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New Research Division Publication - Is Consensus Still Necessary Within NATO?

  • 01 Jul. 2016
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  • Last updated: 10 Oct. 2017 13:26

Research Report 07/2016

Dear Reader,

This Research Report discusses one of the fundamental processes by which the NATO Alliance operates and takes decisions: the principle of consensus.

As the author states, the “consensus rule” or the “consensus principle” has been the cornerstone of NATO’s decision-making process since the signing of the Washington Treaty in 1949. The idea that all decisions reached within the Alliance must be agreed upon by all member nations is not directly mentioned in the Washington Treaty, or anywhere else in official NATO documents, but it has been the sole basis for decision-making in NATO since the creation of the Alliance in 1949.

Consensus is not just required for the most important decisions within the North Atlantic Council (NAC), but also throughout the structure of the organization, including every committee and working group. While sticking steadfastly to the consensus rule gives the Alliance a credibility on the world stage not seen by any other alliance in history, many experts and critics argue that this decision-making process should be reconsidered and adjusted. They argue that as the Alliance continues to grow and expand its geographical focus outside traditional European borders, the use of the consensus rule must be scrapped to keep the Alliance agile and adaptable.

On the other hand, the author of this paper argues that keeping the consensus rule in its current form is instrumental in keeping the Alliance credible both for the members and for those outside the Alliance. NATO remains a strong and viable security arrangement because of the consensus rule, not in spite of it. The consensus rule within NATO has gained more critics over the past decade as the Alliance grows larger and the strategic security environment it operates in becomes more complicated. Despite Alliance infighting that has become more public over time and the delays that occur in being able to take some actions, the consensus rule continues to achieve precisely what it was designed to achieve. The consensus rule prevents the Alliance and, when adhered to, also its members, from stumbling into unwise and later untenable political fiascos. Despite the frustration and the long and arduous hours of consultations, the consensus rule has always worked. The consensus rule continues to serve the purpose it was designed for and, with a few minor and warranted adjustments, it should be left intact throughout the Alliance for the most important decisions.

We hope you find this paper helpful in reaching your own decision as to whether the consensus principle is a positive or negative aspect of NATO.



Jeffrey A. Larsen, PhD, Division Head Research

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