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Article 5: From the Cold War to 9/11 to Today

Article 5: From the Cold War to 9/11 to Today


By Igor Vokhmintsev


Before the end of the Second World War in 1945, the West and the East maintained an extremely suspicious perception of each other. By 1947, relations between the USSR and the United States and Great Britain had deteriorated. However, the USSR was not the only threat as perceived by Western Europe. France was also worried about threats from Germany, including the restoration of Germany and the ghost of Rapallo, remembering the time of U.S. isolationism and fearing that it might again be left alone to face Germany. Thus, it was not easy to persuade Paris into a defense alliance against the USSR, since by concluding it, Paris believed that this would only provoke Moscow to act more decisively as well as that the treaty would not in any way bind Germany’s hands. For France, the reference to Germany was important, because at that time leftist sentiments reined among the population, and it was still afraid that the treaty would provoke the USSR. Only after a series of failed international conferences did Great Britain and France agree that the USSR posed a greater threat. Thus, they concluded the Dunkirk Treaty on March 4, 1947.[i] Although formally this was a defense treaty against Germany, as indicated in Article 2, the real purpose of the treaty was to defend against the USSR.[ii] Article 2 of the Dunkirk Treaty reads as follows:

Should either of the High Contracting Parties become again involved in hostilities with Germany, either in consequence of an armed attack, within the meaning of Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, by Germany against that Party, or as a result of agreed action taken against Germany under Article I of this Treaty, or as a result of enforcement action taken against Germany by the United Nations Security Council, the other High Contracting Party will at once give the High Contracting Party so involved in hostilities all the military and other support and assistance in his power.

(Watch a video of the signing of the Dunkirk Treaty here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9-beOOJ2t14)

Later that year, in September 1947, the United States and the countries of Central and South America committed to the Rio Pact, in which Article 3 outlined the principle of collective security.[iii] This pact was an organic continuation of the Monroe Doctrine, preventing European inference throughout the entire Western hemisphere. However, the peculiarity of the pact was that there was no obligation to provide military assistance:

1. The High Contracting Parties agree that an armed attack by any State against an American State shall be considered as an attack against all the American States and, consequently, each one of the said Contracting Parties undertakes to assist in meeting the attack in the exercise of the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations. 

2.  On the request of the State or States directly attacked and until the decision of the Organ of Consultation of the Inter-American System, each one of the Contracting Parties may determine the immediate measures which it may individually take in fulfillment of the obligation contained in the preceding paragraph and in accordance with the principle of continental solidarity. The Organ of Consultation shall meet without delay for the purpose of examining those measures and agreeing upon the measures of a collective character that should be taken.

3. The provisions of this Article shall be applied in case of any armed attack which takes place within the region described in Article 4 or within the territory of an American State. When the attack takes place outside of the said areas, the provisions of Article 6 shall be applied.

4. Measures of self-defense provided for under this Article may be taken until the Security Council of the United Nations has taken the measures necessary to maintain international peace and security. 


(Watch video of the Rio conference here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iZ7367gI48U)

At the end of the war, Great Britain was alone in wanting to recreate the same pact for Western Europe. It had envisioned a “Monroe Doctrine” for London: a united and rebuilt Europe with U.S. support and UK dominance. But first, the United States wanted to see the seriousness of the intentions of Western European countries with regard to peace and prosperity. Washington did not want to be bound by defense treaties and investments with countries that could start a conflict, although a security treaty was insurance for the United States. Therefore, the UK’s vision for a united Europe started with the Benelux states, which were already under the Marshall Plan. It was also in France’s interests to include Belgium in the extended Dunkirk Treaty, since Germany’s attacks on France in both world wars had been through Belgium. However, neither a single treaty nor a series of bilateral treaties based on the Dunkirk Pact suited the United States, which was the main sponsor of Europe’s economic recovery.

Firstly, the United States was initially not enthusiastic[iv] about an anti-German treaty outside the auspices of the UN Charter. It did not want to impose strong conditions upon Germany as had been done following the First World War or oppose the very spirit of the UN, with which Capitol Hill had resolved to operate more closely.[v] Secondly, although it was easy to conclude a pact that was consistent with the Monroe Doctrine, it was quite another to make commitments to Europe. The spirit of isolationism reigned in Washington, which was very difficult to overcome. In the White House’s opinion, it was much better to create an alliance based on the Rio Pact, which was in accordance with the UN Charter and the model of which was known to the conservative Congress and corresponded with the ideas of the Marshall Plan.

The Benelux countries were against the expansion of the Dunkirk Treaty for other reasons. Firstly, they believe that a series of bilateral treaties could not be as effective as one multilateral treaty. The experience of the Phony War at the start of the Second World War showed this. Secondly, the Benelux countries did not understand why they should hide behind an anti-German screen, frightening off the Germans and assuming that the USSR could not understand against whom they are concluding a treaty. Meanwhile, the United States had not yet given any guarantees.[vi], [vii]

These disputes and discussions could have gone on for a very long time if not for the USSR’s “assistance”. In January 1948, in response to Moscow’s non-invitation to a conference on German monetary policy, an English train was stopped by the Soviets when crossing the borders of occupied zones. In February, mass movements took place in Czechoslovakia, during which the Communist Party took the leading position in the country. In Italy, the communists gained strength, and in April 1948 they sought to win the elections. At the same time, the USSR offered to conclude a non-aggression pact with Norway. All this hastened discussions around the conclusion of the agreement and removed French concerns over Germany. As a result, the Rio model won, and on March 17, 1948, Great Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg signed the Brussels Pact founding the Western Union—a predecessor to both NATO and the European Union as we know them today. Article 4 of the treaty referenced Article 51 of the UN Charter and obliged the parties to the treaty to provide military support and other assistance:[viii]

If any of the High Contracting Parties should be the object of an armed attack in Europe, the other High Contracting Parties will, in accordance with the provisions of Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, afford the Party so attacked all the military and other aid and assistance in their power.

(Watch the signing of the Treaty of Brussels here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wlOenrL_zQ)

The treaty contained no straight references to either Germany or the USSR. From Dunkirk to Brussels, we begin to see the evolution of these security treaties as they remove references to particular adversarial states and start mentioning military support for treaty parties. 

Following these treaties the United States became convinced of the reliability of the intentions of its partners, and in July 1948, exploratory talks were launched that resulted in the Washington Paper of September 9, 1948.[ix] In the first draft several possible options for what would become ‘NATO Article 5’ were outlined. The United States insisted that the new pact be as close as possible to the Rio Pact in meaning. In the American version, there was no mention of military aid but simply of military support. Washington wanted to ensure that the right of the U.S. Congress to declare war was in no way threatened by the dogma of the Brussels Pact about military support. The U.S. draft read as follows:

An armed attack by any State against a Party shall be considered as an attack against all the Parties and, consequently, each Party undertakes to assist in meeting the attack in the exercise of the inherent right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter.

The Europeans took the position that Article 5 should be interpreted in accordance with the Brussels Pact, which mentions military support. In secret negotiations in March, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff proposed another option: “military or other action… as may be necessary to restore and assure the Security of the North Atlantic area.”[x] That is, military assistance was implicit, but at the discretion of the United States. This option did not suite the Europeans. The European parties thus proposed the following option:

If any Party should be the object of an armed attack in the area covered by the Treaty, the other Parties will, in accordance with the provisions of Article 51 of the Charter, afford the Party so attacked all the military and other aid and assistance in their power.

An exemplary compromise proposed by Canada proposed that each country reserves the right to consider the action as an armed attack and leaves room for allies to act in accordance with domestic laws:

Provision that each Party should agree that any act which, in its opinion, constituted an armed attack against any other Party in the area covered by the treaty be considered an attack against itself, and should consequently, in accordance with its constitutional processes, assist in repelling the attack by all military, economic and other means in its power in the exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter.

On April 30, 1948, American diplomat George Kennan prepared a special paper in which he described the concept of “political warfare”.[xi] Today, NATO’s definition of hybrid warfare, excluding cyber warfare, is largely a copy of Kennan’s concept of political warfare. Although this text was not declassified until 1972, Kennan was a prominent expert and often shared his views in public. Thus, during the discussions around the treaty, among the three options mentioned above, there were also discussions about how to counter “political warfare”.[xii] Britain, however, was against discussing this, because such a related treaty article could give space for intervention into partners’ domestic policies as the Rio Pact had.[xiii] Therefore, all talks about it were dropped. As London posited, the United States had used the Rio Pact numerous times to intervene in Central and South American states under the auspices of the Pact. As T. Achilles ironically mentioned in 1952, even the communists could come to rule by parliamentary means under the more autonomous security parameters outlined in the Washington Treaty.[xiv] London had cast doubt upon taking the Rio Pact as a clear model, because it wanted security assurance from U.S. control.   

Following the Washington paper, two positions emerged. On the one side, the United States wanted to make as vague a commitment as possible given that two world wars in less than 50 years had cast suspicion on the adequacy of states. Europe, on the other side, was as clear as possible. Europe had a big stake in the Brussels Treaty, which it hoped would not provoke the USSR and Germany. In general, the United States was in favor of an alliance with Europe; but inside the United States, there was an exhausting dialogue on how this alliance would take shape. Even supporters of the alliance did not aim to draft the treaty in such a way that the United States immediately entered a war in case of any European conflict.

In 1949, during a discussion with all ambassadors of the countries of potential participants, the discussion revolved around the use of the words “forthwith”, “military and other actions”, and “as it deems necessary” in the Washington Treaty. According to the U.S. view, the word “action” was sufficient enough and the word “military” should be excluded. Additionally, the phrase “as it deems necessary” had to be included in the treaty. In the opinion of the rest of the participants, these edits nullified the principle of Article 5.[xv] There was room for more radical proposals, they thought. Senator Connally called for the replacement of the key line “an armed attack against one or more of them be considered an attack against them all…” with “an attack against one would be regarded as a threat to peace of all...”[xvi] Key proposals for Europe proclaimed that they “…will assist the party or parties so attacked by taking forthwith such military or other action as may be necessary to restore…” However, this did not find support from the U.S. Senate.[xvii] On February 19, 1949, U.S. Secretary of State Dean Acheson persuaded Congress to keep the word “military” in the article, since the meaning of the line does not oblige the United States to use military force in the event of an attack or require a declaration of war without Congress.[xviii] A final version was phrased “…calling for action including the use of armed force…” By March 1949 most of the senators replied that they would vote for a declaration of war in the event of a Soviet attack on Europe. All disagreements were discussed, a compromise was found on some issues, but on others, someone had to yield. Finally, in April 1949, the brand new treaty was signed in Washington, with Article 5 reading as follows:

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-defence recognised 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 Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security.

(Watch footage from the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdaABYlmWzU)

International treaties are always compromises, and the Washington Treaty is no exception but rather an illustrative example. Article 5 is full of such compromises.

Looking at the final version of Article 5, there are a few points that we should highlight. Firstly, what is an armed attack? In international law, there is only the definition of aggression. Resolution 3314 of 1974 in Article 1 states that aggression is the use of armed force by a state against the sovereignty, territorial integrity, or political independence of another state, or in any other way inconsistent with the Charter of the United Nations. Article 4 of this resolution gives the UN Security Council the duty to determine whether or not actions can be considered acts of aggression in accordance with the UN Charter.[xix] Additionally, international law does not have a single concept of weapons. Traditionally, political warfare is not covered by Article 5. However, since 2014, NATO has expanded the scope of Article 5 to cyber attacks, although the decision will be made on a case-by-case basis and only for protecting networks that are in NATO’s possession. Today, Article 5 works only if a war of the 20th century has begun, with tanks, infantry, artillery, and missiles. In all other cases, the most that a country can do if it believes it was attacked is to convene consultations in accordance with Article 4 and try to convince others to introduce Article 5. This is not an ideal scenario for a country that feels a real threat but cannot prove it. However, responding to attacks or going to war is also unpleasant for others. What if your partner was simply mistaken and overly worried? This issue was already raised during the Berlin crisis.[xx]

Secondly, Article 5 does not specify that in the event of an armed attack that all countries must use their military forces but rather take such actions as they deem necessary, including military force. Yes, countries must recognize that an attack on one is an attack on all, but no more. However, this leaves a gap for another Phony War to take place. Although war was declared on Nazi Germany, Allied powers did not take any military actions to keep the Nazis from conquering Poland, despite its military alliance with France and Britain, Norway, and Denmark. Moreover, Article 5 does not provide states with exact obligations about when and how to assist the party under attack.   

All of the above, however, does not mean that Article 5 is toothless. From 1949 to 2001, Article 5 was never applied. Throughout its history Article 5 has only been applied once, in September 2001. The strength of Article 5, in contrast to the others, is thus in its passive role. If it is not applied, then everything is more or less fine, because its application means that the situation is completely out of control, and NATO has already lost its deterrence abilities. Article 5 is not needed in order for all 30 countries to fight for their safety days on end, so that no one from outside even has a thought to attack. Of course, for example, the US Congress retains the exclusive right to declare or not to declare war, even in the event of an attack on an ally. But, who in the world wants to determine how the Congress will respond?

In February 2020, a sociological survey of residents of 16 NATO member states was published.[xxi] The survey included a question specifically on Article 5—although the formulation of the question, in my opinion, is not successful (% who say if Russia got into a serious military conflict with one of its neighboring countries that is our NATO ally, (survey country) __ use military force to defend that country). Without mentioning Russia and neighboring countries of Russia, the results would reflect the clearer attitude of citizens of member states toward their obligations under Article 5, without reflecting sympathies and antipathies towards Russia. The median by country who said that their state should use military force to defend that country (38%) shows the low popularity of Article 5 obligations among the population of the 16 surveyed countries. But, looking at this table,[xxii] one must remember that even during the Cold War, NATO did not always enjoy wide public support, including the period of anti-nuclear, pacifist protests in the 1980s.[xxiii] It is better not to be alarmed by this lack of support but to know the context and history of Article 5 and its application.


About the Author

Igor Vokhmintsev is an independent Russian expert on Euro-Atlantic security. He received his bachelor’s in International Relations from Samara University. His research interests include NATO-Russia-EU relations, public diplomacy, and security. He was selected for the NATO HQ visitors program and participated in a conference co-organized by the NATO Information Office in Moscow. He also took part in numerous EU Delegation in Russia seminars and conferences related to EU-Russia links and the security system in Europe. He has own blog on the Russian International Affairs Council website.



[i] United Nations, 1947, Treaty Series, United Nations, Volume 9, p. 187, https://treaties.un.org/doc/Publication/UNTS/Volume%209/v9.pdf

[ii] Marc Trachtenberg, A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement, 1945-1963 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1999), doi:10.2307/j.ctv10qqzmh.

[iii] “INTER-AMERICAN TREATY of RECIPROCAL ASSISTANCE,” n.d. http://www.oas.org/juridico/english/treaties/b-29.html.

[iv] “Memorandum by the Director of the Policy Planning Staff (Kennan) to the Secretary of State,” Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1948v03/d5.

[v] U.S. Senate Resolution 239 - 80th Congress, 2nd Session - ('The Vandenberg Resolution').

NATO, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_17054.htm.

[vi] “The Ambassador in France (Caffery) to the Secretary of State,” Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1948v03/d19.

[vii]“Memorandum by the Director of the Office of European Affairs (Hickerson) to the Secretary of State,” Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1948v03/d4.

[viii] “The Brussels Treaty - Treaty of Economic, Social and Cultural Collaboration and Collective Self-Defence,” NATO, https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/official_texts_17072.htm.

[ix] “Foreign Relations of the United States, 1948, Western Europe, Volume III - Office of the Historian.” n.d. Office of the Historian, U.S. Department of State, https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1948v03/d150.

[x] Lawrence S. Kaplan, NATO 1948: The Birth of the Transatlantic Alliance (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).

[xi] “FRUS, Emergence of the Intelligence Establishment,” https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/document/114320.

[xii] Escott Reid, Time of Fear and Hope. The Making of the North Atlantic Treaty (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1977), 315.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Timothy Andrews Sayle, Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO and the Postwar Global Order (Ithaca; London: Cornell University Press, 2019), http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7591/j.ctvdtph2f.

[xv] Snyder, “The role of International working group.”

[xvi] Kaplan, NATO 1948.

[xvii] Sayle, Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Review of Resolution 3314 Definition of Agression, n.d., United Nations, https://undocs.org/en/A/RES/3314 (XXIX).

[xx] Sayle, Enduring Alliance: A History of NATO.

[xxi] Pew Research Center, February 2020, “NATO Seen Favorably Across Member States.” https://www.pewresearch.org/global/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2020/02/PG....

[xxii] Ibid., 32.

[xxiii] Thomas R. Rochon, “Mobilization of the Peace Movement,” in Mobilizing for Peace: The Antinuclear Movements in Western Europe, 3-24 (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1988), http://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt7ztw6f.6.

Image: https://www.nato.int/cps/en/natohq/news_118651.htm


This publication was co-sponsored by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.     

Thursday, 2 September, 2021 - 16:45