Report of the Committee of Three

  • Last updated: 01 Sep. 2022 14:43

The Committee on Non-Military Cooperation, more frequently referred to as the “Committee of Three” or the “Three Wise Men”, was convened in 1956 and instructed to “advise the Council on ways and means to improve and extend NATO cooperation in non-military fields and to develop greater unity within the Atlantic Community”. It produced a report entitled “The Report of the Committee of Three on Non-Military Cooperation in NATO”, which was considered as a “major step forward in the development of NATO in the non-military field” and, more broadly, in the development of political consultation between members of the Alliance.


  • The Report of the Three Wise Men (December 1956) had a resounding impact on NATO by helping to introduce areas of cooperation beyond the military, encouraging regular political consultation among member countries and broadening the strategic framework within which the Alliance operated.
  • It also reinforced NATO’s political role at a time when the Organization was hardening its military and strategic stance, advocating massive retaliation as a key element of its new strategy.
  • In 1956, the adoption of political consultation as a key component of the Alliance permanently characterised NATO as a political and military organisation.
  • The Report examined and redefined the objectives and needs of the Alliance and made recommendations for strengthening its internal solidarity, cohesion and unity.
  • Recommendations included the peaceful settlement of inter-member disputes and cooperation in the following areas: economic, scientific and technical, cultural, and in the information field.
  • Ironically, the Report was published during the Suez crisis, which due to a lack of political consultation among members, had jeopardised Alliance unity and solidarity at the time.
  • The “Three Wise Men” were Lester B. Pearson, Foreign Minister of Canada, Gaetano Martino, Foreign Minister of Italy, and Halvard Lange, Foreign Minister of Norway.


  • Aim and political context

    Cooperation and cohesion

    The aim of the report was two-fold: to broaden areas of cooperation beyond the military to include non-military cooperation and encourage regular political consultation among member countries so as to reinforce unity and cohesion.

    On 5 May 1956, the North Atlantic Council appointed Lester B. Pearson, Gaetano Martino and Halvard Lange to write a report by the end of the year that would offer ways and means of reaching these objectives.

    Encouraging regular political consultation and non-military cooperation

    Although Articles 2 and 4 of NATO's founding Washington Treaty held the promise of more than a military Alliance, by 1956 members were not regularly using the Alliance's framework to consult each other or to cooperate on non-military matters. In April 1954, a resolution on political consultation had nonetheless been put forward by Canada:

    "…all member governments should bear constantly in mind the desirability of bringing to the attention of the Council information on international political developments whenever they are of concern to other members of the Council or to the Organization as a whole; and
    (…) the Council in permanent session should from time to time consider what specific subject might be suitable for political consultation at one of its subsequent meetings when its members should be in a position to express the views of their governments on the subject". Council Memorandum, C-M(54)38

    However, even if this resolution was approved by the Council, not all member countries were comfortable with the idea of consulting more systematically on international affairs.

    Reservations and resistance

    John Foster Dulles of the United States, although supportive of the resolution, expressed reservations in a Council meeting on 23 April 1954:

    "Countries like his own with world-wide interests might find it difficult to consult other NATO governments in every case. For a sudden emergency, it was more important to take action than to discuss the emergency." Council Record, C-R(54)18

    Improving conditions for consultation within the Alliance meant that smaller Allies felt their voices could be heard, but that larger powers, such as the United States, were concerned that they would not have the freedom to act as they saw fit if they were forced to consult on foreign policy.

    Additionally, the United States argued that developing a political pillar within the Alliance could divert attention from the "straight defence arrangements" they wanted to put into place. This was an argument they had already put forward during the drafting of Article 2 of the Washington Treaty in 1949.

    A political and a military alliance

    Nonetheless, the Report of the Three Wise Men was to become a landmark in the evolution of NATO's political consultation process as well as being instrumental in reinforcing NATO's political pillar:

    "A direct method of bringing home to public opinion the importance of the habit of political consultation within NATO may be summed up in the proposition "NATO is a political as well as a military alliance". The habitual use of this phraseology would be preferable to the current tendency to refer to NATO as a (purely) military alliance. It is also more accurate." Council Memorandum, C-M(56)25

    The Committee of Three agreed that the two aspects of security – civil and military – were no longer separate, and that the needs and objectives of NATO had changed. It therefore set about consulting with members on how the Alliance could improve non-military cooperation.

    The Suez Crisis – a case at hand

    Ironically, just six weeks after the Committee began consulting, France and the United Kingdom collaborated with Israel in the invasion of Egypt to secure the Suez Canal on 29 October 1956. This was the most serious dispute faced by the Allies since the establishment of NATO and it took place while the “Three Wise Men” were working on the report.

    France and the United Kingdom argued that Gamal Abdul Nasser's nationalisation of the canal on 26 July 1956 was a threat to European industry and oil supplies. The French also accused Nasser of supporting the rebellion in Algeria and of threatening regional security. However, the United States maintained it would not support military action.

    When Israel launched the attack, supported by the British and French, no advanced warning was given to the United States or NATO. Although there had been tripartite discussions between the United Kingdom, the United States and France regarding the crisis, they were not explicit.

    The danger of the Suez Crisis was not a war between these powers but that the member countries would fail to act as a community. This could have endangered the Alliance. The North Atlantic Council first convened on the subject after the first London Conference in August 1956, which had brought together the signatories of the 1888 Constantinople Convention and states that shipped considerable cargo through the canal. The discussions at NATO were not very fruitful. It was observed that neither France nor the United Kingdom were interested in keeping the Allies informed of their actions.

    Eventually, debate in the United Nations Security Council turned from condemnation of the action to the idea of a United Nations Emergency Force (UNEF). This force, the brainchild of Lester Pearson, moved into the Canal zone in mid-November and by Christmas French and British troops were extracted from the region. The UNEF was the archetype for future peacekeeping missions run by the United Nations and Lester Pearson later received the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in defusing the crisis and according to the Nobel selection committee, "sav[ing] the world."

    Although the crisis was rapidly resolved, it shook the Alliance and clearly demonstrated the need for greater consultation and cooperation.

  • Methodology

    The Committee of Three looked at five areas:

      1. political cooperation;
      2. economic cooperation;
      3. cultural cooperation;
      4. cooperation in the information field; and
      5. organisation and functions.

    At its first meetings on 20-22 June 1956 at NATO Headquarters, located at the time in Paris, the Committee established the procedures that would be followed. Each member country received a questionnaire from the Committee on 28 June, which touched on each topic area. In addition, a memorandum containing explanatory notes and guidance to assist members with the questionnaires was issued. Member countries had to send their replies by 10 August, after which there was a period of two weeks for the Committee to consider the responses.

    Following this examination the Committee held consultations with each member country individually in order to clarify, where necessary, positions taken by governments in their replies and to discuss preliminary views of the Committee.

    NATO's International Staff were tasked with producing a study on how other international organisations dealt with disputes between members and what NATO had done so far in the field of non-military cooperation. This included ways of improving the coordination of the foreign policies of member countries. A 15-page report was drafted with the help of Professor Lincoln Gordon (Harvard University), Professor Guido Carli (Rome) and Mr Robert Major (Oslo). It identified areas where increased cooperation could be implemented and how political consultation on matters of common concern could aid dispute resolution within the Alliance framework thereby promoting solidarity among members.

    The "Committee of Three" met again in New York on 14 November 1956 and re-examined the report in the light of the tensions surrounding the Suez Crisis. It re-wrote the report in the last three weeks of November in response to the Suez Crisis. Although many of the points remained the same, the language used was made stronger to reflect the deterioration in Allied relations that had taken place. The final draft of the report was delivered to the North Atlantic Council on 13 December 1956.


  • Main conclusions

    Speaking at a Council meeting in Paris on 11 December 1956, Paul-Henri Spaak, Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs, said that the events of the Suez Crisis had "shattered many illusions" within the NATO framework. "The action taken by the United Kingdom and France risked setting up chain reactions which would have had the most serious consequences," he said. "It was no excuse to say that these events were taking place south of a given parallel. To preserve the substance of the Alliance and its very existence, the concept of a geographical limit had to be discarded. The conclusions reached by the 'Committee of Three Ministers' were an imperative necessity, without acceptance of which there was no salvation for NATO." Council Record, C-R(56)70, Item II.

    The Committee found that unless greater cohesion was achieved "the very framework of cooperation in NATO, which has contributed so greatly to the cause of freedom, and which is so vital to its advancement in the future, will be endangered."

    It acknowledged that the "first essential, then, of a healthy and developing NATO lies in the whole-hearted acceptance by all its members of the political commitment for collective defence", stating further on that: "There cannot be unity in defence and disunity in foreign policy."

    The core of the report focused on defining security in a broad sense, going well beyond military matters alone. "From the very beginning of NATO, then, it was recognised that while defence cooperation was the first and most urgent requirement, this was not enough. It has also become increasingly realised since the Treaty was signed that security is today far more than a military matter. The strengthening of political consultation and economic cooperation, the development of resources, progress in education and public understanding, all these can be as important, or even more important, for the protection of the security of a nation, or an alliance, as the building of a battle-ship or the equipping of an army."

    Within the five areas examined – political, economic, cultural, cooperation in the field of information and organisation and functions – the principal recommendations were the following:

    Political cooperation

      • Members should inform the North Atlantic Council of any development significantly affecting the Alliance; they should do this not as a formality, but as a preliminary to effective political consultation;
      • Both individual member governments and the Secretary General should have the right to raise in the North Atlantic Council any subject which is of common NATO interest and not of a purely domestic character;
      • A member government should not, without adequate advance consultation, adopt firm policies or make major political pronouncements on matters which significantly affect the Alliance or any of its members, unless circumstances make such prior consultation obviously and demonstrably impossible;
      • In developing their national policies, members should take into consideration the interests and views of other governments, particularly those most directly concerned, as expressed in NATO consultation, even where no community of view or consensus has been reached in the North Atlantic Council;
      • Where a consensus has been reached, it should be reflected in the formation of national policies. When, for national reasons, the consensus is not followed, the government concerned should offer an explanation to the Council. It is even more important that, when an agreed and formal recommendation has emerged from the North Atlantic Council's discussions, governments should give it full weight in any national action or policies related to the subject of that recommendation.

    The "Three Wise Men" also recommended that the Council adopt a resolution on the peaceful settlement of inter-member disputes and made some specific recommendations to strengthen the consultation procedure. These included initiatives such as submitting disputes between member countries to NATO before resorting to another international agency, except disputes of a legal or an economic character.

    Economic cooperation

    The report highlighted the importance of close economic relations between members, as well a good understanding of each other's interests and concerns:

    "… there must be a genuine desire among the members to work together and a readiness to consult on questions of common concern based on the recognition of common interests".

    However, even if the report did not recommend that NATO take on a lead role in this area, it suggested that there should be "… NATO consultation whenever economic issues of special interest to the Alliance are involved; particularly those which have political or defence implications or affect the economic health of the Atlantic Community as a whole." The report recommended that a Committee of Economic Advisers be established and also encouraged cooperation in the field of science and technology.

    Cultural cooperation

    The Three Wise Men underlined the importance of cultural cooperation between member countries.

    "A sense of community must bind the people as well as the institutions of the Atlantic nations. This will exist only to the extent that there is a realization of their common cultural heritage and of the values of their free way of life and thought."

    To put this in practice, they proposed straight-forward initiatives such as preparing NATO courses and seminars for teachers; broadening support to other educational initiatives such as NATO fellowships; the use of NATO information material in schools; promoting closer relations between NATO and youth organisations; and financing cultural projects, with a common benefit.

    Cooperation in the information field

    The NATO Information Service was established in 1950, but to bolster its efforts, the "Three Wise Men" recommended that national information officers be designated to disseminate information material. Other initiatives were suggested, such as having this material translated into as many non-official languages of the Alliance as possible (English and French being the two official languages) and broadening NATO's target audiences to include youth leaders, teachers and lecturers.

    Organisation and functions

    The proposals under this section were formulated with the full implementation of the report recommendations in mind. They included suggestions for improvement such as encouraging discussion rather than just declarations of policy at ministerial meetings, strengthening links between the Council and member countries and reinforcing the role of the Secretary General and the International Staff.

  • Impact of the report

    The Council approved the report on 13 December 1956 and in May 1957 inaugurated procedures based on the Committee's recommendations.

    Immediate results were mixed. As a direct result, the NATO Science Programme was launched that year. It sought to promote collaborative projects, facilitate exchange and maximise return for resources spent on research. Another immediate impact was the creation of national information officers (within the International Staff) and targeted national information programmes, and the establishment of the Committee of Political Advisers (later to become the Political Committee) and the Committee of Economic Advisers in 1957.

    Paul-Henri Spaak, a proponent of non-military cooperation, became Secretary General of NATO the same year. However, even though a strong advocate of consultation was now at the head of the Organization, members continued to avoid bringing controversial issues to the attention of the Council.

    Political consultation itself was a gradual process, which took many years to come to fruition. In a NATO monograph on the issue in 1963 the International Staff noted:

    "the creation of the NATO consultation system is, in itself, an achievement of the highest order. In fact, seen against the background of the centuries-old history of frustrated efforts in organizing and using political cooperation as an instrument to prevent armed aggression, NATO's success in a) achieving continuity of consultation, and in b) creating the necessary permanent consultative organs is all the more impressive." NATO Historical Officer, NHO(63)1

    While there have been occasions where timing, security and geographical responsibilities have made using the consultative NATO framework problematic for members, the number of these cases remain few, said the monograph. "The criteria of the 'Three Wise Men' may have been in the nature of ideal objectives. If they have not been realised, this may have been due in certain cases to a lack of imagination among governments, unable at times to recognise 'the common interest' of certain problems."

    In addition and similarly to the Harmel Report published in 1967, the Report of the Three Wise Men contributed to broadening the strategic framework within which the Alliance operated. Both reports could be perceived as NATO's first steps toward a more cooperative approach to security issues.

    The Alliance continues to build upon the principles set out in the Committee's report to this day.