Updated: 11-Dec-2001 NATO Speeches

At the Royal
United Services
5 November

N.A.T.O. What it is and how it works

Lecture by Lord Ismay

General THE LORD ISMAY: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization — commonly called NATO — is generally taken for granted: but on ray visits to the fourteen countries which I serve — shortly to be fifteen, we hope — I have found that some of the best informed people have very little idea — of what the Organization consists of or how it works. I propose, therefore, with the approval of the Council of the RUSI. and at the risk of boring many of you who know NATO inside out, to treat my subject on elementary lines, and to concentrate on organization rather than policy. I am in fact going to explain that diagram.

I realise that this will be disappointing to many of you, who probably expected that I would talk about the historic agreements which were signed in Paris a fortnight ago, and which resulted in an invitation to the Federal Republic of Germany to join NATO. So may I add that I will be very happy to try to answer any questions about those developments which may be put to me at the end of my lecture.

Origin of the North Atlantic Treaty

Let me first recall very briefly why and when NATO came into being. As soon as the war in Europe was over, the United States, Great Britain and Canada hastened to withdraw their forces from Europe as fast as they could. On VE-Day 1945 there were over 3 million American troops in Europe; a year later there were 400,000. On that same day, there we're 1,600,000 British troops; a year later there were half a million. On that same day there were 300,000 Canadian troops in Europe; a year later not a man was left.

Meanwhile, the Soviets kept vast armies on a war footing and their armament industries going at full blast.

Nevertheless, the Western World, trusting — too trusting did their utmost to reach an accommodation with their late Allies. But Conference after Conference broke down owing to Soviet intransigence. They made the proceedings of the United Nations a farce by the use of the veto. They started a campaign of slander and lies against the whole of the Western world; and worst of all, and most significant of all, they got under their control one by one, the countries of Eastern Europe by a curious process of conquest without war. The communist coup in Prague in 1948, a country in which there was not a Communist majority, was the last straw. Here was one more victim dragged behind the iron curtain.

It became obvious that unless something was done to restore the balance of military and economic power, there was no reason why the States of Western Europe should not also be gobbled up, one by one. But how was this to be done? No single nation could do it alone. It could only be done by combining. It was in that dark hour that the North Atlantic Treaty was conceived and signed.

Terms of the Treaty

By the terms of that Treaty, 12 countries, later to be joined by Greece and Turkey, agreed that they would consider an attack upon one or more of them in Europe or North America as an attack upon them all. Thus no aggressor could hope to get away with Hitler's technique of devouring his victims one by one.

Secondly, the member countries agreed to build up their individual and collective defences - I repeat the word collective -to resist aggression.

These were pledges which called for immediate and
continuous collective action. In order to translate promise into performance, the first essential was to set up the necessary collective machinery.

Here was an entirely novel problem for which there were no precedents.

The founders of the Treaty were wise in their generation. They did not attempt to draw up a blue-print of the Organization, or to lay down hard and fast rules. They realised that -these could be evolved only in the light of experience, and they provided accordingly.

After three years of patient research and prolonged discussions by technical experts and committees innumerable, after much trial and many errors, the organization depicted in my diagram was brought into being.

Before describing it I want to make it clear that I do not suggest that the arrangements are final: on the contrary, I am sure that they can, and will, be improved. But it can at least be claimed for NATO in its present shape that it is coherent and business-like, and that it has achieved practical results.

The Civil Structure

At the summit of the organization is the North Atlantic Council. This is in effect an international cabinet for NATO affairs. It has a curious composition. It is a Council of fourteen governments, and not of fourteen individuals, and governments may be represented at the Council table by anyone they depute for the purpose.

In practice, they are represented at Ministerial sessions by their Foreign Ministers and/or their Defence Ministers and/or their Finance Ministers. But obviously Ministerial sessions must be few and far between (say twice a year or so — this year three in view of special problems of German accession) , since Ministers have their own jobs to do in their own countries.

On the other hand, the work of the Council is, and must be, continuous: there is, as I will show, any amount of day-to-day business to be transacted. Therefore, to ensure continuity and also to enable the Council to meet at very short notice in the event of emergency, each country has a Permanent Representative resident in Paris with the rank of Ambassador. Of the present Permanent Representatives, two are Cabinet Ministers in their own countries, one (the American) is a business executive, and the rest are, I believe, diplomats de carriere — generally very senior ones.

Thanks to this arrangement, the Council meets regularly once or twice a week for the transaction of current business, just as a national Cabinet does; while the many committees which have been set up, on all of which all fourteen countries are represented, and the International Staff, on which all fourteen countries are also represented, are at work day in and day out all the year round.

May I emphasise two points. The first is that the Council has effective powers of decision, irrespective of whether Governments are represented by Ministers or by Permanent Representatives. Thus, there is no need to summon Ministers from the ends of the earth whenever there is a very important problem to settle.

The second point is that the Council has no supra-national authority. There is no question of a majority vote, by which one or more governments could be compelled to subscribe to anything with which they do not agree. All the decisions of the Council have to be unanimous. Nor is there any question of big countries or small countries, rich countries or poor countries. Each and every one of them are independent sovereign states, although they have, so to speak, pooled their sovereignty to a certain extent. Naturally, it often takes time to reconcile the different national view-points, but there has never yet. been failure to reach agreement on any question that has been brought up. The climate of opinion is a potent force.

As you will see from the diagram, I myself have a dual rôle. I am Vice-Chairman of the Council and preside over all meetings at which the Ministerial Chairman is not present. I am also Secretary-General in charge of the International Staff which serves it. As I have already said, all fourteen countries are represented on this staff: but none of us regard ourselves as nationals of our own countries. We lean over backwards in order not to favour our own land.

To judge from the number of applications I receive, there is an impression abroad that the staff is a very large one. In point of fact, I have less than 200 officers all told; most of them technical experts in one line or another.

So much for the organization of NATO on the civil side. Before explaining what it does, let me describe the military set-up in very general terms.

The Military Structure

First there is the Military Committee which consists of Representatives of the Chiefs of Staff of all member countries except Iceland which has no military forces. This Committee can only meet occasionally, since obviously Chiefs of Staff must reside alongside their own governments. Moreover, so large a Committee is clearly not suitable for day-to-day work. It was for this reason that a three member executive agency was set up. This is called the Standing Group. It is in permanent session in Washington, and is composed of Representatives of the Chiefs of Staff of France, the US and the UK, or when appropriate a Chief of Staff from each of these countries. The Standing Group is served by a number of staff teams drawn from France, the US and the UK. The Standing Group is, broadly speaking, responsible for over-all strategy.

In order to ensure on the one hand that all member nations not represented on the Standing Group are kept in close touch with its work, and on the other hand that the Standing Group itself is kept informed of the points of view of those other nations, there has been established in Washington a permanent organization entitled the Military Representatives Committee. This consists of the three members of the Standing Group and one member from each of the other member countries.

The link between the "North Atlantic Council in Paris and the Standing Group in Washington is provided by a Standing Group Liaison Officer, who works in the same building in Paris as the International Staff. SGLO is assisted by a staff of about 16 naval, army and air force officers drawn from the member countries. So much for what I might call the High Military Command.

On the next level are the Commanders. Supreme Allied Command Europe, with its H.Q. near Paris; Supreme Allied Command Atlantic, with Headquarters at Norfolk, Virginia; and the Channel Commands. In time of peace, these Commanders are responsible, under the general guidance and co-ordination of the Military Committee and the Standing Group for the preparation of plans to meet the contingency of aggression. In time of war, they would be responsible for the over-all conduct of all operations in their command areas.

The Supreme Commanders are served by allied staffs drawn from all the member nations whose forces have been assigned to their commands in time of peace or ear-marked for their commands in time of war. One of the most remarkable features of the coalition is that member governments have entrusted their precious armed forces to the Command of a national other than their own in time of peace. Such a thing has never been done before in the history of the world. Thanks to this arrangement, those forces, as you know from the Journal of the RUSI, are constantly exercised in International manoeuvres; and it is a joy to see how intimate is their cooperation. A British Admiral told me at the end of some international manoeuvres, well over a year ago, that he had had a flotilla of destroyers working under him - one British, one French, one Dutch and one Belgian, and that they had manoeuvred at night at high speed in dirty weather as though they had always served under the same flag. "The NATO Navy", he said "is no longer a dream, but a reality".

I have not time today to deal with the military set-up in greater detail, but I venture to suggest that at some future date the Council of the RUSI might think it useful to arrange a lecture devoted primarily to that topic.

Work, of the Council

Annnual Review

I now turn to a general description of the work on which NATO is engaged. Its most important, and certainly its most laborious task, is the determination each year of the size and pattern of the build-up of the armed forces of the coalition. The process goes on all the year round. As soon as one year's grind is finished as it will be next month for 1955, the grind for the next year starts.

You all know what an intricate, long-drawn out job it is to decide upon a national defence programme for a single nation. How much can the country afford? How much is to go to the army, how much to the navy, how much to the air force? What priority is to be given to modernisation? What proportion of money is to be devoted to the accumulation of the necessary reserves of equipment? So you can imagine what a jig-saw puzzle it is to decide on 14 different programmes which have to be dovetailed into each other.

If you were to leave it to each individual member to decide upon his own contribution, without reference to what was being done by the others, you would got heterogeneous, unbalanced and ineffective forces. Therefore, the closest co-ordination is essential at every stage and in every detail.

The first step is a perfectly normal one. It is to decide upon the over-all strategic concept. The original decision on this point was that all NATO territory must be defended. This decision is reviewed every year, but it has remained constant. It has always been called "the forward strategy", though I myself do not much like the term, since it might convey the idea of aggression. That is the last thought that ever enters our minds, much less our calculations.

The next step is to determine the broad policy which should govern the build-up. In the beginning the armed forces of the Allies were so tiny, that it was decided to increase them at the maximum speed at almost any cost. In other words, priority was given to numbers. That was in the days of Lisbon — early 1952. By the end of last year, it became apparent that the limit of national expenditures on defence had almost been reached. (Defence estimates have increased progressively in every country each year since the Alliance started). It was therefore decided that the future policy should be to proceed on the basis of what is called "the long haul", i.e. a steady development of defensive strength at a rate which would preserve, and not exhaust, the economic strength of the partners. It was also apparent that the forces were getting out of balance, and it was decided to give priority to quality rather than to quantity, i.e. to make existing units more effective rather than increase their number.

With this political guidance as a background, the military authorities make their estimates each year of their total requirements for the discharge of their responsibilities. Obviously these requirements can never be satisfied immediately and in full: so the next step is to reconcile them with the political and economic capabilities of the various nations, and to determine priorities as to what is to be provided at once and what must wait till later. All member countries are asked for their proposals, and these are examined and analysed first by the International Staff and then by all the partners together. During this cross examination, it may be suggested to a country that they ought to be doing a little more all round, or perhaps that it could conduce to the general efficiency of the coalition as a whole if their contribution took a different form in one respect or another. They might, for example, be told that their ammunition reserves were dangerously low and that these should be replenished, perhaps at the cost of something less militarily vital.

The ultimate result of all this research and discussion is the determination of goals for the annual build-up of the military forces of the coalition which are within the political and economic capabilities of all the governments, and which are accepted by them as national commitments. At the same time as deciding upon definite goals for the current year, the Council also decide upon provisional goals for the following year and planning goals for the year after that. These are not hard and fast commitments. Their purpose is to provide a basis for planning on a long term basis.

It is extraordinary, when you come to think of it, that countries should be prepared not only to lay the details of their national, military, production and fiscal programmes before their partners, but also to be cross-questioned upon them. Never has the principle of alliance been carried to such a pitch.


In parallel with the build-up of the armed forces, goes the build-up of infrastructure, that is to say the airfields, communications, fuel supply systems, radar warning equipment, and so forth upon which the operational efficiency of the armed forces must depend. Here is another major responsibility of the Council, and incidentally one of its major achievements.

First, there is the problem of finance, Since these installations are for common use, it would be unfair to expect the countries in which they are constructed to bear the whole cost. Consequently this is divided up among the member partners on a proportionate basis. It took a lot of time and a lot of patience and a lot of hard bargaining to get agreement on these proportions: but it was done in the end. The total amount of money already voted or promised amounts to over £700 millions.

But the Council's work is not finished when the money has been provided. It is their duty to see that the various installations are planned and constructed not only according to the standards required by the military authorities, but also with the utmost economy. Consequently, the International Staff experts, exercise the closest technical and financial scrutiny at every stage. To bear out my suggestion that the achievements in infrastructure have been impressive, might I quote the single example of airfields. When General Eisenhower took over Supreme Command in Europe just over three years ago, there were 15 airfields available, to him; now there are 127 usable by all types of aircraft.

Financial Responsibility of the Council

Of course, the Council has other financial responsibilities besides infrastructure. For example, all civilian personnel employed at NATO, such as the International Staff, and all the expense involved in the construction and maintenance of office buildings etc., are paid for out of a common budget. The total expenditure involved is relatively small, but it is one of the less attractive jobs of the Council to decide how it is to be apportioned between the various partners each year.

Let me add that all the budget estimates and all expenditures are closely watched by the Budget Committee of the Council, on which all fourteen countries are represented. Those of you who have suffered from the vigilance of the Treasury watch-dog may be thankful that you have not got fourteen of them! As an extra check, there is an international Board of Auditors reporting direct to the Council.

Other Responsibilities of the Council

Now let me turn to another aspect of the work of NATO. All the members are, as I have said, pledged to maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist aggression. To redeem that pledge, they must, in addition to building up their armed forces, take all possible steps to ensure that in the event of aggression, the home fronts will stand the strain. One of the most obvious of these steps is Civil Defence, and the Council are working hard at this problem. Civil Defence is, of course, a national responsibility, but the Council can do a good deal by way of stimulation, suggestion, co-ordination and exchange of information and experience.

Then there is the question of the morale of the peoples of the North Atlantic Community. You will never get high morale unless the average man and woman know the reason for the sacrifices and exertions that are demanded of them, are satisfied that their affairs are being sensibly managed, and have confidence in their allies. In other words, the education of the peoples of all the fourteen countries as to the purposes and progress of NATO is one of the first duties of the Council. We are working very hard at it; but a lot more money would be required to make a good job of it.

Another direction in which the Council are active is what I might call the field of preparation for the emergency of war. We know that if unhappily it should break but, it would be necessary to ensure that the available shipping, inland transport and supplies of various commodities, such as food, fuel, etc., should be apportioned between the Allies to the best advantage of the Alliance as a whole. Obviously, hard and fast plans cannot be made in advance of the emergency, but there can be no doubt that the researches that are being conducted and the general discussions which are taking place would be invaluable if the need were to arise.

The Council is a forum for the exchange of views on political questions of common concern. Let me give you a concrete example. The three members who are representatives of the Occupying Powers in Germany — France, the United States and the United Kingdom — exchanged views with their eleven colleagues on the Council before the Four Power Conference of Foreign Ministers was held in Berlin early in 1954. Moreover, throughout the course of the Conference, those three Governments made it their business to see that their partners in NATO ware kept informed of what was happening. Similarly, the Council as a whole had had discussions on the Soviet Note of the 31st March 1954, to the three Occupying Powers, which included, inter alia, the astonishing suggestion that the Soviet Government were ready "to consider jointly with the interested governments the question of the participation of the USSR in the North Atlantic Treaty". The views put forward by the other NATO governments were taken fully into account by those of France, the United Kingdom and the United States in drafting their reply.

The Council are anxious to develop this practice of political consultation, and they passed a formal resolution at the Ministerial Meeting last September calling on all member governments to 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.

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