NATO and the Paris Attacks: Why There Will Not Be an Article V Response


Reporting on the aftermath of the Paris attacks has included a good bit of speculative (and not necessarily well-informed) commentary on whether or not NATO’s collective defense provision (Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty) would come into play. As of this writing, France has not requested that Article V be invoked in response to the attacks apparently directed and organized by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).

Some commentaries assume that when a NATO ally is attacked the other allies are required to jump to their defense. In fact, Article V is carefully worded and limited, in no small part due to demands from the U.S. Congress protecting their prerogative to declare war. The passage therefore ensures that all allies are able to make their own sovereign decisions about how to respond to an attack on another ally. According to the text, if an “armed attack occurs … each [member state] … 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” [emphasis added].

It also has been popular to suggest that the ally under attack — France in this case — can individually invoke Article V. In fact, while the ally under attack surely needs to suggest that it supports invocation, it is NATO’s North Atlantic Council (NAC) that must formally (and collaboratively) call for an Article V response. In other words, collective defense requires collective agreement.

In NATO’s long history, the allies have invoked Article V on just one occasion, and that came following the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Within 24 hours, the attack was addressed by the NAC. The council decided to invoke Article V only if it was determined that the attack was perpetrated by a foreign actor, and not an incidence of domestic terrorism. Many NATO member states have suffered from domestic terrorism over the years, but it does not fall under the collective defense provisions of the Treaty.

The Bush administration was initially uncertain whether or not it wanted NATO to get involved, but did not block consensus in the NAC. Later in September, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made it clear that the United States did not want Article V to interfere with the U.S. response to the attacks, famously declaring that “the mission will determine the coalition.” NATO members did help monitor U.S. airspace and provided other supporting tasks while U.S. assets were directed toward Afghanistan. But no NATO mission directed at Afghanistan emerged until the Bush Administration decided it actually might need allied help there because of the resources they needed to divert to Iraq in 2003.

With that as background, it is interesting to speculate what considerations are currently influencing decisions in Paris concerning NATO’s potential role in France’s response to the ISIL attacks.

Even though France is a committed NATO member, it also remains protective of its national sovereignty (as well as of the facade of European unity on security issues). For example, that is why Paris preferred that the 2011 Libya operation not be taken over by NATO, but had to relent because it needed NATO (mainly American) support to complete the mission. The parallel here is that Paris cannot achieve its stated objective of destroying ISIL without a lot of help from other countries, starting with NATO allies — most notably the United States, the United Kingdom, and Turkey.

In this case, Paris may think (accurately) that a NATO mission growing out of the invocation of Article V would likely be dominated by the United States, particularly given that NATO’s Supreme Allied Commander (SACEUR) is, and always has been, American. French President Francois Hollande most certainly would like U.S. and allied support and cooperation but also would like to be seen as taking strong national action, not just as a member of a NATO operation. Paris has asked for European solidarity (which won’t produce any military assistance) and wants the United States and Russia to cooperate in the fight against ISIL.

The Russian angle may be the most difficult for the United States, and the alliance, to manage. Russia clearly could be helpful against ISIL but President Vladimir Putin has his own agenda, in both Europe and the Middle East. The northern NATO allies (particularly Poland and the Baltic states) remain primarily concerned about Russia’s agenda in Ukraine and beyond. They see Article V as much more directly relevant to the threats they perceive from Russia than the threat from ISIL. A discussion of Article V in the NAC today could in fact open the door for the northern NATO members to object to any cooperation with Moscow that would weaken the West’s defense against Russian aggression in their neighborhood. This potential complication and France’s national sovereignty concerns may mean that there will be no public consideration of Article V in NATO, even if it already is a topic of private discussion among the allies.


Stanley R. Sloan is a Visiting Scholar in Political Science at Middlebury College and a Nonresident Senior Fellow in the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council of the United States.


Photo credit: U.S. Mission to NATO