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

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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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Filed under 9/11, Middle East, NATO, Regional Studies, Strategic Studies

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