After an incident last week in which two Syrians were killed by Assad regime forces while attempting to flee to safety in Turkey, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan declared that “NATO has a responsibility to protect Turkish borders.”
It is true that Article 5 of the Washington Treaty which formed NATO states, “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.” But it’s absurd, indeed, to argue that Syrian forces shooting at Syrian nationals incidentally crossing the Turkish border constitutes an “armed attack” against Turkey. Quite obviously, neither the Syrian government nor its armed forces intended to initiate hostilities with Turkey and it would be a gross overreaction, indeed, if Turkey were to use force against Syria in retaliation–much less ask the other 27 allies to treat this as a matter of collective security.
Indeed, the goals of Article 5 have already been met in this case with no response whatsoever. The Article goes on to state 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 [emphasis mine].” Given that the security of the North Atlantic area was never in jeopardy, the allies would be hard pressed to do anything else to restore it.
More importantly, Article 5 is the very heart of the Alliance. It is a bedrock promise that each ally makes to the group: to stand together in the event of an attack and, it is hoped, deter an attack simply by that solidarity being in place. It was, of course, made with an attack by the Soviet Union into Western Europe in mind. Ironically, the only time it has ever been invoked was in the wake of the terrorist attacks against the United States on September 11, 2001–which the European Allies declared to be an attack against the Alliance as a whole. Given that the mission in Afghanistan turned out to be a decade-plus slog having very little to do with that initial attack, most likely wish they’ve never done it.
For the newer members of NATO, the Central and Eastern European allies who were once part of the opposing Warsaw Pact, Article 5 serves as a very real assurance of help in the event of a Russian invasion. And, again, as a deterrent to such an attack taking place and the help being needed. For the rest of the Allies, it is largely a theoretical measure at this point, as few really think a traditional attack into Western Europe or North America a plausible threat.
Many NATO hands, alas, are not satisfied with peace in our time. Rather, they seek to redefine the meaning of “attack” in such as way as to make it easier to invoke Article 5. Aside from Erdogan’s silliness here, there have been many calls to get the Alliance to declare that cyber attacks would trigger the collective defense mechanism. This is not only absurd, it’s dangerous. First, because most cyber attacks simply don’t warrant a military response. Second, because outlining ahead of time which transgressions might merit a collective NATO response actually invites lesser transgressions; uncertainly is a far better deterrent. Third, because lowering the bar for invoking Article 5 actually makes it less likely to be honored if invoked–and thus renders it useless for rallying action in the event of a real attack.
James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council. A version of this piece was published by The National Interest.