The North Atlantic Council
The North Atlantic Council is the principal political decision-making body within NATO. It brings together high-level representatives of each member country to discuss policy or operational questions requiring collective decisions. In sum, it provides a forum for wide-ranging consultation between members on all issues affecting their peace and security.
All members have an equal right to express their views and share in the consensus on which decisions are based. Decisions are agreed upon on the basis of unanimity and common accord. There is no voting or decision by majority. This means that policies decided upon by the North Atlantic Council (NAC) are supported by and are the expression of the collective will of all the sovereign states that are members of the Alliance and are accepted by all of them.
Strictly speaking, the NAC is not the only body within NATO that carries such a high degree of authority. The Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) has comparable authority for matters within its specific area of competence. However, in practice, the NAC convenes far more frequently than the NPG and covers a broader scope of themes – as broad as the member countries decide it should be. Consequently, it is commonly referred to as NATO’s principal decision-making body.
The NAC has effective political authority and powers of decision. It is the only body that was established by the North Atlantic Treaty, under Article 9:
“The Parties hereby establish a council, on which each of them shall be represented, to consider matters concerning the implementation of this Treaty. The council shall be so organized as to be able to meet promptly at any time. The council shall set up such subsidiary bodies as may be necessary; in particular it shall establish immediately a defense committee which shall recommend measures for the implementation of Articles 3 and 5.”
In addition to being the only body invested with the authority to set up “such subsidiary bodies as may be necessary”, it is also the ultimate authority at the head of a large, intricate network of committees and working groups. It is often referred to as “the Council”.
The NAC is the principal political decision-making body and oversees the political and military process relating to security issues affecting the whole Alliance.
Items discussed and decisions taken at meetings of the Council cover all aspects of the Organization's activities and are frequently based on reports and recommendations prepared by subordinate committees at the Council's request. Equally, subjects may be raised by the Secretary General or any one of the national representatives, in particular under Article 4 of the Washington Treaty:
“The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”
Representatives of all member countries of NATO have a seat at the NAC. It can meet at the level of “permanent representatives” (or “ambassadors”), at the level of foreign and defence ministers, and at the level of heads of state and government.
Its decisions have the same status and validity at whatever level it meets.
The NAC is chaired by the Secretary General. In the absence of the Secretary General, the Deputy Secretary General chairs the meetings. The longest serving ambassador on the Council assumes the title of dean of the Council. Primarily a ceremonial function, the dean may be called upon to play a more specific presiding role, for example in convening meetings and chairing discussions at the time of the selection of a new Secretary General. At ministerial meetings of foreign ministers, one country's foreign minister assumes the role of honorary president. The position rotates annually among members in the order of the English alphabet.
The ambassadors sit round the table in order of nationality, following the English alphabetical order. The same procedure is followed throughout the NATO committee structure.
The NAC meets at least every week and often more frequently, at the level of permanent representatives; it meets twice a year at the level of ministers of foreign affairs, three times a year at the level of ministers of defence, and occasionally at the summit level with the participation of prime ministers and heads of state and government.
Permanent representatives act on instruction from their capitals, informing and explaining the views and the policy decisions of their governments to their colleagues around the table. Conversely they report back to their national authorities on the views expressed and positions taken by other governments, informing them of new developments and keeping them abreast of movement toward consensus on important issues or areas where national positions diverge.
Each country represented at the Council table or on any of its subordinate committees retains complete sovereignty and responsibility for its own decisions.
Preparing the Council's work
The work of the Council is prepared by subordinate committees with responsibility for specific areas of policy. Much of this work involves the Deputies Committee, consisting of Deputy Permanent Representatives.
The Council has an important public profile and issues declarations and communiqués explaining the Alliance's policies and decisions. These documents are normally published after ministerial or summit meetings. The Deputies Committee has particular responsibility for preparing such documents and meets in advance of ministerial meetings to draft the texts for Council approval. A similar role is played by the Nuclear Planning Staff Group on behalf of the Nuclear Planning Group.
Other aspects of political work may be handled by the Political and Partnerships Committee. Depending on the topic under discussion, the respective senior committee with responsibility for the subject assumes the leading role in preparing Council meetings and following up Council decisions.
When the Council meets at the level of defence ministers, or is dealing with defence matters and questions relating to defence strategy, senior committees such as the Defence Policy and Planning Committee may be involved as principal advisory bodies. If financial matters are on the Council's agenda, the Resource Policy and Planning Board will be responsible to the Council for preparing relevant aspects of its work.
Supporting the Council
Direct support to the Council is provided by the Secretary of the Council, who ensures that Council mandates are executed and its decisions recorded and circulated. A small Council Secretariat ensures the bureaucratic and logistical aspects of the NAC's work, while the relevant divisions of the International Staff support the work of committees reporting to the NAC.
Generally speaking, the entire International Staff at NATO HQ supports the work of the Council, either directly or indirectly, and helps to ensure that Council decisions are implemented.