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Does NATO’s Article V Genuinely Protect Its

Members?

 

NATO has been the most successful alliance of history. We repeat

this truth quite frequently, especially now that we celebrate 60

years of its successful existence. Yes, it is true. Especially for the

Cold War period. Of course, it is impossible to offer a “scientific”

proof for this, since history cannot be reversed and experimented

with, but it is more than obvious given the facts of that part of

history that clearly show that NATO in several occasions played a

crucial role and also that its very existence was the most credible

and effective deterrent. Nobody can therefore deny – except for

ideological reasons – that the above-mentioned common place

reflects the truth.

 

This is all very important, but what is even more, much more

important is the answer to the question: will NATO play a similar

role in the future? Will NATO continue to be the most effective

instrument of securing peace in Europe – or elsewhere? It is

already difficult enough to ask the right question given the

complexity of security today, not only in geographic terms, but in

terms of substance, too. It might be seen as “spoiling the fun” to

ask this question while celebrating the great past, but this question

must be asked. We are obliged to do so, not only by the glorious

past, but much more importantly by the security needs of today.

 

And we must ask all the questions. The politically incorrect ones,

too. Especially those. Since these questions reflect the real feeling

of danger that we cannot even formulate yet correctly. Since the

answer to these questions will determine our future. Not only the

future of the members of the Alliance, but the future of the world in

its entirety. Accordingly, we must ask the question: do we need

NATO? Is NATO the right answer to the real security dilemmas we

face? Or is it a part of it? If so, what else do we need? And: should

the answer be affirmative, what kind of NATO do we need? Do we

have to change our beloved NATO, if so, how? And, finally and

probably most importantly: in addition to telling where we want to

go in the development of NATO, we also must find the answer to

the “How to get there” question and also what WE need to do, how

WE must contribute to it? Now is the time to ask these questions,

while we work on the new strategic concept, which will be crucial

for the future of NATO.

 

NATO has to deal today with a world, where the challenges, the

threats are different, or rather, where most of the threats is

different from the traditional ones, since they are more complex,

i.e. not (only) military in their nature and those who pose these

threats tend to be non-state actors (terrorists, criminals, migrants,

corrupt officials, etc.). It is therefore normal that NATO, an

organization created to deal with traditional inter-state conflicts,

overwhelmingly military in nature, is in trouble. We all are, all our

institutions, state and international, including international law and

all international security institutions. NATO, too, has to find the

right answer(s). Let us look at the two main missions NATO has to

fulfill.

 

The first, more traditional mission of NATO is collective defense.

The famous Article V of the Washington Treaty says:

 

“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-defense recognized 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.” I

 

 

During the Cold War the general assumption was that this would

mean that the Alliance would react to an eventual Soviet attack by

using all available forces of all members, i.e. “in concert with the

other Parties…including the use of armed force”. This assumption

worked: it effectively deterred the Soviets form attacking any

NATO member state, since they interpreted this provision – and

this is still the general belief – as a commitment to act together and

to use military force in case of a military attack. Legally speaking,

however, this is not true. What Article V means is nothing more –

and nothing less – than that Parties will act, considering an attack

on one as an attack on all, but it does NOT mean that they will ALL

react the same way and it does not mean either that they will use

military force. This is left to the consideration of member states.

 

And so it happened. The Alliance has invoked Article V only once

in its history: in a historic decision the North-Atlantic Council

decided on September 12th, 2001:

 

:The Council agreed that if it is determined that this attack was directed from

abroad against the United States, it shall be regarded as an action covered by

Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which states that an armed attack against

one or more of the Allies in Europe or North America shall be considered an

attack against them all.” Ii

 

 

and nothing really happened. It was not ALL member states, which

participated in the US operation against Afghanistan – mind you:

ISAF happened only years later and it is not an Article V operation,

i.e. it is not based on the above-cited decision. The effects were

not emphasized, but they changed the image of NATO – back – to

its original: collective military defense on the basis of Article V is an

assumption, not an obligation and cannot be taken for granted.

The Cold War credibility of Article V, thus of NATO, was further

undermined by the inability – or rather lack of readiness - of the

Alliance to react to the famous Turkish request on the basis of

Article V during the US-led invasion of Iraq.

 

The demise of the credibility of Article V, thus of NATO, however,

is not limited to this. There is an even more fundamental problem

that we are extremely hesitant to mention that undermined our

capability to defend all members even more.

 

Collective defense is only credible, if it covers ALL member states

and if the necessary capabilities are available, including the

necessary planning scenarios and contingency plans. When NATO

expended then member states tried to appease Russia by taking –

unilateral – commitments that were meant to alleviate Russian

fears that enlargement was effectively and objectively aimed at

Russia. We committed ourselves not to deploy significant NATO

forces, including nuclear weapons on the territory of new member

states. This seemed to be a harmless commitment looking at real

threats the time enlargement happened, but it broke one of the

basic legs of collective defense: there are member states of the

Alliance, which cannot be defended in the case of an eventual

attack, or rather that can only be defended – or re-conquered –

using means (nuclear weapons) that makes the defense of these

countries is obviously not credible. This means that the while

taking the Baltic countries in the Alliance as full-fledged members

was beyond doubt the right decision, NATO did not pay attention

to the consequences, because it thought there was no danger that

such a contingency would ever occur and also, it did not want to

“provoke” Russia.

 

 

 

The result is that three member states of the Alliance are now in a

situation that they cannot be effectively defended against an

eventual attack by means other than returning the old doctrine of

the early Cold War, massive retaliation, which is obviously not

something we want to do, nor is it credible in the eyes of any

potential aggressor that NATO member states would launch an

overall nuclear war to defend the Baltic states.

 

This situation is unacceptable for the Alliance – or rather it should

be -, but for quite a while we could convince ourselves that such a

danger was beyond imagination. Now, however, this is more and

more difficult. If we look at the decisions taken early this year by

the Russian Federation, especially at the creation of a “Russian

NATO”, the militarization of the Russia dominated CSTO and,

especially, the announcement by the Russian leadership that they

will not only create their own rapid reaction force, but they will

deploy the first – Russian – units on the border of Russia with the

Baltic states and also having in mind the reckless Russian

aggression against Georgia in 2008, we cannot leave this without

reaction. It is in no way to suggest that I would suspect that Russia

would prepare for an attack against a NATO member states, but

we all know that security must be based on capabilities, not

intentions. On the other hand, such steps, even if totally

ununderstandable and illogical, must not remain without reaction.

Otherwise it will really undermine our credibility and serve almost

as an invitation for anybody with bad intensions.

 

What should be done? First, this not so new situation must be

recognized in the new strategic concept. Secondly, appropriate

steps should be considered and undertaken, such as

prepositioning equipment on the territory of the Baltic states,

preparation of relevant planning scenarios and the necessary

steps in case…Thirdly, the deployment of allied troops, on a

temporary or even long-term basis should not be excluded

anymore. And, finally, but very importantly, our policy towards

Russia has to be re-examinediii and it has to be made clear that we

do not stand idle, when such provocative steps are announced and

undertaken.

 

This will be a painful process. I see little chance that most NATO

countries would be ready to depart in that road. But it will be

unavoidable at some point: the later we recognize it and the later

we react, the more dangerous the situation will become and the

more difficult it will be to find the necessary measure. I can only

hope that our reaction will happen in time. Otherwise not only our

beloved NATO will suffer a fatal blow – much worse than an

eventual unsuccessful Afghanistan operation -, but also the

security of our countries and the entire world will be in danger.

 

i The Washington Treaty, 1949. Article V.

ii Statement of the North‐Atlantic Council on September 12, 2001.

iii We should, at last, recognize that current day Russia is NOT, will not be in the

foreseeable future and doesn’t want to be a strategic partner. Our policy should

be cooperation, where possible and confrontation, where necessary (my Russia

doctrine would be best called “cooperative containment”).