Monthly Archives: September 2011

The Evolving Relevance of NATO’s Article 5, Ten Years After 9/11

Logo for the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies

By Mark Ducasse and Stefano Santamato
Center for Transatlantic Security Studies

Ten years after 9/11, nine months before the NATO Summit in Chicago, and four weeks after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime in Tripoli, discussions over resources and capabilities are overshadowing the transformational nature of NATO’s new Strategic Concept and the operational successes of the Alliance. Lately, too much focus is being placed on a mercantile approach to NATO by which the value of the Alliance is seemingly measured, almost exclusively, in terms of input versus output. This approach, sound in accounting terms, does not bode well for statesmanship or international alliances. It is time to change the course and the discourse.

Even in these challenging times of financial pressures and operational fatigue, the debate over NATO’s role, relevance and resources needs to be, first and foremost, a political one. The history of NATO is one of solidarity, not of an internal balance of capabilities. Burden sharing has always been a feature of NATO’s compact, yet it has never defined the Alliance. The “transatlantic bargain” – if there ever was one – was political not financial. The universal message that Article 5 has sent to the world for more than sixty years is that “…an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all…”

It is mainly because of this message of unqualified solidarity that NATO continues to be the world’s most successful political-military alliance. During the Cold War, the essence of Article 5 laid in the double bluff of the United States’ nuclear umbrella – of its readiness to sacrifice “Chicago for Hamburg” – and of the misunderstanding that an “armed attack” would be countered by an equally, if not superior, purely armed response. In reality, as scholars and close observers know all too well, the three musketeer clause represented by Article 5 is more nuanced, and the Allied nations would stand all for one and one for all only to take such actions each of them would “deem necessary” to restore peace and security in the North Atlantic area. The use of armed force, while specifically mentioned by Article 5, only represents a possible option the Allies are ready to resort to.

However, this reinforces the view that no matter what the Allies’ response to a possible attack on one or more of them would have been, Article 5 would be the right answer, as it had been after the 9/11 attacks on the United States. The speed with which the Allies then agreed, unanimously, to invoke Article 5 stands as a monument to the transatlantic relationship. Against this definitive show of solidarity the discussion over the nature of the attack – armed or not – and on the level of individual or collective response, becomes less relevant.

With its new Strategic Concept, agreed at its Lisbon summit in 2010, NATO has redefined its mandate, vis-à-vis collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security. The Alliance also reaffirmed its core values of individual liberty, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. Between the two, the core of the Alliance’s strength is still represented by the recognition of the centrality of the Allies’ unchanging bond of solidarity. However, as demonstrated by the Allies’ reaction to the 9/11 attacks, this bond has both evolved in nature and acquired new relevance in the post-Cold War world.

NATO’s primary challenge remains one of political unity rather than one of burden sharing. Alliance members face a plethora of unconventional, asymmetrical, and transnational threats to their security. These threats include, among others, proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, cyber attacks, disruptions to energy supplies, and mass migration. The perceived threat posed by these examples varies among the Allies, together with their understanding of the role NATO should play in dealing with them.

The new Strategic Concept has very ably mastered the ensuing centrifugal forces by identifying NATO’s three essential tasks to allow all of its members to recognize that, in the Alliance’s mandate, the best way to address their vital security interests is through either collective defense, crisis management, or promoting international security through cooperation.

Equally skillful has been the way the drafters of the new Strategic Concept have ensured the continuity of the solidarity bond by reframing the essence of Article 5 in its Preface and by redefining the scope of collective defense. By introducing the concept of threat to the “fundamental security” of an individual Ally or of the Alliance as a whole, NATO members have underscored their commitment to the spirit of Article 5 and recognized that a threat to the fundamental security of an individual Ally “rests in the eye of the beholder” and need not necessarily entail exclusively an “armed attack.”

As Operation Unified Protector in Libya demonstrated, NATO remains the only viable and effective political-military organization. Through this operations, the Allies’ capability shortfalls have become visible to a considerable degree because people have started writing more often about them, not because they did not exist before; whilst concurrently, the operational flexibility of and success of the Alliance have quietly increased. Article 5 however, remains the cornerstone that holds NATO together and ensures that democracy, security, flexibility, and mutual understanding continue to spread even if the original threat this alliance was envisioned to counter has long since receded.

During the Cold War, the prevailing threat perception, like a light shining through a lens, was clear and focused in one direction: the Soviet Union. In today’s threat environment, the light is shining through a prism, displaying multiple threats with differing levels of complexity, emanating from and ending at various points, all requiring tailored reactions. What is and is not an Article 5 threat may be more confusing than ever, and deciding that point will require significant consultation and discussion, in order to create consensus among the Alliance’s members.

NATO has evolved from an organization embodying largely military goals conceived in relation to a single threat, and become an alliance regarded as a community of countries sharing common values with the promotion of good governance at its core. The Alliance is moving away from the “collective defense” doctrine of deterring potential aggression with military force alone, to one of “collective security,” involving active conflict prevention via increased cooperation, flexibility and solidarity among members and non-members alike. Article 5 has transformed itself into a conduit through which a new understanding of solidarity can flourish. In these uncertain times, the continuation of a proven alliance that acts as a forum for dialogue and as a tool for crisis management will remain of key importance to the security requirements of its members well into the twenty-first century.

Mr. Mark Ducasse is the Principal Research Analyst for the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies (CTSS) at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies (NDU-INSS);  Mr. Stefano Santamato is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow also at CTSS. Mr. Ducasse may be contacted at (202) 685-0820 or Mr. Santamato may be contacted on (202) 433-9661 or      


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NATO and The Arab Spring

By Isabelle Francois, Center for Transatlantic Security Studies


*  The Libyan “Operation Unified Protector” (OUP) was wrongly presented as the sign of an Alliance in trouble.  It may become the symbol of American success in convincing its Allies that Europeans had to take a greater share of the burden and assume greater responsibility for security in Europe and its periphery.

* NATO should prepare for a strategy review on Libya in the context of the 2012 Chicago Summit.  This would be an opportunity to highlight Allied capabilities to conduct a limited model of intervention – short term UN-mandated “bridging missions” from an open crisis to political settlement, aimed at a 6 month stabilization period prior to reconstruction efforts.

* Associating old and new partners to a NATO strategy review of OUP in Chicago would showcase the non-Allied contributions, both militarily and in terms of the political support provided by countries in the region, without which the operation would not have had the required political legitimacy in the first place. 

The public debate that surrounded the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)–led operation in Libya gave an impression of an Alliance in trouble. There is, however, a good story to tell. The United States, as the host of the May 2012 NATO Summit in Chicago, may wish to present the case for a new type of operation and call for a strategy review on Libya in order to develop a balanced approach to Allies’ possible contributions to stability in North Africa and the Gulf region.

Helicopters taking off for trasport missions.

NATO Inherited Libya

In the spring of 2011, dramatic events unfolded in the southern rim of the Mediterranean. Countries from Egypt to Libya were swept by significant popular uprising and political change. The events led to regional upheaval and ultimately armed conflict, resulting in a NATO-led operation in Libya. Following serious unrest, which began in Benghazi on February 17, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) adopted Resolution 1970, which instituted an arms embargo, froze the personal assets of Libya’s leaders, and imposed a travel ban on senior figures. NATO stepped up its surveillance operations in the Central Mediterranean. NATO Defense Ministers met on March 10 and supported the decision of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe to have Alliance ships move to the same area in order to boost the monitoring efforts.

On March 17, the UN adopted Resolution 1973, authorizing member states and regional organizations to inter alia take “all necessary measures” to protect civilians in Libya. NATO members immediately followed the UN call by launching a NATO-led operation to enforce the arms embargo against Libya on March 23. In addition, on March 24, NATO decided to enforce the UN-mandated no-fly zone over Libya given the UNSC resolution call for a ban on all flights except those for humanitarian and aid purposes to avoid air attacks from Libyan authorities perpetrated on civilians inside the country. Finally, on March 27, following intense internal debates, NATO agreed to accept the whole military operation in Libya under UNSCR 1973, taking over from a coalition led by the United States, France, and the United Kingdom, which had intervened militarily in the early days of the Libyan crisis with the first airstrikes on March 19, 2011. (1)

The purpose of the NATO-led Operation Unified Protector has been to protect civilians and civilian-populated areas. NATO took action as part of a broad international effort, and immediately indicated its desire to work with its partners in the region. The NATO-led operation had the necessary legal basis through UNSCR 1973 to intervene militarily. Moreover, the support from the Arab League provided the necessary political legitimacy to intervene.

In this context, NATO was able to consult with and get some concrete support from countries in the region. Allies were able to make best use of partnership frameworks, notably the Mediterranean Dialogue with Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia, as well as the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative with Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Allies reached out to all their partners, including in the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council to share information, ensure transparency, and give an opportunity to willing contributing nations to provide assets to the operation. Three partners have contributed militarily to the operation to date, notably with aircraft from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar from the Gulf region, as well as Sweden among the Partnership for Peace partners. In addition, some staff support was provided by Jordan, while Malta assisted the Alliance in its operations both at sea and in the air. Others have landed their political support, enhancing the legitimacy of the operation. The partnership with Gulf countries developed significantly within a few months, and should be built upon to institutionalize the level of cooperation reached between NATO and some Gulf countries.

Boy Holding Political Newspaper

Post-operation Libya

NATO’s engagement in Libya, despite its sound legal and political basis, has faced significant challenges in terms of internal cohesion, as well as external pressure on the Alliance in light of the summer stalemate. The mandate for operation was renewed by NATO Defense Ministers on June 8 for another 3 months until the end of September (2).  Despite various bilateral efforts and attempts between the forces of Muammar Qadhafi and the rebels from the Transitional National Council (TNC), a negotiated settlement was impossible. Taking over Tripoli in mid-August, the TNC will have to prepare for transition in Libya in order to ensure inclusive political representation in future government institutions and the electoral process, as well as to guarantee territorial integrity. This will no doubt take months and NATO will remain engaged abiding by its commitments until the TNC decides on—and international community supports—the requirements after the operation ends.

Since the situation in Libya will remain volatile, NATO should prepare for a strategy review on Libya in the context of the 2012 Chicago Summit. The Alliance may no longer be in the lead when it comes to the Libyan transition by May 2012, but it will still have lessons to learn and to share. Moreover, NATO will have a role to play in support of stability and reconstruction in Libya and the region. It would also be useful to continue to engage with the regional partners and develop closer cooperation, notably in the framework of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.

Libyan Demonstrations

Lessons Learned

Following the widely reported speech by outgoing U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in June 2011, many interpreted the remarks as evidence of a decaying Alliance in the face of a new challenge in Libya (3).  (Others, however, heard the speech as a wake-up call.) Operation Unified Protector was used as a prime example of NATO’s inability—after “11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country”—to keep up with requirements of modern warfare. Criticisms were also leveled because only a small number of Allies (eight) contributed to the strike operation. Key European members, such as Germany, fundamentally disagreed with the mission and rendered the European Union (EU) unable to contribute much more than humanitarian aid and sanctions against the Qadhafi regime. Despite what can be interpreted at the end of August 2011 as a qualified success for the Alliance in Libya, NATO continues to suffer from a public image deficit in many quarters, and nations may have to consider how much transformation is likely to be sufficient for the Alliance to be able to “re-brand” its image.

The Libyan operation has faced the usual challenge of maintaining consensus within the Alliance as time went by without a political settlement in place. From the early days of consultation within NATO, differences of approach and diverging political interests on the part of various Allies (notably France, Germany, and Turkey) did not escape media attention. In June, consensus was challenged following the meeting of NATO Defense Ministers: On June 22, Italian Foreign Minister Franco Frattini called for a suspension of the campaign in the face of civilian casualties in the wake of NATO air strikes necessary for humanitarian aid to reach people—a reversal of position confirmed a couple of days later by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. At an EU summit on June 24, Berlusconi pushed for a final solution to the Libyan crisis. That said, for as long as public opinion was supportive of Allies’ military engagement against Qadhafi forces, consensus within NATO was likely to be maintained.

It should be clear, however, that in the absence of a major threat to the Alliance, various interests on the part of member states will make “difficult consensus” the norm rather than the exception. Moreover, in most cases, as we have seen in the Balkans and now in Libya, NATO-led operations can count on only a limited number of contributing troops, which assume combat or strike roles, from member states to any given operation. As NATO transitioned to “out of area” operations, there is no requirement for all Allies to contribute to a NATO-led operation, and it should not come as a surprise when a number of them opt out. Such decisions, provided that they do not affect consensus and do not get in the way of the mission, are not undermining the Alliance; they may actually provide added flexibility for NATO to act and may prove to be the process by which most operations will be approved in future. This should not be misinterpreted as a sign of weakness on the part of the Alliance. NATO’s strength lies in its ability to manage the consensual basis for its military action irrespective of obvious differences often made public for internal purposes.

NATO’s dependence on the international community to move from a military operation to broader stabilization and reconstruction efforts is yet another key challenge and its comprehensive approach to crisis management. Operation Unified Protector has shown progress in terms of NATO partnerships with other international and regional organizations, and has reached out quickly and decisively to various partners in the region. However, Alliance strategic success has depended on the ability of the international community to deliver a political settlement, relying notably on the Libyan Contact Group set up in London in April 2011. Moreover, NATO will likely face a difficult transition from military operation to civilian efforts at reconstruction, once the UN and the international community have taken the lead on the basis of a still elusive final outcome in Libya.

A Good Story to Tell

For all the challenges facing a transforming Alliance, Operation Unified Protector is not a bad story to tell. It could actually be the tell tale sign of a winning transatlantic partnership for Allies’ publics—if the United States chooses to make the operation a deliverable at the Chicago Summit.

One of the key themes of the summit will be “smart defense”—that is, identifying capability areas where Allies need to keep investing and working multinationally to mitigate the decline in defense spending and to address some of the concerns raised by Secretary Gates last June. The Libya operation is not irrelevant to that debate as it outlined where NATO should focus in addition to frontline capabilities (4).  Although the operation has exposed military weaknesses on the part of Europe (nothing that was not already known), it has also shown that Europeans can project fighting power in complex operations and find the political will to take the lead.

Moreover, Operation Unified Protector tells the story of an Alliance yet unmatched in terms of its command and control capability and its flexibility and ability to conduct a complex operation. Perhaps even more importantly, NATO was the only organization with the political will to take over from the American, French, and British coalition in Libya, despite differences of views within the Alliance. Finally, Alliance capacity in terms of command and control was trusted by partners in the region to be able to run the operation, thereby gaining their political support.

In fact, the Libyan operation can be seen as the symbol of American success in convincing its Allies that Europeans had to take a greater share of the burden and assume greater responsibility for security in Europe and its periphery (5).  The operation was the first in which the United States agreed to play a pivotal but supporting role while Europeans took the lead. It is a prime example of American forces and assets being made available to Europeans through NATO as Allies lacked the necessary weapons and munitions to carry out the mission. The United States was indispensable to the operation; the supporting role came after America provided the initial heavy strikes and once Europeans finally agreed to do the heavy lifting. That is transatlantic partnership at its best.

The Libya operation has managed to identify what a limited model of intervention can be with a supporting yet indispensable role for the United States. It also outlines the type of support that European Allies are likely to need in today’s operations. This seems to indicate a clearer division of labor rather than an inability to act on the part of the Europeans or disengagement on the part of the United States. It also corresponds to the burden-sharing requirements with today’s fiscal constraints, stopping short of giving in to the isolationist forces within parliaments. It is hardly a sign of despair for the Alliance, although the lack of European capabilities identified should not be met with complacency.

Transport of Equipment

Concrete Summit Deliverables

A strategy review in Chicago could offer three types of deliverables. First, there is the NATO circle for discussion among the 28 NATO member states. One of the lessons learned by Allies from the Balkan operations is that without the deployment of ground troops, it is difficult to win from the air. We will have to see whether there will be a need for ground troops to assist in the monitoring and transition phase following air operations, and which organization will have to take the lead (if any) given that no Ally seems inclined to deploy ground troops. There may be no request from the Libyan operation for any assistance in this regard, but the capability should exist.

Operation Unified Protector may be a turning point for NATO recognizing the flexibility to conduct different types of operations—from the demanding in Afghanistan to the shorter UN-mandated “bridging missions,” which are less demanding in human and financial terms. NATO is the only organization with the flexibility to operate at both ends of the spectrum, and this flexibility has proven critical in the face of uncertainties in contemporary operations. Moreover, smaller scale missions may be more likely because of budgetary constraints. These bridging missions could also make best use of NATO’s decision at the 2010 Lisbon Summit to improve the ability to deliver stabilization and reconstruction effects by agreeing to form an appropriate but modest civilian capability to interface more effectively with others and conduct appropriate planning in crisis management (6).  These missions, aimed at roughly a 6-month period toward stabilization, would pave the way for another organization to take the lead in reconstruction efforts, while buying time for the international community to assist “home grown” political settlements necessary for stabilization prior to reconstruction (7).  In any case, this type of operation should foster cooperation with other international organizations and refrain from any competing calls between organizations.

Allies will be called upon in Chicago to consider their core capabilities for future operations on the basis of the guidance provided by the 2010 Strategic Concept, while taking full account of today’s fiscal constraint. It may prove useful to consider reviewing the case of Libya and draw some key conclusions when it comes to defining NATO’s core capabilities for limited operations (8).  This should not detract from the major allied focus and U.S.-led effort in operations, such as the International Security Assistance Force. Afghanistan will undoubtedly remain the central theme of the Chicago Summit.

Second, the Libyan crisis can offer some lessons in terms of NATO partnerships. Inviting partners to a NATO strategy review of Operation Unified Protector in Chicago would recognize the contribution of NATO partnerships both militarily and politically in terms of the support provided by partners both in the region, such as Qatar, and beyond, such as Sweden. This would militate in favor of a “big tent meeting” at the Chicago Summit where the Libyan operation, and possibly the post-operation strategy, could be reviewed. While the tendency at NATO would likely be to organize a meeting with troop contributing nations, it may be that Allies would gain from reaching out more broadly to countries in the region in order to develop a balanced political dialogue (9).

A partnership meeting on the post Libyan operation, open to other international organizations, might also give focus to ongoing discussions regarding whether and how NATO could assist countries south of the Mediterranean in developing the necessary security reforms in the face of popular uprisings experienced in the wake of the Arab Spring. Partnering with the EU in this context may offer some valuable prospects for enhancing NATO–EU cooperation (10).  Cooperation with other regional organizations, such as the Arab League, Gulf Cooperation Council, and African Union, also hold significant potential in developing capacities in the region.

Finally, the interest of emerging powers in the Middle East and North Africa was demonstrated in the various diplomatic efforts toward a negotiated settlement in Libya on the part of Russia, South Africa, and others, and should be recognized by NATO. Moreover, dialoguing with countries that hold a seat on the UN Security Council and that supported UNSCR 1973 is a long-term requirement for UN-mandated NATO bridging missions. This could also be handled as a side event as a summit conference. A strategy review on the Libyan crisis would be an opportunity to engage a broad political dialogue beyond NATO partnerships, reaching out to significant security interlocutors at a time when U.S. public and Congress seem to focus increasingly beyond Europe. There will likely be a growing interest internationally in ensuring security and stability prior to investing in the resumption of oil production in Libya. Chicago could be an opportunity to look beyond together while ensuring that the transatlantic partnership continues to deliver its unique and flexible capabilities in terms of command and control of complex operations when the security environment calls for action.

Dr. Isabelle Francois is a Distinguished Senior Visiting Research Fellow with the Center for Transatlantic Studies, Institute for National Strategic Studies, National Defense University.


[1] See “Split in NATO over Libya mission,” March 22, 2011, available at <;; David Brunnstrom, “NATO still split on taking over Libya operation,” Reuters, March 23, 2011, available at <; Steven Lee Myers and David D. Kirkpatrick, “Allies are split on goal and exit strategy in Libya,” The New York Times, March 25, 2011, available at <>.

[2] On June 8, 2011, NATO Defense Ministers “extended Operation Unified Protector for a further 90 days from 27 June.” See NATO, “Statement on Libya,” June 8, 2011, available at <>.

[3] Robert M. Gates, “The Future of NATO,” June 10, 2010, available at <>.

[4] For example, fighter bombers, warships, surveillance, aircraft refueling, and drones. See Anders Fogh Rasmussen, “NATO after Libya”, June 29, 2011, available at <>.

[5] Tomas Valasek, “What Libya says about the future of the transatlantic alliance,” Essays (London: Centre for European Reform, July 2011), available at <>.

[6] At the Lisbon Summit in 2010, building on earlier efforts, NATO heads of state and government in their Declaration (para. 2) “decided to enhance NATO’s contribution to a comprehensive approach to crisis management, as part of the international community’s effort and to improve NATO’s ability to deliver stabilization and reconstruction effects.” To that end, they “agreed to form an appropriate but modest civilian capability to interface more effectively with other actors and conduct appropriate planning in crisis management.” See para. 9 in NATO, “Lisbon Summit Declaration,” November 20, 2010, available at <>.

[7] Some analysts have made a strong case for the European Union to take over from NATO in Libya. See John E. Herbst and Leo G. Michel, “Why the EU should patrol Libya,” European Voice, July 14, 2011, 9.

[8] For expediency, the NATO summit will focus on Afghanistan because it remains the most demanding allied operation. Also, there is an important public message to deliver in the context of transition. In addition, it would be difficult to gage and prepare for a summit meeting on Libya without any certainty regarding what NATO’s role will be. However, smaller operations are central to Alliance efforts and transformation, and the political message of an operation with Europeans in the lead is one that demands attention.

[9] The summit focus on Afghanistan could provide an opportunity for partners to attend based on their status as troop contributing nations to the International Security Assistance Force. It would be useful, however, to reach out beyond troop contributors to an operation. Allies and partners should consider future commitments for smaller operations such as Unified Protector, and should reach out more broadly to discuss the value-added internationally of United Nations–mandated bridging missions.

[10] See Anders Fogh Rasmussen, “NATO and the Mediterranean: the changes ahead,” June 16, 2011, available at <>.

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