NATO’s Shibboleth, Article 5 and Member’s Contributions

June 6, 2017 10:30 am Last Updated: June 6, 2017 10:30 am

Sometimes it is valuable to review the realities underlying myths. And with the media filled with hissy fits regarding what President Trump said (and failed to say) during and following the just-completed NATO Ministerial, it is useful to examine some of the accepted mythology around NATO: specifically Article 5 and the “obsolete” nature of the Alliance.

Despite the holy writ status attributed to Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, laying out the parameters of response to an attack on a NATO member (“one for all; all for one”), the specific required responses by other NATO members are far from defined. In this regard, it is helpful to cite Article 5 in entirety: 

“The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognised by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.”

Okay? Now read this opaque language again.

President Donald Trump delivers a speech during the unveiling ceremony of the new NATO headquarters in Brussels, on May 25, 2017. (CHRISTOPHE LICOPPE/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump delivers a speech during the unveiling ceremony of the new NATO headquarters in Brussels, on May 25, 2017. (CHRISTOPHE LICOPPE/AFP/Getty Images)

There has been a polite construct/myth that NATO, and particularly the United States, would respond militarily to a direct Soviet/Russian attack on a NATO member. All concerned have worked over the decades to substitute this gauzy political interpretation for real deterrence based on heavy-duty military forces.

Bluntly, however, there is no Article 5 requirement for NATO members to do anything. It requires no action to accept that an “attack against one or more of them…shall be considered an attack against them all.” But such recognition makes no demands on individual members. Indeed, each “will assist the Party of Parties so attacked by taking…such action as it deems necessary…” But what action? Perhaps stiff notes of protest? Denunciation in the UN Security Council (as Article 5 does require an attack to be “immediately…reported.”)? Full combat response against invaders up to and including nuclear weapons? Or no action at all?

To be sure the NATO Alliance has been regarded since inception in 1949 as a corporate defense agreement against first Soviet and now Russian aggression. Thus, there have always been implicit tensions in the Alliance. Defense against attack has been a shifting balance between creating sufficient conventional forces to stave off an attack versus depending on prospects for rapid nuclear response directed against the attacker to provide “deterrence” preventing any attack.

President Donald Trump (C) and Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May (R) during the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit ceremony at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on May 25, 2017.(Justin Tallis - Pool/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump (C) and Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May (R) during the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit ceremony at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium on May 25, 2017.(Justin Tallis – Pool/Getty Images)

Hence, the “obsolete” issue. Just as my 1949 Ford is “obsolete,” an organization created in 1949 with 12 members can be regarded as “obsolete” in dealing with 28 (soon to be 29 with addition of Montenegro) members. “Obsolete” doesn’t mean useless. And while there has been endless fiddling/restructuring over the decades, an essential tension remains regarding defense expenditure.

Europeans have always been leery about heavy conventional defense expenditures. Decades ago, I posed the question at a NATO meeting as to why Europeans were so ambivalent about “burden sharing” and enhanced conventional forces as repeatedly postulated in NATO plans. The blunt response: “We don’t want to make Europe safe for conventional war.”

Moreover, conventional defense is expensive (and perhaps unnecessary) while social services are also expensive and societally vital for Europeans.

The U.S. implicit response is “Why should we appear more committed to European defense than do Europeans?” Or shoulder outside NATO challenges, e.g., Syria, that are far closer to European than U.S. concerns?

The unspoken European fear was not that the United States would abandon them, but that we preferred to fight any Soviet/Russian attack with conventional forces and/or nuclear weapons on European territory. The result would be a “burned spot between two green spots” (the USA and then-USSR). Europeans obviously preferred the obverse: tertiary quality conventional forces sufficient only to determine Soviet attack was real/serious but followed by rapid U.S. nuclear attack against the Soviets (and implicitly comparable Soviet response against the USA). Thus “a green spot between two burned spots.”

NATO heads of state attend a ceremony  during the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit at the NATO headquarters, in Brussels on May 25, 2017.  (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
NATO heads of state attend a ceremony during the NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) summit at the NATO headquarters, in Brussels on May 25, 2017. (EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

It is a harsh reality that many in the United States are fatigued with the USA-Robocop requirement with its massive expenditure of treasure while NATO allies seem all too satisfied with doing as little as possible for their own defense. After all, “Uncle Sam” will do it. But Europe is quite capable of doing much more, and a reality check, as demonstrated by a 2 percent commitment to defense expenditures, would be a useful illustration of a modernized NATO—beyond the $1.2 billion new NATO Headquarters. 

A retired U.S. career senior Foreign Service Officer, David T Jones spent eight plus years of his diplomatic career either in the U.S. Mission at NATO, on the “NATO Desk” at State, or addressing arms control negotiations with the then Soviets regarding intermediate nuclear force (INF) missiles in Europe. He has published several hundred books, articles, columns, and reviews on U.S.–Canadian bilateral issues and general foreign policy. During a career that spanned over 30 years, he concentrated on politico-military issues, serving as adviser for two Army chiefs of staff.

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