Since its creation in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has developed a tradition of making decisions by consensus. This requirement for general agreement among all members on positions or actions taken in the name of NATO has survived serious internal rifts and four rounds of enlargement.
Yet influential Americans are asking whether the consensus rule impedes the ability of NATO to make rapid and effective decisions--especially on military operations. Concerns predate the agreement reached in November 2002 on a fifth round of enlargement involving seven Central and East European states, but they have also been fueled by resentment over intra- Alliance divisions related to the war in Iraq. In May 2003, the Senate gave voice to these concerns by asking the Bush administration to raise the possibility of changing the consensus rule and "suspending" a NATO member before the North Atlantic Council.
Options exist to facilitate decisionmaking on the planning and conduct of operations that would not fundamentally change the role of consensus, a procedure whose advantages should not be underestimated. However, a judicious balance needs to be found between the desire for efficient military action in response to common threats and the need to ensure that all members have a chance to be heard. Moreover, if the United States were to seek changes, it would face a Catch-22: the consensus rule can only be altered by consensus.
It should come as no surprise that North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) officials are fond of citing Mark Twain's retort to doomsayers that reports of his death were greatly exaggerated. Having survived many rough tests since its birth, the 54-year-old alliance is still working to recover from a bruising disagreement among its members over the decision by some to oust Saddam Hussein's regime. Its services, however, are still very much in demand:
* About 37,000 NATO-led military personnel remain on crisis management duty in the Balkans.
* NATO recently launched its first out-of-Europe operation, taking command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan.
* In July 2003, the Senate voted unanimously to encourage the Bush administration to seek help from NATO in Iraq.
* Several prominent Members of Congress and nongovernmental experts have called for a NATO peacekeeping mission between Israelis and Palestinians.
But how does NATO make such commitments? Will a large--and enlarging--Alliance be capable of planning and managing potentially complex military operations in the future? Or do the drawbacks of running a "war by committee" (as some have described the 1999 Kosovo air campaign) make NATO an unwieldy instrument for managing modern coalition warfare? All of these questions revolve around the perceived ability of NATO, or lack thereof, to make timely and effective decisions to respond to 21st-century threats in a way that equitably shares the risks and responsibilities of Alliance membership.
Consensus: A Primer
Although international security affairs cognoscenti often refer to the NATO consensus rule, the North Atlantic Treaty does not specify how collective decisions are to be made, with one exception: the Article 10 provision that "unanimous agreement" is necessary to invite a state to join the Alliance. Absent any explicit voting procedure, NATO has developed a set of customary practices.
Most decisions are based on draft proposals circulated to all Allies by the Secretary General, who chairs the North Atlantic Council (NAC), or by the chairperson (always an International Staff [IS] official) of one of the hundreds of NATO committees and working groups. These draft proposals may be initiated by the Secretary General, the IS, or individual Allies. Written proposals generally are preceded by consultations in a variety of forums, including bilateral or multilateral discussions in allied capitals, allied missions at NATO Headquarters, the NAC, and committees and working groups established by the NAC. …