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Debating deterrence and the plain language of the NATO treaty

Madeline Monroe/Associated Press-Andrew Harnik/Getty Images

President Biden has stated that, “the United States will defend every inch of NATO territory with the full force of American power.” This commitment to engage militarily (how else might one define “full force?”) is apparently viewed by the administration to be required by Article 5 of the NATO Treaty, a treaty provision that President Biden, during his recent trip to Poland, termed a “sacred obligation.”

The problem with this “full-force” approach to Article 5 is two-fold: First, it is not consistent with the words of the treaty as it was understood when ratified by the U.S. Senate in 1949. Second, although intended to provide greater security to our NATO allies in Europe, understanding Article 5 to mean automatic military action is now serving the contrary purpose of putting our NATO allies at greater risk by preventing them from taking adequate measures to oppose Russia’s invasion of a neighboring non-NATO state. 

The NATO treaty was never intended to put the U.S. military on autopilot, guaranteeing war in the event of a military engagement with a NATO partner.

Although Article 5 does assure each NATO member that “an armed attack against one” is seen as “an attack against them all,” the words of the treaty do not mandate a military response. Rather, the treaty directs alliance partners to take, “such actions as it [each member state] deems necessary including the use of armed force.” The use of “armed force” is neither precluded nor required. How are NATO members to determine the level of response, including something short of the “use of armed force?” Article 11, rarely mentioned by Article 5 absolutists, explicitly answers this question, stating that the “provisions” of the treaty are to be “carried out by the Parties in accordance with their respective constitutional processes.”

This language in Article 11 was an important guarantee to U.S. senators who felt strongly about defending the prerogative of Congress, under Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution, to determine whether or not the U.S. would go to war. Similar language exists in nearly every mutual defense pact ratified by the Senate. Dean Acheson, U.S. Secretary of State at the time that the NATO Treaty was debated and ratified by the Senate, was crystal clear about the fact that Article 11 controlled Article 5. Testifying before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he assured senators that, “[t]his naturally does not mean that the United States would automatically be at war if one of the other signatory nations were the victim of an armed attack. Under our Constitution, the Congress alone has the power to declare war.”

Of course, a big part of the confusion is caused by the fact that, over the past 71 years since the NATO treaty went into effect, the U.S. has clearly drifted from the idea that Congress must declare war before the U.S. can take military action.

At most, Congress nowadays offers the blank check of an “Authorization to Use Military Force” (AUMF).

While I think this undermines the role that the Framers gave to Congress to decide matters of war and peace, accepting the necessity of at least an AUMF from Congress shows that there needs to be a process — a debate — before taking military action in the event of an attack on a NATO ally.

Taking Article 11 seriously retains the commitment to our allies — an attack on one remains an attack on all — while also adding an element of ambiguity to the response. In this way, Article 11 opens up strategic options. Currently, for example, the U.S. government fears that the imposition of a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, or even to the lesser action of transferring fighter jets from the NATO country of Poland to Ukraine, risks a direct military confrontation between a NATO country and Russia which, under their understanding of Article 5, would automatically trigger a U.S. military response. The end might be a head-to-head engagement between the U.S. and Russia that carries the risk of an escalation that takes us into the realm of the unthinkable: a nuclear confrontation. Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the help of a bit of nuclear saber-rattling, has used the administration’s understanding of Article 5 and the concomitant risks to essentially force the U.S. to paralyze the NATO alliance.

Right now, all of the strategic ambiguity belongs to Russia. Will Putin move beyond Ukraine? Is he willing to risk war with NATO?

A proper understanding of Article 5 turns the tables on the Russian President, putting him in a position of uncertainty. Putin would have to add to his calculations the possibility of a kinetic response by NATO countries that was serious yet short of the type of all-out NATO attack that he knows is off the table. 

Obviously, credible deterrence must sometimes rely on automatic responses. The launching of nuclear weapons under the concept of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), where certainty and immediacy is intended to avoid just such an exchange, can’t await a debate on the floor of Congress. As we are seeing with the situation in Ukraine, however, effective responses to lesser threats might depend on acknowledging how much of an exception MAD is to normal constitutional processes envisioned by Article 11 of the NATO Treaty.

Paul Sracic is a professor of politics & international relations and director of the Rigelhaupt Pre-Law Center at Youngstown State University. Follow him on Twitter @pasracic 

Tags authorization for use of military force Biden foreign policy countering Putin deterrence Escalation fighter jets Joe Biden military aid to Ukraine NATO No-fly zone Russian aggression Russian invasion of Ukraine

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