#Reviewing NATO and Article 5

“An armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all.” Article 5, Treaty of Washington.

One may wonder what still needs to be written on NATO and Article 5. A thriving literature has been produced since 1949, dealing with its history, its strategic implications, and limits. Anchored in the unstable context of the Cold War, the Treaty of Washington’s Article 5 was designed to tie together European and US allies against the Soviet threat. In the 1990’s, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Atlantic Alliance, built upon the fight against the communist great power, seemed to lose its raison d’être. As a result, NATO member states gave less priority to collective defense and Article 5, and gave more attention to operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, focused on “crisis management.”

In NATO and Article 5. The Transatlantic Alliance and the Twenty-First-Century Challenges of Collective Defense, Dr. John Deni, a research professor at the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, analyzes the implications of the 2014 Crimea’s events on the organization’s strategic choices. In 2014, the annexation of Crimea by Russia rekindled the Russian threat on Eastern European member states, both on their territory and on their sovereignty. Faced with a new threat at home, the Alliance came back to territorial defence on European soil and turned to Article 5. Deni makes extensive use of official documents and interviews with key actors in telling the story of NATO’s strategic refocusing, and his book offers a useful contribution to the debate on to the core mission of NATO.

The debate about the Alliance’s future role in the world is split into two main factions.[1] On the one side, the apologists for a global NATO believe the Alliance’s missions should continue to include mainly out-of-area operations, like those pursued in Iraq and Afghanistan. Covering about 900 million people, who account for 45% of global GDP, NATO nations have global interests that require moving out of European territory.

On the opposite side are those who believe that NATO should come home, or go back to territorial defense and Article 5. Because of the threat that Russia poses to the territory and the sovereignty of new Eastern European NATO countries, these advocates claim that the Alliance should reaffirm its commitment to Article 5. Deni belongs to this camp.

First, Deni explores the strategic outcome pursued when seeking to return to Article 5. In a chapter  entitled “NATO’s Russia Problem--Getting the Ends Right,” Deni analyzes NATO’s relationship with Russia. The annexation of Crimea showed the failure of the strategy of integration and partnership that NATO sought to achieve with Russia.

The strategy of integration was designed “to give Russia a greater stake in the international system, to promote civilian control of the military and elective government, to integrate Russia politically and diplomatically with the West, to diffuse any residual tension in East-West relations.”[2] This was designed as a means to “turn an adversary into a partner.”[3] The strategy turned into specific policies that are widely described by Deni, in a somehow arduous section for non-expert readers. Deni chooses to focus on political and military initiatives towards Russia.

Politically, the creation in 1997 of a Permanent Joint Council with Russia paved the way to a long history of political rapprochements, including the creation of the NATO-Russia Council in 2006 (intended to be more collaborative than the previous Permanent Joint Council). Political initiatives described by Deni further include bilateral partnerships between Russia and several NATO members outside NATO’s framework, such as the invitation made to Russia in 1998 by the Group of Seven (G7) to join the elite economic organization.

The annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas region are symptomatic of the failure of NATO’s approach to Russia.

At the military level, similarly, Deni describes several initiatives that contributed to a partnership relationship with neighbouring Russia. Thus, in 1991, Russia was invited to join the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), and in 1994, the Partnership for Peace. These economic efforts, while important, do not fall into the scope of NATO’s missions.

Military base at Perevalne during the 2014 Crimean crisis by Anton Holoborodk. (Wikimedia)

When seeking to assess whether the partnership strategy towards Russia worked, Deni’s conclusions are highly pessimistic. The annexation of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas region are symptomatic of the failure of NATO’s approach to Russia. On these two occasions, Russia clearly violated many of the agreements and declaration signed with its “partner” NATO, including Article III of the 1975 Helsinki Declaration on the inviolability of frontiers, as well as Article IV on territorial integrity.

One may note the question raised by Deni as to whether the West is really at fault concerning such a failure. In an extensive literature on NATO and Russia, Deni brings an interesting perspective on this issue. According to Deni, Russia’s porous borders and its history—“Russia has experienced an invasion across the Northern European plain about once every thirty-three years on average”—have generated a widespread sense of insecurity within the population, promoting what Deni identifies as a zero-sum approach that prevents it from pursuing a partnership with another country.

Because of the cul-de-sac situation met by the NATO-Russia relationship, a new strategy is necessary according to Deni. Indefinitely recycling the same failing strategies will not help changing Russia. In the end, “Only the Russians can change Russia.”

Deni then explores the means available to NATO in order to implement the new strategy it needs. Territorial wars are expensive. Therefore, NATO would require many years of defense spending increases to return to a posture of strong territorial defense in the spirit of Article 5. Thus, studying NATO’s strategic refocusing to territorial defense and Article 5 implies assessing the organization’s financial strength and investments. Deni emphasizes what is probably the most discussed issue within NATO members: burden-sharing.

The longstanding US insistence on the need for European NATO members to get more involved financially—strongly reasserted by President Donald Trump—has led to some progress in trying to achieve the 2% target of GDP dedicated to defence spending. On June 8th, 2006, indeed, NATO members committed, during the Defence ministers meeting, to endeavour to meet the 2% goal. Although this was not a binding commitment, the target was renewed during the Wales Summit of 2014 and crystallizes many of the current discussions on burden-sharing within NATO. According to Deni, the 2% target does not cover the main challenges faced by NATO when pursuing its new strategy. Burden-sharing, for him, needs to be understood in context and requires taking into account the level of financial and investment cooperation between members. In this domain, as Deni indicates, initiatives like the Prague Summit of 2002, in which individual NATO members agreed—only politically—to the Prague Capabilities Commitments (PCC) intended to share the financial burden more equitably between the allies. Nevertheless, much effort still needs to be made. For Deni, the lack of financial involvement in NATO might be due to the fact that Russia, since the mid-2010s, is no longer perceived as the main threat by the allies. Thus, public opinion survey from the Pew Research center demonstrate that, in July 2015, as in 2016, the Islamic State is much more feared. Data from 2016 highlighted by Deni also shows that most Europeans do not favor hard military force to defeat Islamic extremism.

Deni demonstrated the need for a new NATO strategy towards Russia as well as the financial challenges facing the refocusing to Article 5. Lastly, the author explores the “how” question, i.e. what needs to be done in order to bring back collective defense.

For Deni, what matters for NATO is not much about the amount of money dedicated to defense, but more importantly, the type of investments that is being made.

By NATO [Public domain], (Wikimedia)

To do so, Deni explores an interesting question. Although there has been a recent upward swing in defense spending—which might result, according to Deni, from the annexation of Crimea—a close study as to where the investments are directed highlights remaining efforts that need to be addressed when focusing on territorial defense. For Deni, what matters for NATO is not much about the amount of money dedicated to defense, but more importantly, the type of investments that is being made. Thus, European NATO member states are incentivized to overinvest in equipment, both as a means to support their defense industries and to acquire the prestige that is tied to the acquisition of advanced military technology. Consequently, they also underinvest in training and exercises. Because they do not train collectively, NATO forces are not used to operating together and they lack readiness. As a consequence, Deni explains that “average response time lines are lengthening across the alliance.” In the guns versus readiness battle within NATO investments, equipment and artillery acquisitions win in every country.

Deni’s book offers useful analysis of the implications of such reduced readiness spending. What could the future hold for an Alliance with modern equipment that does not know how to use it appropriately? As Deni sums up, “the lack of readiness fundamentally threatens the ability of member states to make good on their Article 5 commitment to each other.”[4]

In the somehow contentious debates between two perspectives on the Alliance’s future, Deni offers a useful and detailed overview of what the challenges would be for NATO in returning  to collective defense and Article 5. He includes notable recent international developments, particularly those linked to the surprise election of Donald Trump in the United States. In a book whose logic is to study the political and strategic decisions of actors that are thought to be rational, the election of Trump and its subsequent unpredictability in terms of foreign policy appear as interesting subjects that we hope Deni will delve into further in the future.

It is said that a book is worthwhile when it raises more questions than it provides answers. Reading Deni left me with an impressive set of inquiries regarding NATO’s future, and his seeking to move the subject beyond a US-centric approach deserves attention by young scholars. Hence, I recommend this book to not only researchers and students, but also decision-makers, who should strive to pose more questions and investigate viable responses to our current state of affairs. 

Marie Robin is a second-year Master student at Sciences Po in Paris. She is also a research assistant at the Institute for Strategic Research (IRSEM, Paris), and worked previously at the Center for War Studies in Odense, Denmark. Next year, she will begin her Ph.D which explores the normative impact of terrorist jihadism on the conception of what is Just.

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Header Image: By Senior Master Sgt. Adrian Cadiz [Public domain] (Wikimedia)


[1] To learn more on the Global NATO debate, please see: Michael Clarke, “The Global NATO debate,” Politique étrangère, vol. 5, 2009, p. 57-67.

[2] John Deni, NATO and Article 5. The Transatlantic Alliance and the Twenty-First-Century Challenges of Collective Defense, Rowman & Littlefield, 2017, p. 37.

[3] Ibid, p. 38.

[4] Ibid, p. 109.