Invoking Article V: NATO’s Entangling Alliance

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Category: International Law & Diplomacy, Public
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With a little over a year before the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, the United States has attempted to navigate complicated global crises without being drawn into additional conflict. Without a doubt the current crises in North Korea and Syria have tested that resolve. While the case for support or intervention can be debated within Congress and the corridors of the West Wing, one potential document has the legal authority to bind the United States to action without debate, public approval, or a congressional vote. Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty obliges the United States and its signatories (twenty-eight member countries in total) to collective defense in the event one of the member states is attacked. Similar to the alliance system that helped expand the Great War, this agreement continues to increase in members with Albania and Croatia joining in 2009, adding to the increased potential for errant state actors.

Last June, a Turkish F-4 Phantom jet accidently (although it may not have been an accident) entered Syrian air space and after notification by Turkish air traffic control, exited to international airspace where it was subsequently shot down by a Syrian air defense system. This action and after Syrian troops fired on refugee camps in Turkey prompted Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish Prime Minister, to threaten to invoke Article V in an effort to force the United States and North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) members into action. Although Article V is typically used as a last resort—with its first invocation occurring on September 12, 2001, in response to Al Qaeda’s attack on the United States—there is no definition of “armed attack” or criteria to determine how or when NATO countries are required to assist. A member country can merely call for Article V protection. In full, Article V spans 146 words to bind member states:

The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the 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. Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the (U.N.) Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

Article V is similar in nature to the alliance system that helped drag most Western powers into World War I. The potential for a small-scale conflict between Turkey—Syria, like the Austria-Hungary–Serbia conflict that kicked off World War I, to result in regional and then global conflict is not that far fetched. Indeed, many world leaders thought the Triple Entente would balance the Triple Alliance and ensure deterrence. Similarly, the purpose of Article V and the North Atlantic Treaty was created to check the rising threat of Soviet power. Although Article V does not require a military response, unlike the Treaty of Brussels that the North Atlantic Treaty was based on, commentators consider it possible that Article V can trigger entanglement in Syria.

It is entirely clear that the reasons for invocating Article V and its requirements on member states to act is not clear. The fact that Article V has only been invoked once seems informative, but this does not reduce the possibility of a member state, like Turkey, invoking Article V when Syrian forces shoot down one of their planes in international waters or launch mortars across their border. Certainly, this type of attack against the United States has prompted immediate and aggressive action. Even if other alternatives to punish Syria were used, say United Nations sanctions, this would not rule out the possibility that Turkey could use direct action or invoke Article V, resulting in entanglement beyond country-to-country to conflicts among international organizations.

Even if Turkey invokes Article V, there is a strong possibility that member states, including the United States, would refuse action or sell short the action it “deems necessary,” rendering the North Atlantic Treaty somewhere between symbolic and hollow. The North Atlantic Treaty is a paradox: it seeks to deter conflicts by requiring member states to act when one of their own invokes Article V. To be sure, the system is based on the concept of self-defense, but it is in deterring attacks that the treaty system relies. Without the support of each member the system falls apart. With the support of each member the system perpetuates entanglements or encourages, rather then deters conflict. The treaty system deters until one domino falls, then the trajectory becomes increasingly difficult to plot and can transform a conflict between states into a regional and then intercontinental conflict.

The ability of NATO allies to invoke Article V and trigger the United States automatic involvement in another struggle, without the debate required of our elected officials is a frightening proposition. The current paradoxical state of NATO and the treaty system should be reevaluated in light of current regional security risks posed throughout the globe and seek to create a balanced system that will decrease, rather than increase, the prospect of multi-state conflict.

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One Response to “Invoking Article V: NATO’s Entangling Alliance”

  1. I wouldn’t worry about it too much. Our government has never shown any real interest in following the dictates of either the U.N. or NATO Charters. We cite them when they serve our purposes and ignore them when they don’t. This is an interesting article but Washington does whatever it wants whenever it wants. Without a world court with binding jurisdiction and enforcement powers, these treaties are paper tigers.

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