Alongside other NATO symbols, the NATO motto highlights the importance of consultation between Allies. The motto “animus in consulendo liber” is often quoted in the farewell speech of a departing NATO official or a national representative, who often put forward their own interpretation of the maxim.
A satisfactory translation of the phrase has not been found, although a French version “l’esprit libre dans la consultation” comes close. Renderings in English have ranged from the cryptic “in discussion a free mind” to the more complex “man’s mind ranges unrestrained in counsel.”
André de Staercke reminded the North Atlantic Council (NAC) of the motto’s peculiar history during his farewell address as Dean of the Council and Permanent Representative of Belgium on 29 January 1976.
“Many years ago, when the Headquarters of the Alliance was transferred to Porte Dauphine in Paris [December 1959], Mr. Paul-Henri Spaak – who was then Secretary General – asked me to give him in Latin - that fine Latin prose that carries out wisdom within it - a maxim reflecting in a few words the collective aim of the Atlantic Alliance and the independence of its members.” (para. 3, p17-18; C-R(76)4.pdf)
Mr. de Staercke recounted that he had seen this maxim during his childhood at the Palazzo del Podesta in San Gimignano, Italy. It was engraved on the back of the seat of the city’s chief magistrate.
“Eis fuit domi industria, foris justum imperium, animus in consulendo liber; neque libidini, neque delicto obnoxious.” ("They had industry at home, a just rule abroad, in counsel an independent spirit subject neither to passion nor to crime”).
These words are attributed to Marcus Porcius Cato (also referred to as Cato the Censor, 234 BC – 149 BC), a Roman politician and philosopher renowned for his rigid morals and principles. His maxim was commonly used in medieval times in northern and central Italy to adorn the facades of town halls and council chambers in praise of good governance.
Mr. Spaak was deeply impressed by Mr. De Staercke’s description and thought the Latin maxim should be adopted as the NATO motto. His wish was fulfilled when NATO moved to the Porte Dauphine building in 1959. The motto was placed in the main conference hall, which served as a hub for all the meeting rooms. Participants to upcoming NATO meetings were always reminded of it on their way into the Council chambers.
After NATO moved to Brussels in 1967, Secretary General Luns decided to place the motto inside the Council’s main conference chamber (C-R(76)4.pdf). It was purposely placed in open sight, so that any NATO official or visiting Head of State and Government could read it upon entering the room, reminding them of the importance of consultation.
On 24 October 1974 Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau expressed his feelings about the inscription during his official visit to NATO HQ.
IT WAS PATENTLY CLEAR FROM THIS MOTTO WHY NATO HAD REMAINED AN ACTIVE AND LIVING ENTITY: THE PROCESS OF CONSULTATIONS HAD FORGED A MODE OF ACTION AND THOUGHT WHICH HAD AN IMPACT, NOT ONLY IN BRUSSELS, BUT ALSO IN OTHER NEGOTIATIONS.
The motto remained on the wall of conference room 16 until 1987 when it was removed due to renovation work. The work was delayed and the absence felt until Mr. Juan Cassiers, the Belgian Permanent Representative to the NAC, reminded his colleagues of its existence and what the motto represented. The Secretary General Lord Carrington promised to look into the matter and the motto was soon back on display.
Due to its long lasting popularity, the NATO motto will also feature in the new NATO Headquarters, though its exact location and design are still under discussion.
Addendum: Since NATO’s move to Brussels, the former headquarters in Paris have been occupied by Paris IX Dauphine University. Far from being removed, Cato’s words continue to bridge time, space and people. The Latin motto remains intact in its original location in the building, serving as a reminder to students about the importance of consultation in an academic environment. Indeed, Cato’s words resonate so strongly that the University also adopted them for its own motto.
Special thanks to M. Bertrand Desprez for providing the photograph of the motto at Porte Dauphine University.