Commentary

Revise the NATO Charter before Accepting a Global Role

By William A. Niskanen
June 29, 2004

A NATO summit will be held in Istanbul on June 28 and 29, the first such summit to include officials from the seven new member governments of eastern European countries. According to Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the secretary general of NATO:

The Istanbul Summit will reaffirm NATO as the principal forum where Europe and North America address the key military and political issues of the day. Europe and North America have a unique strategic responsibility to uphold global stability. To continue to meet that responsibility, they must be prepared to project stability, in new ways and in new places, and to do so together.

With all due respect, the NATO charter should be changed before NATO accepts

“a unique strategic responsibility to uphold global stability.” In the absence of changes in the NATO charter, the new NATO reduces our security at worst and is not helpful at best. Moreover, these problems are increased by the expansion of NATO to include seven additional member governments. Let’s count the ways:

Article V of the NATO charter requires all NATO countries to respond to an attack on any NATO country, a characteristic provision of any defense alliance. But the new NATO is no longer a defense alliance against Russia. A NATO-Russia Council was established in May 2002, and a Russian general is now accredited as an ambassador to NATO. It is an illusion to believe that NATO could defend a small country on the Russian border, say Lithuania, against an attack by a resurgent Russia. But the obligation to respond to such an attack increases the probability that a minor local conflict would expand into a general war.

In short, the seven new members of NATO make an insignificant addition to the military capability of NATO but substantially increase its security obligations. Expanding NATO without changing Article V makes sense only if Russia continues to cooperate to maintain world order. All of us may hope for this cooperation to continue but it is yet far from assured.

NATO actions still require the approval of all member governments or, in the term that only diplomats understand, a “consensus.” This rule severely limits the potential to use NATO for an action that is supported by most of its member governments if the action is strongly opposed by any one government. Again, the expansion of NATO compounds this problem. In exchange for a commitment of insignificant military capability to NATO, the government of a small country, say Slovenia, now has a potential veto over NATO actions that do not serve its interests.

At least two changes in the NATO charter should be considered to resolve these problems:

1. Delete Article V entirely, leaving the decision to defend against any specific attack to the approval of the member governments at that time.

We should all have learned an important lesson from the conditions that led to World War II. Britain and France chose not to risk war in 1938 in response to Hitler’s threat against Czechoslovakia, although Czechoslovakia could possibly have been defended. In contrast, Britain and France went to war in 1939 in response to the German attack on Poland, although there was no way to defend Poland after the Hitler-Stalin Pact. An alliance should never commit to defend a country that probably cannot be defended, because such a commitment risks transforming a minor local conflict into a general war.

2. Change the “consensus” rule to some weighted voting rule or, say, to two-thirds of the member governments.

There is probably no voting rule on whether to commit NATO forces that would be preferred by all member governments. Weighting votes by relative defense spending or troops committed to the alliance would provide better incentives to the member governments but would lead to continued U.S. dominance and is unlikely to be acceptable to most of the other member governments. A rule, for example, that requires the approval of at least four of the six largest member governments in the alliance plus two- thirds of the other member governments may be more acceptable to both the large and small member governments.

Any change in this rule should be worked out by negotiation among the member governments of NATO before any major change in NATO’ mission, especially one that commits NATO to “uphold global stability.” And a change in the NATO charter, of course, would have to be ratified by the U.S. Senate.

In the absence of these changes, there is no apparent reason to maintain NATO as the “principal forum,” the dominant institution of the Atlantic alliance. We should all be grateful for NATO’s critical role during the Cold War. But the Cold War is over. We won. And the Soviet Union no longer exists. Given these changes, we should now evaluate NATO by whether it continues to be a useful instrument of our shared interests, not as a goal in itself. NATO may continue to be such a useful instrument, but not without changing its basic charter.

William A. Niskanen, chairman of the Cato Institute, is former acting chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Reagan and a long-time defense analyst.