will be in a great position to defeat most counterplans. But as noted earlier, most affirmatives will likely need to rely on a more generic advantage. As with the NATO DAs, one promising approach is to explore the same areas as the Security Cooperation DAs, but to craft them as advantages: the Security Cooperation Tradeoff DA becomes the Security Cooperation Tradeoff Advantage, the DOD Influence Bad/DOS Influence Good DA becomes the DOD Influence Good/DOS Influence Bad Advantage, etc.

As with the NATO arguments, inherency and link uniqueness will be important to keep in mind while researching these arguments.


4. Has the affirmative justified the need for a substantial increase in security cooperation?

This burden presents an additional challenge for the affirmative. Even if U.S. security cooperation with NATO is needed, is a substantial increase needed? Or could the advantages be obtained by reforming or reprogramming existing security cooperation?

Historically, this kind of burden has invited the Offsets CP: a counterplan that “PICs out of” the resolution’s (and usually plan’s) call for a substantial increase (in this case of security cooperation with NATO). Sometimes, this kind of counterplan is paired with a straightforward Budget Tradeoff-style DA. Usually, the counterplan’s text explicitly specifies another status quo program that should be cut in order to “offset” the plan (hence the name “offsets CP”).

For example, consider an affirmative plan that proposes increased U.S. security cooperation with NATO over AI. In response, the negative could propose an Offsets CP that mandates a reduction in U.S. security cooperation with NATO over peacekeeping operations in Iraq and a commensurate increase in U.S. security cooperation with NATO over AI. The net-benefit is that U.S. security cooperation with NATO over peacekeeping operations in Iraq is bad. In response to “permute: do the counterplan” and “permute: do both,” the negative will argue that the permutations sever the “substantial increase” mandate in the plan/resolution because they maintain the status quo level of security cooperation with NATO. Therefore, they do not justify the resolution.

While it has many defenders, the Offsets CP has typically been viewed skeptically by most coaches and judges. Importantly, the wording of this year’s resolution calls for a substantial increase in U.S. security cooperation with NATO in one or more of the following areas: artificial intelligence, biotechnology, cybersecurity. In the example above, the permutations (to do the counterplan or to do both) arguably fulfill the resolution’s burden: they prove the need for a substantial increase in U.S. security cooperation with NATO in the area of AI; proving the need for a substantial increase in U.S. security cooperation with NATO writ large is not an affirmative burden. If this is right, even an Offsets CP that offsets an increase in one of the three listed areas with a decrease in one of the other two listed areas wouldn’t compete: the affirmative’s burden is to prove the need for a substantial increase in one or more (but not all three) of the listed areas.

Perhaps counter-intuitively, this kind of counterplan would be more promising if there was more U.S. security cooperation with NATO in these areas in the status quo. The Offsets CP has been much more popular on previous topics when inherency (and therefore link uniqueness) was difficult to establish. When the resolution is written as “do even more of what’s already being done a lot in the status quo,” this kind of strategy can help the negative defeat cases that propose relatively small increases and rely on “link not unique” arguments to beat disadvantages. Whether this will be true on the NATO topic likely depends on how broadly “security cooperation with NATO” is eventually defined.


5. Has the affirmative justified the need for action in the areas of artificial intelligence, biotechnology, and/or cybersecurity?

These three areas are quite broad, but they don’t encompass everything that NATO does. Therefore, they create one last justification burden: could the advantages be obtained by U.S. security cooperation with NATO over another issue than AI, biotech, or cybersecurity? The negative will use this question as the basis for an “other area” counterplan.

Strategically, this will be relatively less important than the other burdens (especially the first three). In order for the Other Area CP to be a viable negative strategy, it will need to be coupled with an AI, biotech, or cybersecurity DA. Constructing a generic “area DA” will be relatively difficult given the existing scope of NATO activities and the diversity of possible plans within each area. Therefore, the negative will need to prepare a more specific DA against common cases. If they are prepared with a plan-specific DA, they don’t need to rely as much on a generic counterplan. And when answering this kind of DA, the affirmative will rely on plan-specific arguments, link uniqueness presses, and (probably) impact turns. That reduces the strategic importance of preparing for this genre of counterplan.

Still, this type of strategy should be taken into consideration during this summer’s research. When affirmative cases are being vetted, the credibility of their “AI, biotech, or cyber key” advantage is an important variable. But its importance pales in comparison to the need for a strong “security cooperation with NATO key” advantage. As long as the AI, biotech, or cybersecurity advantage is “good enough,” the relative strength of the “security cooperation key” advantage should be the primary consideration when selecting a case.


NATO Topic Affirmative Justification Burdens Checklist

To help make the affirmative vetting process easier, the following is a checklist based on the justification burdens identified above.

[ ] Can the affirmative prove the need for United States federal government action?
[ ] Can the affirmative prove the need for U.S. action with NATO?
[ ] Can the affirmative prove the need for U.S. security cooperation with NATO?
[ ] Can the affirmative prove the need for a substantial increase in U.S. security cooperation with NATO?
[ ] Can the affirmative prove the need for U.S. security cooperation with NATO in the areas of AI, biotech, and cybersecurity?

Specifically, can the affirmative prove that one or more of its advantages can’t be solved by the…

[ ] NATO Do It CP
[ ] Single Non-U.S. NATO Member Country Do It CP
[ ] Coordinated/Uniform Non-U.S. NATO Member Countries Do It CP
[ ] Non-NATO Member Country Do It (China, Russia, etc.) CP
[ ] European Union Do It CP
[ ] United Nations Do It CP
[ ] Private Sector Do It CP
[ ] U.S. Do It Unilaterally CP
[ ] U.S. Do It Bilaterally With NATO Member Countries CP
[ ] U.S. Do It Bilaterally With Non-NATO Member Countries CP
[ ] U.S. Do It Multilaterally Without NATO (Five Eyes, EU, UN, etc.) CP
[ ] State Department Do It CP
[ ] Reform/Reprogram Existing Security Cooperation CP

Keep in mind that this list is not exhaustive. For one thing, additional topic-specific counterplans will be revealed through further research. More importantly, there are a series of trans-topical generic counterplans that affirmatives will also need to be prepared for — including at least a few that will likely have topic-specific twists. For example, should increased U.S. security cooperation with NATO be conditioned on NATO or its Member Countries fulfilling particular U.S. requests? That’s the conditions (or quid pro quo) counterplan. Should increased U.S. security cooperation with NATO be subject to Australia’s (or another non-NATO ally’s) approval? That’s the consultation counterplan. This list will eventually become quite extensive, but I have not included these counterplans here because they are not derived from resolution-specific language. (Many plan-contingent counterplans claim to compete based on “Resolved:” and “should,” but that’s beyond the scope of this article.)

Finally, it is important to remember that perfection in affirmative case selection is impossible — and due to the dearth of solvency advocates, I think that will be particularly true on the NATO topic. When choosing and designing cases, affirmatives will need to accept tradeoffs: being better prepared to defeat some counterplans will leave one less prepared to defeat others. And all of this needs to be balanced against other considerations relating to topicality, kritiks, one’s competition circuit, one’s interests and strengths and weaknesses, etc. Such is the nature of debate as a strategic argument contest. However, approaching affirmative case selection with the counterplans described above in mind will help maximize the affirmative’s chances of success by weeding out case ideas that can’t defeat the most likely resolution-based generic negative strategies.