Consultation and consensus: Decisions made at NATO

How would you react if you sat around the table of the North Atlantic Council and had to respond to a terrorist attack in one of the allied countries? This is the question we asked our members as they took part in the first every Brussels YPFP North Atlantic Council Simulation. The North Atlantic Council is NATO´s oldest and highest decision-making body, all decisions are reached through consensus. Rounding up our Action Points Series, generously supported by NATO, the Simulation aimed to immerse members in the trappings of decision-making and give them better insight into how the North Atlantic Alliance operates. Following the simulation our members came up with four takeaways on how decisions are made at NATO HQ.

Firstly, simulating a terrorist attack, the members soon noticed that the NATO toolbox for responding to crisis-management was more limited than they had assumed from the outset. As a military-political alliance, it could reassure the ally in concern that the others stood with it, they could promise to share intelligence on the case in point and they could put up a united front to uncover and stop external supporters of the terrorist group. Beyond this however, options were limited. Our participants discussed deploying the NATO rapid response force to secure public facilities in the country in question, but it turned out to be difficult to achieve overall consensus for that.

This brings us to the second takeway from the simulation; while NATO does possess strong military capabilities with which to respond to international threats, getting approval from the North Atlantic Council to deploy them can get tricky. Since NATO is an alliance of sovereign states, not any type of federation, decision-making can only be made on the basis of consensus. To deploy the rapid response force all allies around the table have to agree to it, and with security perceptions differing from ally to ally, that can prove tricky.

Although only invoked once since the Alliance was first founded, most of our participating members were aware of Article 5 of the Treaty of Washington, the governing document of NATO. Article 5 makes the famous statement that "an attack against one is an attack against all". It was invoked in support of the United States after the attacks on 9//11. However, our participants soon learnt that Article 4 of the Washington Treaty is just as important to the workings of the alliance. Underestimated from the outside, Article 4 asks Allies to convene and consult in response to specific crises. As the simulation developed it soon became clear that even within the alliance, security perceptions differed and not all allies were immediately on one line. The informal consensus-seeking format of the North Atlantic Council proved important for them as they tried to reach a consensus statement.

Their final takeaway proved to be that reaching that consensus statement meant exploring and understanding the position of others. All seeking to support the country under an imagined terrorist attack, the consultations went back and forth to find a formulation everyone could stand behind. They soon took on very constructive roles, noticing that sticking to your own strong position might hinder any kind of statement being made by allies.

Thanks to a strong and continuous partnership with NATO, YPFP members in Brussels have in previous years been exposed to many of the key challenges facing the Alliance.  Through our joint "Action Points Series" we have now also helped them gain insight  into how decisions are made, how tools such as the Rapid Response Force and the Partnership Interoperability Platform works. We heard from one of the most experienced senior NATO officials, Deputy Secretary General Ambassador Alexander Vershbow, getting to know his thoughts on where the Alliance stands only months before its next summit. The simulation rounded off the series by putting our members in the proverbial hotseat of decision-making, learning the opportunities and limitations which comes with this seat.

Håvard Sandvik, Security & Defence Programming Director, YPFP Brussels

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.

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