- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 11, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 11 (UPI) — For the umpteenth time, the NATO is in a crisis. But this crisis is different from all the others. This time, the alliance is openly admitting that it is having trouble reaching a decision. And not just a decision on any little issue, but a decision on carrying out its central responsibility: providing joint defensive support for one of its members that may soon be under attack.

Sixteen members want to go ahead with preparations for defending Turkey, which would be exposed to Iraqi retaliation if the United States and Britain say the Gulf War truce is over and resume full-scale warfare. But three members don't want to go ahead even with contingency planning. They have delayed any action since mid-January, on the argument that a consensus was needed for making a decision. No one knows how much longer the delay will continue. Turkey could be under attack before the matter is resolved.

On Feb. 6, NATO Secretary-General George Robertson, announced that the "silence procedure" would be put into operation, to try to break the deadlock and get a decision by Monday, Feb. 10. This long-standing NATO procedure is a way of feigning consensus without actually having it. The decision is laid on the table, and if no member objects publicly, the decision is adopted. Members are strongly encouraged not to break ranks or object publicly. As Robertson said at the time, "I'm confident that by early next week 19 countries will agree to go ahead with these tasks because they are sensible, they are prudent, they are simply contingency plans, and they are in response to a plea from one country in the alliance, and all countries are bound by the obligations of the North Atlantic Treaty."

But they didn't. Germany, France, and Belgium "broke silence," as the jargon goes. Robertson was reduced on the 10th to pleading for the members to get serious. "The majority of the NATO countries reiterated the urgency for NATO to take a decision in the spirit of the North Atlantic Treaty. Unfortunately we are not yet at the stage where we can achieve consensus and arrive at a decision. We will therefore continue to work hard to achieve such a consensus within the shortest possible time."

And Turkey responded with its own bombshell: it requested consultations on its defense under Article 4 of the NATO Treaty. This was apparently the first time in history that that article has been invoked. Interestingly, Sept. 11, 2001, was the first time Article 5 — mutual defense when under attack — had been invoked. The actionable provisions of the NATO Treaty have been exercised more in the last two years than in the entirety of the previous 50. And they have revealed an inadequacy in the procedures NATO used in its first 50 years.

During the Cold War, NATO often worried about whether it would be able to make a decision in a timely enough way to fight back in case of a Soviet invasion of Western Germany. What if Greece, or Denmark, or France, or some other repeat offender were to refuse to come to consensus? What if some other country with a temporary leftist government or with a habit of pacifist rhetoric were to drag out the discussion of how to respond? What if they refused to keep silence even under the "silence procedure"?

Fortunately the danger was never tested. The war never came. The Cold War dragged on as a war of military preparations and political maneuvers, not a fighting war. The only harm done by the consensus procedures in NATO was to delay and obstruct some of the military preparations that otherwise would have made sense. And alliance managers considered that to be a price well worth paying in return for maintaining the public facade of consensus. The latest detailed military preparations were generally not so important, considering how many Allied military preparations were already in place in the middle of Europe and in the form of the U.S. nuclear deterrent. It was the habit of marching lock-step that they wanted to practice constantly as the most important form of preparation for war. It was the public image of unbreakable unity that they counted on to deter the Soviets: it would show that the alliance could never be divided, and that we really would fight back all together if attacked.

With the end of the Cold War, the situation changed completely but alliance habits of thinking persisted. There was no longer a gigantic fixed enemy, to be deterred by a fixed 40-year-old military plan or by a habit of alliance unity in support of this plan. Instead there were real wars. The wars came and went in real time. They had to be responded to with new plans, and with physical actions before they passed offstage.

The image of 100 percent alliance solidarity is still a nice thing but no longer nearly as important as before 1989. What counts is the ability of the alliance to take action in real time. Putting together a belated public front of diplomatic unity does not impress anyone, if it means the alliance cannot get its act together seriously and dominate the field of play. People pay attention to the divisions in the alliance that prevent action, not the diplomatic formulas that are used to paper them over. What passed before as proof that the alliance had held together, today is treated as evidence that it has fallen apart as a working enterprise.

Today it is the timely and effective cohesion of the alliance that counts, not the fig leaf of consensus. And the reliance on consensus, as we can see just as soon as we come to the test with Turkey, is an obstacle to effective cohesion.

Thus Donald Rumsfeld: "Those three countries taking that position prevents NATO from fulfilling its obligation to a NATO ally." Nicholas Burns, U.S. ambassador to NATO, has observed that it brings NATO to the point of a "credibility crisis."

Others are saying that it is bringing NATO to the point of its demise. If the alliance cannot carry out its central treaty obligation, it is in trouble. The Wall Street Journal is speculating on "The End of NATO," suggesting that the alliance "as currently constructed it has outlived its usefulness" and it's time for America to consider "leaving this Cold War institution" and starting up a new coalition consisting of countries more concerned with the new threats. The trans-alliance, the same alliance that saved freedom in two world wars and the cold war, the alliance that seemed organic, is rooted in a profound community of values and a half-millennium of common civilizational development, could end up buried over the sacred cow of consensus.

But is consensus really obligatory? Couldn't NATO act in the absence of consensus?

In reality, yes it could. But no one would suspect it from the comments being made officially or for that matter journalistically. In fact, it is questionable whether even many of the officials in NATO realize that there are other options.

Thus, if you rely on Robertson's statements, you'd think consensus was the most sacred and eternal of deities, not just a sacred cow in need of a possible trip to the chopping block. "Unfortunately we are not yet at the stage where we can achieve consensus and arrive at a decision. We will therefore continue to work hard to achieve such a consensus … What matters is to arrive at a consensus. … We have to work to get a consensus."

Or, if you read the "NATO Handbook" in all of its dozens of editions, you'll think the same thing. You'll read that the alliance cannot act without consensus. It has no supranational element or personality of its own. It is simply a tool of the governments. Every country has equal rights in the council and all decisions are taken by consensus.

It is repeated thousands of times. Sometimes it is even said that every member country has a veto. It has become a part of the linguistic culture of discourse in and about NATO. Nearly everyone takes it for granted that it is true.

And yet it is simply not true. There is no legal right of veto in NATO.

The North Atlantic Treaty does not say one word about a veto, nor about consensus. The only right of veto that each nation has is over amendments to the treaty, and over use of its own national forces to implement a decision. And it has those rights, not because they are granted anywhere in the treaty, but because it always had them and the Treaty does not do anything to take them away. On normal alliance decisions, there is no infringement of sovereignty beyond what the member countries have already conceded by participating in the joint structures, and no right of veto.

The main author of the treaty, the late Ambassador Theodore Achilles, used to shoot down talk about a right of veto with the comment that "The treaty left the council free to make decisions by whatever procedures it found it needed. There are no restrictions in the treaty on the procedures, and that wasn't by oversight. We didn't want NATO to be hamstrung, like most international organizations, by a right of veto."

Achilles was director of the Western European division of the State Department in the late 1940s, and is credited by historians with having done more than anyone else on the drafting and negotiating of the treaty. He went on to run the Atlantic Council of the United States from the day of his retirement in 1962 until his death in 1986. If anyone wasn't overwhelmed by that level of authority and went on protesting that what he was saying wasn't what they were told at NATO, he would just answer, "Go back and read the treaty again. It isn't very long."

If one reads the treaty, one quickly discovers that Achilles was correct. There is no right of veto in the treaty, nor any obligation of waiting until there is a consensus. The relevant paragraph, Article 9, creates a North Atlantic Council. Consisting of ambassadors from each member country, it the supreme decision-making authority in NATO. But Article 9 says nothing about its procedures; nor does any other part of the treaty. It is left to the council to establish its own procedures, and to change them when needed. Which it has proceeded to do. Such as in the case of the "silence procedure," one of its long-standing methods for fudging the absence of consensus.

And the council is free to establish new procedures when it needs them.

It needs them now. When it comes to the point of a trans-Atlantic crisis over such an obvious matter as contingency planning for defending Turkey, it is clear that the old procedures are not good enough.

Last winter, Robertson began a call for reforming NATO procedures in order to make its operations efficient enough that it wouldn't be slowed down when it proceeded to invite more countries to join the alliance — and thus add themselves to the number seated around the council. "We are beginning the modernization of NATO's decision-making processes," declared Robertson on Feb. 1, 2002. "NATO has a unique ability to take and implement quick decisions. … Allies have to ensure that it can still be done after any enlargement of NATO in November."

The NATO Summit in November punted on this reform. It invited in seven new members but left decision-making essential unimproved. Very quickly, the problem has come home to roost. And it turns out that it is not only a matter of having too many members, any one of whom could obstruct decision under the old procedures; it is also a matter of the very nature of the new era, whose issues require procedures for getting to timely action rather than procedures for putting on a public front of unanimity.

What new procedures would work?

Here are some of the procedures that have been proposed, for example by David Abshire, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO:

1. Consensus minus one. The idea is that the danger is of one or another country backsliding into dictatorship and proceeding to screw up the workings of the alliance of democracies. But this would not help with the present problem.

2. A vote of 90 percent of the member countries. This also wouldn't work in the present case. The bar would have to be lowered to 80 percent. And such a vote would look strange since it puts Luxembourg on a par with the United States.

3. A weighted vote, as in the European Union or International Monetary Fund. For the sake of legitimacy, the weighting would probably be by population, as in the European Union, although in theory it could also be done by financial contributions or military contributions. In the European Union, the bar is 67 percent for most votes. This would resolve the present case.

Richard Perle has proposed two more options:

4. Decision without France. In some NATO sessions, France is absent since it does not formally participate in the joint Allied Command. Decisions could be shifted to those sessions instead of continuing to indulge France. However, this would not help much in the present case where Germany and Belgium are also in the opposition.

5. Weighted voting on all decisions except Article 5 decisions (decisions to go to war to defend a member). This would solve the immediate problem of preparing to defend Turkey, but might not solve the problem if it actually came to war. The restriction is out of deference to the argument that all member countries are supposed to participate in Article 5 operations. However, it would seem that the Article 5 obligation would be even worse served by an inability of the alliance to act in good time than by an alliance action in which a couple members fail to carry out their duties.

6. Yet another option is a weighted vote, as outlined in (3) or (5) above, but held in reserve rather than used in ordinary circumstances. NATO would go on making most decisions by consensus, as at present. If a few member countries proved too obstinate, the Secretary-General would have — as one among his repertoire of methods, along with the "silence procedure" and others — an option of calling a vote.

The argument for the last approach is the conservative one to keep change gradual. It would preserve the existing NATO organizational culture, with its habits of consensus and such virtues as those habits embody, rather than require NATO to adjust overnight to a full-fledged democratic voting culture. But it would upgrade the culture of consensus, by rewarding countries that move rapidly toward consensus rather than those that obstruct. The idea is that the mere existence of this option would be enough to let countries know that they cannot get away with trying to veto decisions, so they had better hurry up and cash in their disagreements for the sake of a compromise, or else they will simply get outvoted and lose their influence. It would be enough for the Secretary General to look around the table and say, "there are enough votes to get this passed," to put the others on notice that time was running out on them.

Secondary legal issues would arise for decisions made without consensus, such as the precise authority for disposition of common resources. However, with a bit of determination, it would be easy to manage these matters. If France objected to use of NATO infrastructure for which it paid its share, it could be offered a buy-out for its share. It would probably shut up and reject the offer, since accepting it would spell the end of its influence on future use of common resources, or of its claim to a fair share of the benefits.

NATO may muddle through the present crisis without making any of these changes. The most probable outcome is that the diplomats will splice together some language that can be agreed unanimously, such that the French and Germans will be able to claim to have gained some concessions to their view, and most of what America and Turkey wanted will be granted by with some inconvenient detractions and loss of time. The alliance will then lurch along until the next crisis, i.e. the next time a serious decision has to be taken.

It is reaching the point that every serious security issue is becoming a crisis for NATO's decision-making system. In the post-Cold War era, there was only one real decision — to prepare for defense against a Soviet invasion — and it was an obvious one. That is no longer the case. Getting involved in Bosnia was a crisis; it took years to reach a consensus on that, with tens of thousands dying meanwhile, and lots of journalists saying that it showed NATO's irrelevance now that the Cold War was over. Kosovo also took long, and once NATO had finally reached its decision, it felt so committed to the decision — so afraid that its consensus would unravel if any amendments to the decision were considered, or if any delay were accepted leading to a requirement for a new decision later — that the alliance became rigid and acted at Rambouillet as if it were positively determined to have its war, rather than applying coercive diplomacy with any degree of diplomatic flexibility or skill. The question of defending Turkey is now a crisis, perhaps even more profound than the earlier ones. There will be many more.

The only recent decision that was not a crisis was the obvious one: the decision to invoke Article 5 on Sept. 12, 2001 and join (declaratively) in America's defense in the war started by the terrorists. Very few future decisions are going to be that obvious. And the impending increase in numbers of members will make consensus harder to reach even for simple decisions. NATO can be expected to lurch from crisis to crisis in its functioning until it makes substantial reforms in its decision-making.


(Ira Strauss is U.S. coordinator for the independent Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO.)

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