Updated: 24-Apr-2002 NATO Review

Web edition
Vol. 41 - No. 4
Aug. 1993
p. 15-19


Douglas Stuart
(Robert Blaine Weaver Professor of Political Science
and Director of International Studies,
Dickinson College, Carlisle, Pennsylvania, USA)

Support for Professor Stuart's research was provided by the Ford Foundation. The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

Nearly four years have passed since the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It is ironic that one of the most commonly heard predictions at that time was that NATO would soon follow the Wall into the history books. Pundits joked that the acronym 'NATO' stood for "No Alternative To Obsolescence". With the benefit of hindsight, we can now see that predictions of NATO's imminent demise were anchored in two flawed assumptions which were based upon an incorrect assessment of the post-Cold War situation and a misunderstanding of the Alliance itself.

The post-Cold War era has proven to be more dangerous and less predictable than many expected. Events in such disparate locations as Kuwait, Nagorno-Karabakh and Bosnia-Herzegovina have demonstrated that there is still no substitute for military power as a source of stability and security. Nor is there any reason to believe that this situation will change in the foreseeable future. Under these circumstances, NATO provides an indispensable combination of political and military assets.

Those experts who predicted the end of NATO were also misled by a superficial reading of the history of the Alliance. Specifically, they tended to emphasize two characteristics of NATO, to the exclusion of other offsetting considerations. First, they concentrated their attention upon Article 6 of the NATO Treaty - the geographic delimitation clause - to the exclusion of Articles 2 and 4 of the Treaty, which give NATO a much wider geographic mandate. Second, they stressed NATO's record as a relatively static military organization, at the expense of NATO's rich and complex history as a forum for political consultation, dispute resolution and policy coordination.

Out-of-area issues

The operative section of Article 6 of the NATO Treaty establishes the Alliance's borders as comprising the sovereign territories of the NATO allies in Western Europe and North America. During most of NATO's history, Article 6 was used to interrupt discussions of so-called 'out-of-area' issues before they reached the point of common military action. At times, this strict constructionist reading of the Treaty was a source of frustration for policy makers. During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, for example, then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger railed against the "stampede of dissociation" by Washington's allies in the face of American requests for assistance in supplying Israeli forces. He was especially critical of the allied use of "the legalistic argument" that NATO's boundaries did not extend to the Middle East (1).

Dr. Kissinger's criticisms notwithstanding, there was great virtue in this use of Article 6 during much of the Cold War. Its most obvious virtue was that it encouraged all allies to 'keep their eyes on the ball' by focusing attention on the direct Soviet threat to Western Europe. More importantly, Article 6 served as a 'circuit breaker' within the NATO Alliance, since it provided a means by which allies could terminate an out-of-area dispute before it became destructively recriminatory.

But the strictures imposed by Article 6 were never interpreted so narrowly as to block all discussion and debate relating to extra-regional developments. Indeed, NATO provides us with an extensive historical record of intra-Alliance diplomacy relating to out-of-area issues (2). The nature of this diplomatic activity ran the gamut from dispute resolution (e.g., Suez, Angola) to information and consultation (e.g., French Indochina, Cuban missile crisis) to policy coordination (e.g., Falklands, Desert Shield/Desert Storm). This diplomatic activity is authorized by Article 4 of the NATO Treaty, which commits all parties to "...consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened". Extra-regional cooperation is also authorized by Article 2 of the Treaty, which obliges all allies to "...contribute toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by promoting conditions of stability and well-being".

What is perhaps most striking about the history of NATO out-of-area behaviour is that the Alliance had adopted a much broader and more activist interpretation of its geographic mandate by the time the Cold War ended. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was the turning point in this regard, since it alerted all allies to the common threat which they faced if the Persian Gulf region were to become destabilized or dominated by anti-Western forces. By the late 1980s, NATO governments had developed a three-step process for cooperation on out-of-area issues, based on their common commitment to promoting international peace and stability, in accordance with Article 2 of the North Atlantic Treaty: consultation among the allies (Article 4 of the Treaty); coordination where appropriate; and compensatory deployments to maintain the necessary force levels for deterrence in the event that individual allies felt compelled to utilize NATO designated assets to respond to a crisis outside the Treaty area. These arrangements proved to be indispensable during the Iran-Iraq War, as NATO governments coordinated their contributions to the Persian Gulf Armada (1987-1989) and in the subsequent allied response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait (1990).

NATO after the Cold War

This brief discussion of the history of the NATO out-of-area question should be sufficient to demonstrate that the Alliance has always been involved in, and responsive to, the wider world. And it is against this background that the current debate about NATO's potential as a pan-European security forum is taking place. Thus, we should not be surprised to discover that the Alliance is demonstrating an impressive ability to adapt to the demands of the post-Cold War era. The nature and direction of that adaptation is somewhat surprising, however, and deserving of comment.

The first important change that NATO is undergoing is in its strategy and supporting 'operational art'. NATO governments established the guidelines for the new allied strategy during the London (July 1990) and Rome (November 1991) Summits; moving away from the relatively static and heavy concentration of forces around the Central Region which characterized the Cold War to a reduced, more complex and multi-directional defence posture which places a premium on flexibility and mobility. In accordance with this new defence posture, NATO is developing both immediate reaction forces and more substantial rapid reaction forces. A headquarters has already been established for the ACE Rapid Reaction Corps, and the Corps itself should become operational in 1995.

The Alliance has also accorded a high priority to the development of multinational units, and arrangements have been worked out for the assignment of the Franco-German Eurocorps to NATO command in times of crisis. It is also important to note that NATO continues to develop its close working relationship with the Western European Union (WEU). Cooperation between these two institutions has made it easier for European governments to pursue a common defence identity without doing violence to the missions or purposes of NATO. The recent move of the WEU Council and Secretariat to Brussels was of more than symbolic importance in this regard.

The second, and arguably the most important, change that NATO has undergone since the collapse of the Berlin Wall is its outreach to the nations of the former Warsaw Pact. In an editorial published in 1990, the American historian John Lewis Gaddis recommended that both NATO and the Warsaw Pact should be preserved in post-Cold War Europe, and that the two alliances should be merged into a pan-European security organization (3). While this may have been a flawed idea, it nonetheless reflected a very valid concern about the dangers that the international community would face if the nations of the former Soviet bloc were left without any institutionalized forums for security cooperation and mutual reassurance.

NATO's response to this problem was the creation of the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC). The purpose of NACC is to enhance stability throughout the European region by providing the nations of the former Warsaw Pact with a forum for dialogue, consultation and the development of joint projects. In the less than two years since its first meeting, the organization has grown in membership (38 countries), in geographic scope ("from Vancouver to Vladivostok", including the Central Asian nations which were formerly part of the Soviet Union), and in responsibilities.

The NACC has become a venue for pan-European discussions relating to arms control, defence cooperation, crisis management and peacekeeping. Meetings between foreign and defence ministers of the NACC governments have helped to maintain the momentum for approval and compliance with the Treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe (CFE) and other arms control agreements. They have also provided a forum for consultation and policy coordination relating to ongoing crises in the former Yugoslavia and in portions of the former Soviet Union. While it is true that some member governments would have preferred direct membership in NATO to partnership through the NACC, no one who monitors these developments can fail to be impressed with the progress that NACC has made in institutionalizing pan-European security cooperation in such a brief period of time. Finally, NATO has adjusted to the new circumstances of the post-Cold War era by making itself and the NACC available to the United Nations and the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) for pan-European peacekeeping, peacemaking and peace enforcement operations (4). At the time of the collapse of the Berlin Wall, many commentators expressed the hope that the UN and the CSCE would be able to handle Europe's future security problems by recourse to 'civilian power' alone. Before long, however, representatives of these larger institutions had come to conclude that NATO, with its unique combination of political-military resources, was still indispensable for the preservation of pan-European order. NATO governments have responded to this new challenge, but with no delusions about the risks that they may confront.

The ongoing crisis in the former Yugoslavia can be viewed as a baptism of fire for the newly transformed NATO. The Alliance has taken several concrete steps in support of the effort by the United Nations to end the internecine warfare in this region. NATO forces are currently enforcing the no-fly zone over Bosnia-Herzegovina, as well as the UN arms embargo and the maritime blockade of Serbia and Montenegro, and have also offered to provide protection for UN peacekeeping troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina, including the use of air strikes should the UN so request (5). All the allies understand that these operations may have to be followed by more direct and more dangerous initiatives on the ground. NATO Secretary General Manfred Wörner put the matter succinctly in a recent speech in Rome:

"What an irony! An organization created to deal with the military challenge of the Cold War, and which survived that Cold War and succeeded without firing a shot, now has to contemplate seriously the use of force - after the Cold War has ended, and outside of what was traditionally called the NATO Treaty area."(6)

Back to the future : NATO as a three-tier security arrangement

It is a nice coincidence that the post-Cold War Alliance appears to be evolving into something resembling the vision of NATO articulated by George Kennan in 1948. During the Washington Preparatory Talks for the North Atlantic Treaty, Kennan floated the idea of a three-tier security system. At its core would have been the five nations of the 1948 Brussels Treaty (France, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg) plus the United States, Canada, Norway and Denmark. He envisioned a second ring of "associate members", comprising certain governments (Kennan specifically mentioned Portugal and Sweden) which would have been accorded security guarantees in exchange for basing privileges. A third "affiliate" category would have been established for various nations and territories which the Western governments considered to be of special strategic importance. At present, there seems to be a development towards a different form of "three-tier security system" with a European core comprised of the WEU/EC nexus, a second ring of states which is made up of the 16 members of the Atlantic Alliance and a third ring composed of the 38 nations of NACC.

The essential difference between Kennan's vision and the evolving NATO system is that Kennan's was based upon differentiated membership - what US Undersecretary of State Robert Lovett referred to as "resident members, non-resident members and summer privileges" (7). By contrast, in the evolving European order, the Atlantic Alliance is inextricably engaged in all three circles - providing the context for the development of the WEU/EC system and the bedrock for the development of the NACC. This makes the current system much less vulnerable than Kennan's system would have been to recriminatory disputes about first, second and third class citizenship. But it does not solve the problem altogether.

Indeed, the greatest challenge that NATO governments will face in the next few years will be the need to preserve a sense of cohesion and common purpose in the face of new responsibilities for European security and new opportunities for cooperation with other institutions involved in the maintenance of European order. The history of out-of-area debates during the Cold War, and the impressive record of intra-Alliance cooperation since the collapse of the Berlin Wall, nonetheless encourage optimism about NATO's ability to find imaginative solutions to such challenges.

In the conclusion to his aforementioned editorial, John Gaddis observes that "It is a principle of enlightened conservatism that one ought to retain what history shows to have worked, even as one accommodates to the changes history is bringing." We can be grateful to Professor Gaddis for reminding us of this principle, which NATO governments have heeded. Without much fanfare, they have gone about the business of preserving what worked, while making some very constructive changes. Much still needs to be done, but recognition of accomplishments made up till now is not unwarranted at this time.


(1) Henry Kissinger, "Years of Upheaval", (Little, Brown and Co., Bostom, 1982), p.711.

(2) See Douglas Stuart and William Tow, "The limits of alliance: NATO out-of-area problems since 1949" (Baltimore, John Hopkins University Press, 1990).

(3) John Lewis Gaddis, "One Germany - in both Alliances", The New York Times, March 21, 1990, p.27.

(4) For an interesting discussion of the distinction between these three types of operations, see Donald Snow, "Peacekeeping, peacemaking and peace enforcement: the US role in the new international order", SSI Monograph Series, Strategic Studies Institute, US Army War College, February 1993.

(5) For a more detailed discussion of NATO's contribution to the UN in the former Yugoslavia, see John Kriendler, "NATO's changing role - opportunities and constraints for peacekeeping", NATO REVIEW, No. 3, June 1993, pp. 16-22.

(6) Speech by the Secretary General in Rome, 10 May 1993, p.1, available from the NATO Office of Information and Press - see NATODATA File: rome.asc

(7) Discussed D.Stuart, "Reconciling alliances, coalitions and collective security systems in post-Cold War Europe", in Gary Guertner , ed. The search for strategy: politics and strategic vision (Westport Connecticut, Greenwood Press, 1993), pp.290-304.

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1993.