NATO consensual decision-making

In an organization that is founded on consultation, consensus, negotiation and compromise, in which any member country or group of countries can effectively block action by the organization as a whole, any attempt by any country to make others act against their will are likely to fail.

By Conrad Turner

To understand NATO’s decision-making dynamic, remember first what NATO is, and what it isn’t. NATO is not an autonomous organization with its own forces and an independent foreign policy. It is the sum of its parts, which currently include the political leadership, as well as military and civilian assets, of 28 democracies in Europe and North America. These countries decide NATO policy. When all member countries have consulted, debated and agreed on any operation, each member country commits forces or resources according to its ability and desire. National military and civilian forces from each country, which have already trained together for months and years, unite as NATO forces, but they also wear the flag of their own country.

Every member country has an equal say in NATO. That means that any member can propose an initiative, take a leading role in debates, or even prevent the alliance from taking action. This accords disproportionate influence to smaller member countries, demands negotiation and compromise from all, and means that decisions must be taken by consensus. Consensus is NATO’s central functioning principle. In my view it is part of the glue holding the alliance together, attracting new members and ensuring old ones stay. Once consensus is understood, the rest becomes easier to understand. A decision reached by consensus is an agreement reached by common consent and accepted by the political leadership of each member country. This means that when a “NATO decision” is announced, it is the expression of the collective will of the governments of all the member countries.

Practically speaking this means that there is very little voting at NATO, though unanimity is required, for example, before new members can be invited to join. Members consult with each other until a decision that is acceptable to all is reached. They may not agree on all the details, but all can live with the outcome. This negotiation process can drag on, but it can often be rapid since members consult with each other on a regular basis — in meetings, in the corridors, even at the cafeteria and of course in member capital. The consensus principle applies throughout every level and is in play at every meeting. Majority rule is excluded. The divisiveness it might cause can undermine the commitment to implement NATO decisions, since operations depend entirely on the good will and contributions from each member country.

How on earth can 28 countries reach consensus on anything? This sounds like a recipe for a very messy process. But NATO members have committed to playing an active role in the security of the entire alliance. This means they have agreed to pursue the same aims, and are not focused solely on their own national interests. This provides unity of purpose and eases decision-making. It means they spend their time resolving pressing issues, not debating questions of basic principle. Discussions are more often about “how?” rather than “why?”

To publics emerging from years of political strife or war, this sounds implausible, like a fairy tale. They may assume these values are mere words, and the reality is far different. Yet commitment to shared values is a very serious requirement for membership. New members will attest they have gone to great lengths to demonstrate this commitment prior to accession. This is in part why military reforms are only part of the process: candidate countries must also devote themselves to judicial and legal reform, respect for human rights, and peaceful solutions to disputes with other countries.

At a very practical level within the organization, decision-making is achieved through human interaction, building personal relationships, building respect and influence by participating as an active and positive member in decision-making bodies. A member country’s influence in decision-making is increased also through participation in NATO training and operations. This contribution need not be military in nature, and takes the form of whatever a country has to offer, such as medical support, transportation, technical or training expertise. What is important is demonstrating seriousness of intent.

NATO’s transparency also serves to allay fears and build trust with partner countries. In this regard Partnership for Peace (PfP) has benefits that go beyond modernization, training and improved interoperability. Although PfP countries do not participate in decision-making by the 28 member-countries and do not have the same level of access to NATO information, they are better informed about opinions, policies and decisions within NATO and can also make their voices heard.

In my years of experience working with foreign publics I have learned that one of the most frequent assumptions about NATO is that the United States controls NATO. As an American diplomat, I am the first to tell you that my arguments to the contrary are unlikely to seem very credible. Really, the people to ask are diplomats from other NATO-member countries, those who joined recently and those who have been members for 60 years. But I will say that, as a general principle, in an organization that is founded on consultation, consensus, negotiation and compromise, common goals and transparency, in which any member country or group of countries can effectively block action by the organization as a whole, any attempt by any country to make others act against their will are likely to fail.

Conrad Turner is a Counselor for Public Affairs at the U.S. Embassy in Belgrade.

This op-ed, recently published by Politika, summarizes a speech delivered at TransConflict’s conference “The Partnership for Peace Program – Opportunities for Serbia?”, Hotel Norcev, Fruška Gora, 14-15th November 2009.

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