Updated March 13, 1998
CRS Report for Congress
Received through the CRS Web
NATO's Evolving Role and Missions
Stanley R. Sloan, Senior Specialist in International Security Policy
with the assistance of J. Michelle Forrest
Foreign Affairs and National Defense Division
One of the key issues in the debate on NATO enlargement is the question of
NATO’s purpose and mission. This analysis suggests some possible answers to the
question “What is NATO?” The answers are based on an interpretation of the North
Atlantic Treaty, the observation that an organization is defined by its activities, and the
declared objectives and intentions of its members. From this view, NATO clearly
remains a collective defense pact in which the members pledge to take steps to assist
another member that comes under attack. But under current threat circumstances that
commitment no longer dominates NATO’s day-to-day agenda. The Treaty also suggests
that NATO is a community of values and common goals in support of “democracy,
individual liberty and the rule of law,” which may help explain why NATO has survived
the end of the Cold War. Today, the members have moved beyond the collective
defense commitment to employ NATO’s strengths as a defense cooperation organization
for additional purposes. These purposes include creating political/military options for
dealing with crises and challenges to the interests of the member states, spreading
stability to Central and Eastern Europe, and encouraging cooperation with Russia and
other countries. NATO is not a system of collective security, because it is not designed
to resolve disputes among its members, but its activities contribute to collective security
and make it a key part of an emerging Euro-Atlantic system of cooperative security.
The Blind Men and the Elephant
Today, nearly a decade after the Berlin Wall fell, there are many diverse views about
what NATO is or should become. The discussion of NATO’s essence recalls the Indian
fable about the King who asked a group of blind men to feel various parts of an elephant
and to describe the elephant based on the part they had touched. Naturally, each blind
man produced a different description of the elephant. This analysis starts from the
premise that an objective assessment of NATO’s purpose and mission can be based on
several sources: on the provisions of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty; on the fact that an
organization is in many respects defined by its activities; and on the declared goals and
intentions of its members.
Congressional Research Service ˜ The Library of Congress
NATO as a Community of Values
The North Atlantic Treaty, otherwise known as the “Treaty of Washington of 1949”
for the fact that it was signed in Washington on April 4, 1949, was clearly designed to
counter Soviet expansion and military power. But the Treaty itself identified no enemy,
protected the sovereign decisionmaking rights of all members, and was written in
sufficiently flexible language to facilitate adjustments to accommodate changing
international circumstances. Secretary of State Dean Acheson argued that “The central
idea of the treaty is not a static one...” and that “the North Atlantic Treaty is far more than
a defensive arrangement. It is an affirmation of the moral and spiritual values which we
hold in common.” During 1949 Senate hearings on the Treaty, Acheson and other
Administration witnesses argued that what they were proposing was very different from
previous military alliance systems.1
The North Atlantic Treaty would not have been signed in the absence of a Soviet
threat. But what made NATO different from previous military alliances was that it was
based on the Treaty’s clearly articulated support for “democracy, individual liberty and
the rule of law.” A value basis for the alliance was necessary to help overcome forces in
the United States which might have successfully resisted U.S. participation in a purely
military alliance. It is true that, during the Cold War, the values of democracy, rule of law
and individual freedom occasionally took second place when authoritarian regimes in
NATO were tolerated in the interest of maintaining a militarily strong alliance. But
NATO’s survival beyond the end of the Cold War suggests that its value foundation
remains an important part of the glue that holds the Alliance together and attracts new
NATO as a Flexible Framework
The Treaty, drafted in relatively simple language, does not spell out in great detail
how its objectives should be implemented. There is no specified military strategy, no
requirement for any particular set of bureaucratic arrangements or military organization,
beyond the creation of a North Atlantic Council and a defense committee, both called for
in Article 9. This suggests substantial latitude for reform or elimination of bureaucratic
and military structures, or creation of new cooperative arrangements. The only limits on
such changes are imposed by national interests, inertia, and other human and institutional
factors, not by the Treaty.
NATO’s flexibility has been demonstrated, for example, by the military buildup and
elaboration of an integrated command structure in the early 1950s (which had not been
anticipated when the Treaty was signed and was judged necessary only after North Korea
invaded the South) and the adjustment to the failure of the European Defense Community
(EDC) in 1954. In the mid-1960s, NATO was forced to adjust to France's departure from
the Integrated Command Structure. At the same time, the Allies revamped NATO’s
strategy with the doctrine of “flexible response” to a possible Warsaw Pact attack. In
1967, the Allies approved the “Harmel Report,” which gave the alliance the mission of
North Atlantic Treaty, Hearings Before the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate,
April 27, 28, 29, May 2, and 3, 1949.
promoting détente as well as sustaining deterrence and defense. In the 1990s, the Allies
have been adapting NATO's structure and missions to new international conditions.
NATO as a Collective Defense System
At its founding, the most prominent aspect of the Treaty was its requirement for
individual and collective actions for defense against armed attack. Article III of the
Treaty provides that the Allies “separately and jointly, by means of continuous and
effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and
collective capacity to resist armed attack.” In Article V, the Treaty’s collective defense
provision, the Parties agreed that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe
or North America shall be considered an attack against them all...” They agreed that each
Party to the Treaty would “assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith,
individually and in concert with other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including
the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”
The Article V provision is frequently described as requiring an “automatic” response
by the United States to hostilities in Europe. The term “automatic” is inconsistent with
a strict interpretation of Article V, which leaves the precise actions taken by each Party
subject to their sovereign decision, and this was the interpretation of those who supported
Treaty ratification in 1949. In the case of the United States, a decision to go to war to
help defend a NATO country against attack would still require decisions taken within the
constitutional framework involving congressional as well as Presidential decisions.
During the Cold War, NATO’s strategy and the way in which the United States
deployed its forces in Europe gave Article V more substance in practice than suggested
by the words in the Treaty. Beginning in the early 1950s, the United States deployed its
military forces and nuclear weapons forward in Europe, mainly in Germany, in a fashion
that ensured a Soviet attack on the West would in its early stages engage U.S. forces,
therefore constituting an attack on the United States as well as on the host nation. In the
mid-1950s, the United States threatened “massive [nuclear] retaliation” against the Soviet
Union should it attack a NATO country. After massive retaliation’s credibility was
undermined by Soviet acquisition of long-range nuclear weapons, NATO adopted a
strategy of “flexible response” which suggested that battlefield nuclear weapons might be
used early in any European conflict. Such weapons were deployed well forward in West
Germany to ensure that they were seen as part of NATO’s first line of defense.
Today, with no imminent, Soviet-style threat, NATO strategy and force deployments
have fundamentally altered the circumstances under which the United States would be
making decisions on the use of its conventional and, especially, its nuclear forces in
Europe. During the Cold War, the nuclear umbrella was designed to appear likely to be
forced open in the case of a Warsaw Pact attack -- prudent Soviet leaders had to assume
that nuclear weapons might well be used early in a European conflict. Today, the nuclear
umbrella is much less automatic. The Allies have promised Russia that neither substantial
NATO forces nor nuclear weapons would be deployed forward in new member states.
The United States has withdrawn all of its militarily significant nuclear weapons from
their forward deployments in Europe.
All this indicates that, although the words of Article V have not changed, the threat
that might invoke the Article and the Alliance strategy and deployments in response have
changed quite radically. Now, the activities of the Alliance have turned toward purposes
of defense cooperation that lie beyond collective defense.
NATO as a Cooperative Defense Organization
NATO has been and always will be a political as well as a military Alliance. In
recent years, it has been popular to say that NATO would have to adapt to new
circumstances by becoming “more political.” But NATO’s activities today illustrate its
unique utility as an instrument to promote and implement political/military cooperation
among member and partner states. The goals of such cooperation today, however, are
substantially different than during the Cold War.
Policy Options for Crisis Management. In the early 1950s, the NATO countries
developed a civilian organization and an integrated military command structure to help
manage the Alliance and to establish that there would be a united front in response to any
Warsaw Pact attack. At the end of the Cold War, the Allies asked themselves if they still
needed such a system at a time when the Soviet threat had all but vanished. Their answer,
in the 1991 “New Strategic Concept,” was that defense cooperation, so essential in the
Cold War, could be turned to other purposes. Since that time, most of NATO’s military
activities have been focused on “non-Article V” requirements, most significantly in
Bosnia.2 NATO cooperation is widely accepted as having facilitated an effective U.S.-led
coalition response to Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.
NATO remains an organization of sovereign nation states, and no member can be
compelled to participate in a military operation that it does not support. Defense
cooperation therefore cannot guarantee that the Allies will respond to any given political
or military challenge. But NATO can be used to build political consensus and create
military options to back up or implement political goals. U.S. and allied policymakers
would have fewer credible coalition military options if their military leaders and forces
were not working together on a day-to-day basis, developing interoperability of those
forces, planning for contingency operations, and exercising their military capabilities.
This day-to-day work develops habits of cooperation, at the political and military level,
which underpin the ability to work together when required to do so under pressure or,
more importantly, under fire.
Defense Cooperation as an Instrument of Political Change. Beyond this
explanation of NATO as a mechanism for building multinational military coalitions,
defense cooperation is now being used for political goals as well. Perhaps most
importantly, political/military cooperation in NATO helps prevent "renationalization" of
defense in Europe. The Partnership for Peace, premised initially on the development of
individual defense cooperation arrangements with partner countries in Europe, has begun
to weave the military systems of new democracies into the web of NATO cooperation.3
Through the Partnership, countries have been learning how to develop systems of
For background on the process of NATO adaptation see CRS Report 95-979 S, NATO’s
Future: Beyond Collective Defense by Stanley R. Sloan. September 15, 1995.
See CRS Report 97-531, NATO: Alliance Expansion, Partnership for Peace, and U.S.
Security Assistance, by Richard F. Grimmett, Paul E. Gallis, and Larry Nowels. May 9, 1997,
and CRS Report 94-351, Partnership for Peace, by Paul E. Gallis, August 9, 1994.
democratically-controlled security establishments as well as habits of cooperation with
NATO nations and neighboring partners. The partnership approach has helped the first
wave of candidates meet the requirements for NATO membership.
In the face of Russian opposition to NATO enlargement, the Allies are attempting
to use political/military cooperation with Russia as a means to change Russian perceptions
of the Alliance and, it is hoped, to change the political relationship between Russia and
NATO. In a sense, the Allies are updating the goal of using NATO to promote improved
relations among states in Europe which was added to NATO’s mission by the 1967
Harmel Report. If NATO succeeds, the defense cooperation relationship with Russia,
which began with military cooperation in Bosnia and now is developing in the framework
of the Russia-NATO Founding Act, could leap-frog over the arms control accords that
were designed during the Cold War to regulate relationships between parties which
otherwise were in conflict with one another. Moving from a Russia-NATO relationship
governed by arms control to one characterized by the transparent, predictable and
confidence-building nature of defense cooperation would mark a sea-change in the
European security system.
It is clear that NATO serves a variety of purposes for individual member states
beyond these broadly stated goals. Many such “secondary” agendas help explain why
current members of NATO want the Alliance to continue, and why so many countries
want to join. For example, former members of the Warsaw Pact do not fear attack from
today’s Russia, but they see NATO as a guarantee against falling once again into the
Russian sphere of influence as well as an insurance policy against any future resurgence
of a Russian threat. Most European governments hope that the process of European
unification will lead to more intensive security and defense cooperation. But they
recognize that integration of European defense and foreign policies faces many obstacles.
This is an evolutionary process that might require several more decades before Europe
could become a unitary actor on the world stage. In the foreseeable future, most European
Allies see the transatlantic link as essential to security in and around Europe, even though
they support the development of a stronger European role in NATO.
Further, many Europeans believe that the U.S. role in Europe, particularly as
translated through NATO, provides an important ingredient of stability that facilitates
cooperation among European states. For example, even though Germany is not seen as
a threat by its neighbors, both Germany and its neighbors feel more comfortable with
Germany’s role in Europe thoroughly integrated within the framework of both the
European Union and the transatlantic Alliance. From the U.S. point of view, NATO can
be regarded as a way to help ensure that the burdens of maintaining international stability
are fairly shared.
Is NATO a Collective Security Organization?
The term “collective security” is widely and loosely used in the discussion of
NATO’s future role. According to its classic definition, “collective security” is a system
of relations among states designed to maintain a balance of power and interests among the
members that ensure peaceful relationships within that system. The League of Nations,
established after World War I without U.S. participation, is usually regarded as such a
NATO has always been designed as a system of cooperation among member states
to deal with challenges and problems originating outside that system, not within it.
Granted, NATO has to some extent tried to promote peaceful settlement of problems
within the system, in support of its mission of defending against external threats. It is
credited with having helped heal World War II wounds inflicted by Nazi Germany on its
neighbors. NATO has also attempted to mitigate conflicts between Greece and Turkey.
But when the Allies began preparing for enlargement, they made clear to potential
applicants that they should resolve differences with their neighbors before they could be
seriously considered for NATO membership.
From a legal perspective, NATO does not have principal responsibility for collective
security in Europe -- the North Atlantic Treaty does not suggest such a role. The
Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) was designed to promote
peaceful relations among states “from the Atlantic to the Urals.” The 1975 Helsinki Final
Act established a series of agreed principles (“rules of the road”) to govern relations
among states in Europe. The OSCE members states (all European states plus the United
States and Canada) have adopted further agreements and principles, given the
organization some diplomatic tools for conflict prevention, and convene regular meetings
under OSCE auspices to try to nip problems in the bud before they develop more serious
proportions. If a Euro-Atlantic cooperative security system develops, the OSCE could
well serve as the “constitution” and collective security framework for that system.
It should, however, be acknowledged that several aspects of NATO’s activities
contribute to the goal of collective security. The Russia-NATO Founding Act, the
Partnership for Peace, and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, for example, make
important contributions to the goal of maintaining peaceful and cooperative relations
among all states in Europe.
What Is NATO?
In sum, the collective defense commitment in the North Atlantic Treaty is an
obligation taken on by all members, even though Article V leaves much room for nations
to decide collectively and individually what to do under any given crisis scenario.
Continuing defense cooperation in NATO keeps alive the potential to mount collective
responses to aggression against Alliance members. Defense cooperation also creates
policy options, though no obligation, for responses to crises beyond NATO’s borders and
serves as a tool for changing political relationships between NATO countries and other
nations, particularly Russia. NATO is not a collective security organization; it is not
designed to keep peace among its members but rather to protect and advance the interests
of the members in dealing with the world around them. But some of NATO’s activities
contribute to the goal of collective security. To many, the North Atlantic Treaty
represents the values and goals articulated by the United States and its Allies today.
However, at this time of rapid change, issues of direction and mission are engaging the
attention of policymakers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Viewing the entire NATO “elephant” today, the Alliance appears to be: a
transatlantic community of values; a collective defense system; a system for defense
cooperation; and a key part of an emerging cooperative Euro-Atlantic security system.