NATO in an Uncertain World

Stimson Spotlight

NATO in an Uncertain World

By Mark Yarnell - In the 2010 National Security Strategy, the Obama Administration emphasizes the critical importance of the US-European relationship in pursuing mutual security interests. To this end, the document cites the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as "the pre-eminent security alliance in the world today."  Throughout the Alliance, however, NATO's relevance and purpose is in question.  This November, at a Summit in Lisbon, the NATO heads of government plan to sign on to a new Strategic Concept. 

The drafting of a new Concept is an opportunity to revitalize and refocus the Alliance.  Given the nature of today's unconventional threats it is unclear whether the Alliance can emerge from Lisbon with a clear purpose and effective operational plan.  First, the definition of what is and is not an Article 5 threat - an attack against one is an attack against all - is as opaque as ever. Second, regardless of the outcome in Afghanistan, NATO's members are sure to think twice before engaging in future complex conflict operations.    

Since its formation in 1949, NATO has served as a key pillar in the North Atlantic security framework. Throughout the Cold War, NATO represented a bulwark against Soviet aggression. In the decade following the end of the Cold War, NATO played a critical role in consolidating the democratic gains of countries in Central and Eastern Europe, as well as several newly independent former Soviet republics, by opening its doors to accession. Today, though NATO's founding commitment to collective defense remains intact, it is less clear what this means in practice for its now-28 members.   

Alliance members consistently identify Article 5 - "that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all" - as the cornerstone of NATO's existence.  In a February speech before the Atlantic Council, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated, "I want to reaffirm as strongly as I can the United States' commitment to honor Article 5 of the NATO treaty. No Ally - or adversary - should ever question our determination on this point. It is the bedrock of the Alliance and an obligation that time will not erode."   In today's security environment, however, determining what is and is not an Article 5-level attack could prove very difficult.

The most immediate threats to NATO countries are not likely to come from cross-border, state versus state aggression.  Rather, Alliance members face a range of unconventional, transnational dangers that include terrorism, cyber attacks, and disruptions to energy supplies. What does this mean for Article 5?

  • NATO operates by consensus, and while the organization invoked Article 5 without hesitation in response to 9/11, there are no pre-determined criteria for determining when a terrorist attack should trigger Article 5 in the future. And there will likely be no clear-cut country to attack in response. 
  •  On cyber attacks, while NATO can and is improving its capacity to prevent cyber attacks on its command and control systems, the challenge of attribution can restrict NATO's options for retaliation in response to an attack on an individual Ally. 
  • Finally, though energy security is a real and immediate concern for most Members, particularly those dependent on Russia for supplies, it is unclear whether Article 5 would ever be triggered in the event of a prolonged disruption or if energy infrastructure is sabotaged.  

Afghanistan has become the most acute challenge to the Alliance. NATO engagement is on one level a collective defense response to 9/11.  It also represents a major 'out of area' operation.  NATO's experience in Afghanistan is sure to lessen the enthusiasm of its Members to participate in future complex conflict operations even if an Ally is severely attacked.  With little progress to show for it, Canadian and Dutch troops are planning to be out by 2011 and Poland may follow soon after.  In Germany, where support for NATO is generally high, popular approval of NATO dropped from 73% to 57% during the last year, according to a recent Pew survey.  Even if Afghanistan stabilizes and the counterinsurgency plan proves effective, the strain on NATO members, especially during an economic downturn, will last for years.  

All this does not mean that NATO is irrelevant. NATO continues to serve as a vital transatlantic security link and a consolidating force for democratic and security gains, and the Obama Administration is correct to identify Europe as "the cornerstone for U.S. engagement with the world."  In its upcoming Strategic Review, however, the Organization must be clear about what collective defense means in practice in this new and uncertain world. 


Mark Yarnell is the Congressional Fellow for the Stimson Center's Security for a New Century project.