NATO: Myths and realities

By David T. Jones on July 31, 2016

Washington, DC ~ Sometimes it is useful to review the realities underlying myths, And this is an opportune time to clarify some of the accepted mythology around NATO.

I have spent eight plus years of my diplomatic career either at the US 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.  So I think that I have sufficient background to make these observations. Particularly in light of the current debate in the Presidential campaign on whether NATO allies are shouldering enough of their financial and military responsibilities or depending too much on the United States. And the discussion with regard to Article 5 of the Treaty needs some perspective.

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, the specific required responses by other NATO members are far from defined.  In this regard, it is helpful to cite the entire Article 5: 

"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."

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 other 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.  But as one cynic suggested, it was designed to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”  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 the prospect of a rapid nuclear response directed against the attacker to provide “deterrence” preventing any attack.

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

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 would be a useful exercise. 

David Taylor Jones held, among others in a long diplomatic career, the position of Senior Counsellor at the American Embassy in Ottawa.


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