Some Unspoken Truths about NATO

There are some difficult truths about NATO that, while critical in their implications, are seldom articulated or openly recognised in discussion. Why is this? Is it, as I suspect, that silence plays a diplomatic function in papering over the cracks between NATO’s different camps and political persuasions? If so, how long can this ‘constructive ambiguity’ be expected to last, before the Alliance’s very real divisions, and very real limitations in capacity and capability, become apparent?

This are questions that will become increasingly relevant in the lead-up to the new Strategic Concept, a document intended to produce new guidance for the organisation to which all 28 member states can subscribe. The central question, of course, is whether a short document like the Strategic Concept will be able to grapple with NATO’s various divisions and faultlines without, that is, resorting to bland generalisations or compromises that leave nothing out – ‘all things to all men’, and so on?

Article 5

One contentious issue is Article 5. Discussions on Article 5 are critical to the future of NATO, particularly because of what it means to its newer members, who see it as a guarantee against possible aggression from the east. So while NATO is off fighting wars in Afghanistan and working on its ‘comprehensive approach’ elsewhere, Eastern European governments look to Georgia and make pointed reminders of NATO’s original purpose, that  ‘article 5’ commitment that ought to come with the membership. What ensues is a balancing act, yet is it at all viable?

More profoundly, the whole premise of an Article 5 commitment, while central to Eastern Europe’s sense of security, is an anachronism, built on Cold-War assumptions. It assumes, for example, that an eventual attack on a NATO country would be unambiguous; and secondly, that NATO’s response to said aggression would be possible. Neither assumption is likely to hold. An illustration: if the obvious threat, Russia, decides to attack a NATO member country, what exactly constitutes an Article 5 transgression? Russia, or any other adversary worth its salt, would seek not to trigger the tripwire for an overt Article 5 reaction, but to operate under that threshold, preferably with plausible deniability (or at least some significant measure of ambiguity) so as to confound, split and paralyse NATO’s decision-making over a suitable response.

And even if there is a decision to invoke Article 5, what exactly would NATO do in response to an attack that, it is likely, would be neither territorial nor militarily conventional, as assumed when Article 5 was first written, but that may instead be characterised by subversion, harassment, cyber-attacks, or energy-related provocation, etc.

It would seem that the emphasis on Article 5 in discussions of NATO’s future is important from a symbolic standpoint, to keep the newer members on board, from losing faith in NATO and from developing their own arrangements for security. Upon closer scrutiny, however, this whole issue is a red herring. If this analysis is correct, are we, and NATO, better served by confronting this issue head-on, or through continued reaffirmations of ‘Article 5’, at summits and in writing, but with no clear idea of how to honour this commitment in practical terms, either today or tomorrow?

The exception to all of the above, some might say, is if there really were a conventional territorial attack on a member state. Yet even in such an extreme instance, say Georgia of 2008 were a NATO member, it seems unlikely that NATO’s response would be as forthcoming as the eastern European country in question might expect. I have heard some NATO officials commend the Alliance for its unrivalled ability to reach decisions quickly but elsewhere, NATO’s own war-games have revealed the difficulty of galvanising swift action in a consensus-based organisation where several members are facing shortfalls in available military means and others require UN or parliamentary approval to launch military operations. Relying on a predominantly American response is of course the order of the day, but this hedging strategy will become increasingly problematic as US priorities shift away from Europe, not to mention the United States’ own financial limitations and ongoing military commitments. Again, this is another truth that may be best left unspoken, but who, if anyone, are we actually fooling?

Comprehensive Approach

Criticising the Comprehensive Approach is a bit like shooting fish in a bucket: the mere mention of the concept already tends to produce tired groans, sardonic remarks and the rolling of eyes. Critics quite rightly point to the vagueness of the concept, or to the inability of national governments to coordinate their own affairs (so what hope then for inter-governmental organisations, or relations between such bodies). Yet there are some other subtleties here that tend to get less play.

First, the CA discussion reveals a fundamental malaise within NATO not only as to ‘who does what’, but also as to ‘what to do, and where’. There is no denying that end-states with political as well as security-related components will require the coordinated input of civilian and military actors. At the same time, the regularity with which some NATO officials talk about CA, coordination, or working together, tends toward the obsessive, which tempts me to draw a somewhat cynical conclusion. In lieu of actually looking at the countries or areas in which the would-be coordinated actors are to operate, which would require learning about an alien culture, history, people and politics, there is a tendency to look inward, toward the structures and entities with which we are more familiar, and make the lack of coordination between these the central determining factor between strategic success and failure. And this justification for not dealing more closely with the real matter at hand has no expiry date, for what likelihood is there of a truly ‘comprehensive approach’.

In that sense, it would be very interesting were the sought-after coordination and comprehensiveness achieved, miraculously of course, as this would force the tireless champions of this cause to identify what the comprehensive approach is an approach to. In other words, we return to the realm of strategy and strategic objectives – a difficult nut to crack, it must be said, but a question that is too often deferred by endless exhortations for better ‘coordination’.

Related to the above, there is a group within NATO that is now considering a Plan B, to wit, the standing up of some sort of civilian capacity within NATO itself, to deal with various civilian operational tasks until the broader ‘international community’ is able to take over.

This is a good idea in so far as it recognises the limited operational capability of the civilian partners on which NATO has hitherto relied, but it is also problematic (and resisted by others within the Alliance and beyond). First, this course of action makes NATO’s remit, already contested and divisive, even more ambitious. Second, does NATO have the required legitimacy, capability and political will to wade into civilian areas as well as military ones? Third, this desperate compromise would be conducted (and tolerated only) on the basis that NATO’s engagement in civilian affairs would be strictly temporary. In other words, it assumes that, given just a little more time (the time during which NATO’s civilian force would hold the ring), the international community’s true civilian expeditionary actors would get their act together and take over. This, as far as I can see, is an unrealistic assumption, particularly if those very civilian partners come to see NATO as able and willing to do their work for them, when push comes to shove. It is similar to the debate within the US military as to whether they should take over civilian tasks if their inter-agency partners are not there or fully able to handle them themselves. Yes, there may be an operational need to do precisely that, but this last resort itself affects the likelihood of civilian agencies getting prepared and ready for the next deployment.

The broader question raised here is whether the relative silence on these thorny issues in NATO discussions serves a diplomatic function, or is in recognition of the near-impossibility of finding practical solutions to the associated problems. The follow-on question is whether the utility served by not looking at these issues more honestly outweighs the benefits of tackling them upfront.


18 thoughts on “Some Unspoken Truths about NATO

  1. Jeff M says:

    I’m not sure I understand the point that is being made here about Article 5. This article was invoked after 9/11. As such, it may not necessarily be the case that it is anachronistic.

    • Yes, I was going to say something about that in the post. The sending of a few AWACS to the United States airspace may have been a symbolically beautiful thing to do, but did it ‘restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area’, as envisaged by Article 5? No, it did not. Nor could NATO have done much else at the time (or since, a cynic might add).

      So Article 5 retained a symbolic value, but the assumptions that underpinned the wording of the article – and the presumption of an automatic, immediate and effective retaliation in particular – are hand-me-downs from a time gone by that do not fit so well to today’s strategic realities.

    • frenchconnection says:

      didn’t British and French troops arrive to Afghanistan already in october-november the same year ? Followed by others ? Even if Article 5 wasn’t FORMALLY invoked, it was the spirit. If I am not mistaken H.Clinton hinted of that in some speech earlier this year…

    • Well, it should be said the G. W. Bush administration first declined several European countries’ offers of assistance. As I argue here, the first priority for the US was to defeat the enemy, not to provide NATO with an opportunity to prove its relevance, particularly as the latter objective was seen, in the aftermath of Kosovo, as compromising the former.

      But then you do get some troop deployments, mostly special forces at first, and then under the auspices of ISAF. On that, however, I do not think that the deployment of some special forces, or of AWACS to New York, is the type of reaction anticipated, either in scale or effectiveness, by the authors of Article 5. Second, when the Bush administration initially made appeals for European forces to come clean up the mess in Afghanistan, there really wasn’t much appetite for the related mission, and it basically had to be sold as another Balkan peacekeeping operation before European troops started arriving. So much for collective security, not to say that European governments did not have their reasons to be wary.

      But all of this is a distraction from the larger point I was trying to make. Article 5 is not dead, but the categoricalness that it implies is simply not there, something that those who most cherish its apparent guarantees should be critically aware of. In response to the threat anticipated at the time of its writing, a Russian attack, the response would have been easy enough to fathom. Against a terrorist attack on the US, or against some subversion or provocation against an Eastern NATO member, the response is likely to be far from convincing, in terms in celerity, effectiveness and/or automacity.

  2. Formerly Grant says:

    Another question is what would the NATO members do in a the case of a conventional war between China and the U.S. Even if China’s actions clearly made it a responsibility of the alliance to mobilize would they really do so? Frankly I find the idea of NATO going to war to support an Eastern European state against Russia to be more realistic than the aforementioned scenario.

  3. Of course, there is also the question of how much NATO’s existence acts as a stymie for deeper EU military integration.

    It is also unfortunate that there does not appear to be any resolution in the Cyprus/Turkey debate that so often hinders any deeper integration between the two on the horizon.

    Finally, I see no reason to think that NATO would not have come to Georgia’s aid if it was a full member. But this is a hypothetical game which has no useful conclusion.

    • Formerly Grant says:

      Besides the threat of nuclear war we should not be so quick to rush to war. Think of the example of World War I where the alliance system and nationalism gone wild led to the greatest powers of the world going into a unnecessary war that really wasn’t worth it and helped the rise of the U.S and U.S.S.R. Sometimes it becomes necessary for great powers to set their obligations aside in the interest of peace.

      Of course there are also cases where the powers need to take a stand and honor those obligations as was the case in the lead up to World War II. Deciding which is which and even if the situation is remotely comparable to those two is a serious problem for strategists.

  4. Steven Walt has some pretty negative prognostications about NATO’s future:

    Is NATO irrelevant?
    Posted By Stephen M. Walt Friday, September 24, 2010 – 11:06 AM Share

    NATO is by common consensus the most successful political-military alliance in modern history. It has lasted longer than almost all others, incorporates more members, and it achieved its central purpose(s) without firing a shot. After the Cold War ended, it managed to redefine itself by taking on a broader array of security missions and has played a modest but useful role in the war in Afghanistan. By surviving well beyond the demise of the Soviet Union, it has also defied realist predictions that its days (or at least its years) were numbered.

    Nonetheless, I share William Pfaff’s view that NATO doesn’t have much of a future.

    First, Europe’s economic woes are forcing key NATO members (and especially the U.K.) to adopt draconian cuts in defense spending. NATO’s European members already devote a much smaller percentage of GDP to defense than the United States does, and they are notoriously bad at translating even that modest amount into effective military power. The latest round of defense cuts means that Europe will be even less able to make a meaningful contribution to out-of-area missions in the future, and those are the only serious military missions NATO is likely to have.

    Second, the ill-fated Afghan adventure will have divisive long-term effects on alliance solidarity. If the United States and its ISAF allies do not win a clear and decisive victory (a prospect that seems increasingly remote), there will be a lot of bitter finger-pointing afterwards. U.S. leaders will complain about the restrictions and conditions that some NATO allies (e.g., Germany) placed on their participation, while European publics will wonder why they let the United States get them bogged down there for over a decade. It won’t really matter who is really responsible for the failure; the key point is that NATO is unlikely to take on another mission like this one anytime soon (if ever). And given that Europe itself is supposedly stable, reliably democratic, and further pacified by the EU, what other serious missions is NATO supposed to perform?

    The third potential schism is Turkey, which has been a full NATO member since 1950. I’m not as concerned about Turkey’s recent foreign policy initiatives as some people are, but there’s little doubt that Ankara’s diplomatic path is diverging on a number of key issues. The United States, United Kingdom, France, and Germany have been steadily ratcheting up pressure on Iran, while Turkey has moved closer to Tehran both diplomatically and economically. Turkey is increasingly at odds with Washington on Israel-Palestine issues, which is bound to have negative repercussions in the U.S. Congress. Rising Islamophobia in both the United States and Europe could easily reinforce these frictions. And given that Turkey has NATO’s largest military forces (after the United States) and that NATO operates largely by consensus, a major rift could have paralyzing effects on the alliance as a whole.

    Put all this together, and NATO’s future as a meaningful force in world affairs doesn’t look too bright. Of course, the usual response to such gloomy prognostications is to point out that NATO has experienced crises throughout its history (Suez, anyone?), and to remind people that it has always managed to weather them in the past. True enough, but most of these rifts occurred within the context of the Cold War, when there was an obvious reason for leaders in Europe and America to keep disputes within bounds.

    Of course, given NATO’s status as a symbol of transatlantic solidarity, no American president or European leader will want to preside over its demise. Plus, you’ve got all those bureaucrats in Brussels and Atlantophiles in Europe and America who regard NATO as their life’s work. For all these reasons, I don’t expect NATO to lose members or dissolve. I’ll even be somewhat surprised if foreign policy elites even admit that it has serious problems.

    Instead, NATO is simply going to be increasingly irrelevant. As I wrote more than a decade ago:

    . . .the Atlantic Alliance is beginning to resemble Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray, appearing youthful and robust as it grows older — but becoming ever more infirm. The Washington Treaty may remain in force, the various ministerial meetings may continue to issue earnest and upbeat communiques, and the Brussels bureaucracy may keep NATO’s web page up and running-all these superficial routines will go on, provided the alliance isn’t asked to actually do anything else. The danger is that NATO will be dead before anyone notices, and we will only discover the corpse the moment we want it to rise and respond.”

    Looking back, I’d say I underestimated NATO’s ability to rise from its sickbed. Specifically, it did manage to stagger through the Kosovo War in 1999 and even invoked Article V guarantees for the first time after 9/11. NATO members have sent mostly token forces to Afghanistan (though the United States, as usual, has done most of the heavy lifting). But even that rather modest effort has been exhausting, and isn’t likely to be repeated. A continent that is shrinking, aging, and that faces no serious threat of foreign invasion isn’t going to be an enthusiastic partner for future adventures in nation-building, and it certainly isn’t likely to participate in any future U.S. effort to build a balancing coalition against a rising China.

    The bad news, in short, is that one of the cornerstones of the global security architecture is likely to erode in the years ahead. The good news, however, is that it won’t matter very much if it does.

  5. Paolo says:

    The climate change and strategy errors, are the threats to the safety USA and of the countries NATO. The escape from Iraq and the defeat in Afghanistan, resembles a lot to the Vietnam war.

  6. Pingback: NATO’s Identity Crisis: A World Politics Review Feature | Kings of War

  7. Pingback: 吴 访菡's Blog

  8. Pingback: 叶 冰文's Blog

  9. Pingback: 李 恨柏's Blog

  10. Jay says:


    Sorry I’m late to the discussion. One point to consider is Article 4, which basically says any member, can request consultations over a security situation. This article has been invoked several times, most recently by Turkey with regards to Syria. This approach is one way of getting the nations to start talking long before the “conventional cross border attack” that might spring Article 5 into action. The NATO treaty sets limits on the geography that it includes which excludes the Pacific, hence why (for example) there was never a discussion about involving NATO in Vietnam.

    One more unspoken aspect of Article 5 is that while NATO members should regard an attack against one member as an attack against every NATO member, it does not dictate how much of a response each member has to give. During the Cold War, there was not much doubt that if the Soviets came through the Fulda Gap, that Germany would give 100 percent of their combat power toward NATO in stopping the attack. But, if only by example, there was no concurrent attack against Norway, would Norway have sent their 6th Division south or would they have retained it at home guarding against any follow-on attack? That is seen today when the NAC decided by consensus (100 percent not breaking silence) to get involved in the air over Libya. So one would be led to believe that all of NATO’s airpower would be available to support those operations. However, the truth is that air participation was limited to:
    Belgium 6 x F-16
    Canada: 7 x F-18, 2 x CP-140, 2 x CC-150, 2 x C-177, 2 x C-130J
    Denmark: 6 x F-16, 1 x C-130J
    France: 18 x Mirage, 19 x Rafale, 6 x Mirage F1, 6 x Super Etendard, 2 x E-2C, 3 x Eurocopter, 16 x Gazelle
    Greece: 4 x F-16, 1 x E-145 (AEW), ? x Super Puma
    Italy: 4 x Tor ECR, 6 Tor IDS, 4 x F-16, 4 x Eurofighters, 4 x AV-8B+, more added later
    Netherlands: 6 x F-16, 1 x KDC-10
    Norway: 6 x F-16
    Spain: 6 x F-18, 2 x B707 (tankers), 2 x CN-235 (MPA)
    Turkey: 6 x F-16
    United Kingdom: 16 x Tor, 10 x Typhoon, Nimrod R1 and Sentinel R1, AWACS, VC-10, Apache helicopters
    United States: Basically only employed what was already in theater (F-15C and E, A-10, F-16, and KC-135), only deploying or using from CONUS B-2, E-8C, EA-18G and AV-8B

    To pick on just one country, the Netherlands has 61 F-16AM and 3 KDC-10 at that time. So they contributed one third of their lift/tanking (always welcome thank you very much) and one tenth of their fighter force. At least they came: Notice the strong German participation and that was after almost forbidding NATO AWACS from supporting the conflict because they are based in Germany and have German crew members on board.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *