During her NATO strategic concept speech, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that “threats to our networks and infrastructure such as cyber attacks and energy disruptions” should be considered an Article 5 action, in which an attack on one is an attack on all.

While she was not explicit on the matter, she seemed to rule out military response.  Rather, “Managing these problems requires close cooperation with the private sector, and NATO may not take the lead in these efforts but needs to be involved. Allies should work together to enhance our preparedness and our defenses.” She also lauded such efforts as the U.S.-EU Energy Council and pledged “we are determined to support Europe in its efforts to diversify its energy supplies.”

Still, beyond using NATO as a forum for cooperation on these issues, it’s not clear how far Clinton would take things.  She rightly noted that “Energy security is a particularly pressing priority. Countries vulnerable to energy cut-offs face not only economic consequences but strategic risks as well.”

In questioning from Sebestyén Gorka of the Atlantic Council’s Strategic Advisors Group, Clinton elaborated that our “concept of what Article 5 collective defense means” must “be analyzed and considered in light of the new challenges that we confront. But I view Article 5 as at the core of the NATO promise, and therefore we have to be willing to get behind the new challenges that are posed to member states and be ready and willing and able to create not just a new strategic concept but the operational abilities to provide that collective defense.”

In a follow-up question from SAG member Julian-Lindley French, Clinton declared, “a lot of the infrastructure challenges that we’re going to face with these new threats – take energy security or cyber security – are going to require more investments by member nations so that we can network through NATO. It’s not going to be NATO doing it so much as coordinate and working with investments by member nations.”

I’m very pleased to see the administration thinking along these lines.  We at the Atlantic Council have been pressing cyber security and energy security as key priorities for transatlantic cooperation for quite some time.  And our former chairman — now Clinton’s colleague — General Jim Jones was and is passionate about defining security beyond its traditional military dimension.

That threats to our energy and communications infrastructure are immensely important — and could rise to the level of national security threat —  is inarguable at this point.  At the same time, however, we should be very reluctant to raise the specter of Article 5, which is quite explicitly about armed attacks:

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 all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized 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.

One could argue that the language “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force” gives wide berth.  Why shouldn’t the Alliance take whatever collective action “it deems necessary” to maintain security?  But, like it or not, Article V brings the connotation of military reprisal. Indeed, NATO’s own website says as much:

Article 5 is at the basis of a fundamental principle of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. It provides that if a NATO Ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the Ally attacked.

There have been a myriad of incidents over NATO’s sixty year history but the clause has been invoked precisely once: in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks.

We should keep it that way.  Otherwise, we not only water down the deterrence value of NATO but we incur the very real risk of the Alliance splintering over differences in handling relatively minor incidents.  

Because of the complex relationships various member states have with potential threat states, most notably Russia, it is imprudent to ring the Article V bell and call on states to take collective action at the risk of their own economic and cultural relationships.  Note that the Allies did next to nothing over the Russian cyber attacks against Estonia.  Let’s continue to be miserly in invoking Article V,  reserving it for only the most serious threats to the Alliance.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

For a more thorough discussion of this topic, please see the Atlantic Council’s new issue brief, “Article 5 and Strategic Reassurance,” written by Edgar Buckley and Ioan Mircea Pascu, members of the Strategic Advisors Group.

Related Experts: James Joyner