#Ukraine | Under what circumstances should NATO threaten use of force?
4 /Sept./ 2014
I chose to start this new blog today after the NATO Summit ended today. Many people are feeling that NATO could have acted more aggressively, than what the Summit had proposed.
NATO is today viewed by members and non-members alike as Europe's "go-to" organization in those cases where the threat or use of force is deemed appropriate. On the other hand, the Alliance's fundamental purpose in the new Europe is contested. Its members—old and new alike—have yet to fully agree on what a military organization born and raised in response to an overwhelming military threat emanating from the Soviet Union ought to do now that this threat has disappeared. Nowhere is this difference of purpose more apparent than in regard to the issue of when and how NATO should use force.
The answers are not unanimously agreed upon between members.
The traditional criterion—self-defense against armed attack on any member's home territory (Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty). There is no doubt that NATO could embark on missions using force, if its members so desired, to confront crises or threats that do not directly affect allied territory but that may have implications for important national or humanitarian interests, (e.g., confronting arms proliferation or genocide), as is the case in Ukraine & Gaza —and to what extent remains highly disputed within their alliance. The possibility for joint military action in a non-Article 5 context should not be conditioned on unanimous consent. An alliance that provides rapid and effective responses to crises in and outside allied territory, even if action is taken by a subset of allies, is preferable to one that conditions action on potentially unattainable unanimous support.
The American vision of a NATO acting globally is not widely shared by all of the European allies. For most of the Europeans, NATO's fundamental purpose is to provide security in and for Europe. They have come to accept that NATO's role extends into the Balkans—but this is about as far as it should go; for them, NATO remains a regional organization whose role is confined to the Euro-Atlantic region.
Two competing perspectives emerge—a French perspective that gives the U.N. Security Council the primary role in authorizing NATO's use of force; and a U.S. agressive perspective that NATO has the right to use force whenever the interests of its members so require. The NATO allies remain divided on whether Kosovo has set a precedent for future actions. Limiting NATO to actions that have been approved by the Security Council could subject the alliance to an effective veto by China or Russia. For this reason, NATO should not bind itself to a position that bars action in non-Article 5 contingencies if U.N. approval is not forthcoming.
Still, the threat or use of force ought to have a legal basis sound enough to be acceptable both to the NATO public and to the vast majority of the international community—e.g., based on the U.N. Charter, the Helsinki Final Act, or the 1990 Charter of Paris. The justification for this response would have come from the collective defense commitment enshrined in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which is itself based on the right of individual and collective self-defense guaranteed by Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.
It was only in the 1990s, as first the major threat to NATO disappeared with the demise of the Soviet Union and then the Alliance's purpose and missions began to shift, then the question of when and how to use force for purposes other than collective defense emerged. NATO members began to consider whether the Alliance ought to have a role in managing the multiple crises that were erupting in post-Soviet Europe as a result of the collapse of communist and Soviet imperial rule. Increasingly, the Alliance was seen not just as an instrument to defend allied territory against deliberate attack, but also as an organization that possessed the necessary military capacity to assist others in preventing, controlling, and mitigating the consequence of internal conflicts throughout Europe.
NATO's evolution from a collective defense alliance to an organization primarily concerned with managing crises raised fundamental questions about its overarching purpose, the missions it should prepare for, and the role the threat and use of force should play in such missions. With regard to NATO's future purpose, there is as yet no real agreement among the allies on what it should be. Some members continue to view NATO as primarily an alliance of collective defense whose main purpose is to provide a hedge against a militarily vengeful Russia that may emerge out of the political and economic chaos that marks present-day Russia.
Others believe NATO ought to be an alliance of collective security whose main purpose is to promote the values of the Atlantic community of market democracies throughout Europe in an effort to spread the stability and security that derives from being part of the transatlantic security community. Yet others maintain that NATO can be an alliance of collective interests whose main purpose is to defend against threats to common, European and American, security interests no matter where these threats come from.
When should NATO Threaten or Use Force?
Perhaps the least contentious question confronting the allies involves the circumstances under which NATO should consider threatening or using force. There is complete agreement among the allies in the case of a direct attack against one or more Alliance members. NATO members have the right—indeed, the obligation under Article 5 of the Washington treaty—to act forcefully to restore the status 'quo ante' at the first possible opportunity. Of course, the allies recognize that with the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the collapse of its cold war Warsaw Pact adversaries, a direct assault on allied territory of the extent and gravity for which NATO was long prepared is virtually inconceivable.
Instead of a unified and large-scale threat to allied territory, the Alliance now must consider at least two types of challenges that could require a military response. First, although the threat of direct attack against Alliance territory as a whole has effectively disappeared, a military attack against the territory of a single NATO country is still quite possible. This could take a variety of forms. For example, a country in North Africa, the Middle East, or beyond could launch ballistic missiles armed with conventional or more destructive weapons against a NATO capital or a military installation on allied territory. There could also be a terrorist attack by a state or non-state actor either in retaliation for some type of action by a NATO member or simply as a political statement of some kind. Or there could be a more conventional attack, which could result from either deliberate action or, more likely, the spill-over from a regional conflict.
In all these cases, NATO's Article 5 commitment in principle would come into play, thus necessitating an Alliance response. In practice, however, the allies are unlikely to agree on the nature of either the challenge or the preferred response because their interests would be affected in different ways if any of these situations occurs. Whereas during the cold war forward defense in Germany was seen as the best way to defend not only Germany but also one's own country against a Soviet invasion, a regional conflict or a single ballistic missile attack on one NATO country would have different implications for those allies not directly affected by the attack. The risks of direct military involvement would consequently differ, raising the likelihood that not all allies would respond similarly. That such differences can arise was demonstrated during the 1991 Gulf war when, faced with the possibility that Turkey might suffer Iraqi military retaliation, some senior German politicians argued, contrary to explicit NATO decisions, that Article 5 might not even apply. In other words, when the source and specific circumstances for an attack on a NATO member are uncertain or contested, the interests of individual allies—and their willingness to respond militarily—are likely to differ as well.
Some situations in which allied territory is confronted with a direct armed attack may not be regarded by all allies as constituting the type of attack envisaged under Article 5. Two examples can help illustrate the point. First, if Iraq had responded to the four-day air campaign by the United States and Great Britain in December 1998 by launching a ballistic missile attack against Incirlik Air Force base in Turkey, some allies who objected to the British and U.S. action might have been unwilling to consider this an attack on a NATO member of the kind that would fall under Article 5. In a sense, the Iraqi retaliation was provoked by the U.S. and British air strikes and might, as such, be viewed as something less than a direct attack against a NATO country. Second, if a terrorist attack had occurred against a U.S. target on allied territory in response to the bombing of the Al Shifa chemical plant in Sudan (an action which few U.S. allies supported), it is doubtful that many, if any, allies would have viewed this as an Article 5 contingency. Indeed, neither the disco bombing in Berlin in 1986 nor the bombing of PanAm flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, both of which were terrorist attacks against U.S. targets on or over allied territory, was viewed in such a manner. Differences over the nature and reason of an armed attack against allied territory are thus likely to remain sources of contention in determining whether any NATO response is warranted and, if so, what the appropriate response might be.
Another type of military challenge that may require a NATO military response involves crises or threats that do not directly affect allied territory, but that may have implications for important national or humanitarian interests. Bosnia and Kosovo represent two instances where the Alliance has made such a determination, deciding to use or threaten to use military force even though the Article 5 collective defense commitment was not directly at stake. In recent years, allied leaders and others have pointed to crisis management and other non-Article 5 contingencies that could require NATO's military involvement—to address a humanitarian emergency, counter proliferation, respond to terrorism, avoid or mitigate genocidal violence, or deter or defeat major aggression in non-European regions. There is no doubt that NATO could embark on these types of missions if its members so desired. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright has explained, "founders of the Alliance were wise to allow us the flexibility to come together to meet common threats that could originate from beyond our immediate borders. . . . [W]hile the North Atlantic Treaty involves commitments to collective defense, it also allows us to come together to meet common threats that might originate from beyond the North Atlantic area."
At the same time, it is clear that NATO is not required to act in these circumstances, and the question of whether NATO should engage in non-Article 5 missions and, if so, where and to what extent remain disputed within the Alliance. There are at least three different views on the matter. First, France, the new entrants, and, to some extent, Germany believe that NATO's core mission is and must remain collective defense and the Alliance should consider engaging in non-Article 5 operations only to the extent that doing so does not detract from the allies' ability to prepare for and, if necessary, meet the collective defense obligation. In addition, allies should eschew any non-Article 5 operation that risks escalating into an Article 5 commitment. Second, some of the southern allies and Canada maintain that in the absence of a significant military threat to allied territory, peace support and crisis management operations must become central functions of a transformed NATO. They argue that while the ability to conduct high-intensity combat operations must be retained (for the residual case of collective defense), the emphasis of NATO force planning and restructuring must be on strengthening the ability to conduct peace support missions in an era marked by extensive civilian-military cooperation. Finally, the United States and Great Britain argue that NATO must prepare for the full spectrum of missions—ranging from peace support to regional collective defense operations within and beyond Europe. As NATO's military authorities have recognized, the distinction between Article 5 and non-Article 5 missions is becoming operationally irrelevant. Moreover, since a non-Article 5 mission could spill over or escalate into an Article 5 contingency (as some feared in Bosnia and Kosovo), Alliance force planning must merge these two types of missions.
Given these different perspectives, what should the NATO allies do?
Instead of limiting the circumstances under which NATO should threaten or use force to particular types of contingencies—be they regional collective defense or peace operations—the Alliance is best served if it emphasizes its willingness in principle to engage in the full spectrum of possible military missions. To focus exclusively on collective defense would prepare the Alliance for the least likely contingency, in effect marginalizing NATO as a Euro-Atlantic security institution. Similarly, insisting that NATO give priority to peace support and crisis management operations and placing a premium on preparing NATO forces and organizational structures for them, will likely erode the Alliance's ability to conduct more robust combat missions—missions for which NATO as the only security organization in Europe or, indeed, the world is uniquely prepared.
The Atlantic Alliance must therefore prepare for the full range of possible military missions. In doing so, it nevertheless needs to set clear priorities for NATO planning. Without such prioritization the Alliance could quickly turn into an organization that is all things to all people in theory, while in practice being capable of conducting few, if any, missions. What, then, should be the Alliance's focus? Where should lines be drawn, at least for planning purposes? While being prepared in principle to conduct a whole range of missions, NATO should concentrate its efforts and resources in three areas:
Crisis management operations within the Euro-Atlantic area, especially those that are designed to enforce norms, rules, and codes of conduct for relations within and between states in the region set out in the Helsinki Final Act and the 1990 Charter of Paris. The focus of NATO action should be both on situations involving particularly egregious violations of these standards of behavior and on providing the decisive military capabilities necessary to enforce compliance with these standards. This could include the deployment of forces in the crucial phases of a peace support operation, when (as in Bosnia and possibly Kosovo) implementation of an agreement's provisions must be enforced and the general security environment stabilized.
Crisis management operations that could spill over or escalate into an Article 5 contingency. Relevant cases include conflicts near Alliance territory whose outcomes are crucial to member states' security (e.g., conflicts involving Albania or Macedonia) and threats involving the use of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
Regional collective defense missions in NATO's southeastern (and perhaps its eastern) region, where the possibility of direct attack or the escalation of conflict, though not immediate, is not unrealistic. This would include contingency plans for regional collective defense of Turkey, Greece, Hungary, and possibly Poland and the Czech Republic.
In considering whether to conduct such missions, NATO countries should generally act on the basis of a formal decision by the North Atlantic Council. However, the possibility for joint military action in a non-Article 5 context should not be conditioned on unanimous consent, as some have argued. Doing so could require a prolonged effort to build an Alliance-wide consensus for action that could result in an unacceptable delay or even the failure to act. Such was the case in Kosovo in 1998. The search for a NATO consensus delayed a military response past the point when it could have been effective in mitigating the consequences of the violent Serb crackdown in Kosovo and laying a foundation for a plausible and sustainable political resolution to the conflict without a large international military presence to enforce it.
At a time when allied views on the nature of likely threats and the scope and extent of possible responses increasingly diverge, insisting on unanimity for joint action is as likely to result in an allied stalemate as in a decision to intervene.
While always striving to achieve an Alliance consensus, the allies should agree that joint military action by some NATO allies may in certain circumstances be both possible and desirable even without a formal decision by the North Atlantic Council. Some may fear that this will undermine Alliance unity, while others may worry that certain allies will abstain from any participation and in effect become "free riders."
These concerns are real. But they must be weighed against the requirements for a flexible and adaptable instrument for joint military action at a time when allied interests vary more than ever. In the end, an Alliance that provides the basis for rapid and effective responses to crises in and outside allied territory, even if action is taken by a subset of allies, is preferable to one that conditions action on potentially unattainable unanimous support.
As the members of the most successful military alliance in history prepare to celebrate NATO's 50th Anniversary, they are confronted with a notable paradox. On the one hand, the Atlantic Alliance has weathered the end of the cold war and emerged as the premier security organization in Europe. In contrast to the EU, OSCE, and even the United Nations, NATO is today viewed by members and non-members alike as Europe's "go-to" organization in those cases where the threat or use of force is deemed appropriate. On the other hand, the Alliance's fundamental purpose in the new Europe is contested. Its members—old and new alike—have yet to fully agree on what a military organization born and raised in response to an overwhelming military threat emanating from the Soviet Union ought to do now that this threat has disappeared. Nowhere is this difference of purpose more apparent than in regard to the issue of when and how NATO should use force.