NATO Is Ready to Play a Central Role

Antony J. Blinken and
Antony J. Blinken Former Deputy Secretary of State from 2015 to 2017, Former Deputy National Security Adviser from 2013 to 2015
Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

September 18, 2001

Just 24 hours after the terrorist attack on United States, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization invoked the mutual defense clause of its founding treaty for the first time in the alliance’s 52-year history. “An armed attack,” against one ally, reads Article 5, “shall be considered an attack against them all.” If and when the United States decides to retaliate, its allies have committed to help if Washington asks.

NATO’s action is an important declaration of political solidarity. It underscores that while the United States was the victim of this aggression, the values that Americans share with their allies – democracy, openness, tolerance – were the target. Like NATO’s members, countries around the world now must choose whether to side with the forces of moderation or fanaticism. While the form of possible retaliation can and should be debated, neutrality is not an option.

NATO’s declaration also has important implications for the role the organization might play if the United States pursues military action. Since the end of the Cold War, the allies have debated whether and how NATO should adapt to new security threats and project security beyond the borders of its member states.

While some NATO members were reluctant to see the alliance take on new roles, gradually a consensus developed: acting “out of area” but in Europe (read: the Balkans) is acceptable; extending NATO’s reach to the Middle East, Asia or Africa is not. With some foresight, NATO leaders also agreed in their 1999 Strategic Concept that “acts of terrorism and sabotage” can threaten common interests.

The consensus against NATO going global makes sense if the issue is projecting stability to places we care about beyond the Euro-Atlantic community, but whose problems do not go to the heart of our security or survival. Doing otherwise risks spreading NATO’s resources too thin or provoking paralyzing debates within an alliance whose members share the same values but not always the same strategy. In such instances – for example, the turmoil in East Timor or Sierra Leone – one or more allies might jump in, but NATO itself would not.

But NATO’s original raison d’être was collective self-defense in the event of an attack on the territory of one of its members – the situation the United States finds itself in today. NATO’s founders did not contemplate that such an attack might come from halfway around the world or that it would be carried out by a terrorist group rather than a state. They certainly did not imagine that Article 5 would first be invoked on behalf of the United States rather than a European ally. NATO’s current leaders have accepted that the alliance must adjust to these new realities.

In the event of military action, Washington may not want to act through NATO. That would require ceding some political and operational authority to the North Atlantic Council and to European generals and make it more difficult to act quickly. But the United States would probably want individual NATO countries to lend their political support; join a coalition of the willing on the ground; permit access to critical military facilities; grant overflight privileges; share intelligence; and crack down on terrorist access to safe houses, financial services and technical training on allied soil.

Some of these requests proved problematic during the Gulf War. In the months ahead, the allies may not agree on all the specific policy measures to be taken. But NATO’s swift invocation of Article 5 sends a powerful signal of solidarity – and a message that its members are committed to a central role for the alliance in meeting new threats to our common security.