A large part of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) defeating the Soviet Union was the implementation and execution of The Pledge, a commitment to counter the spread of communism via a security community of transatlantic liberal democracies. Developed by NATO’s founders, The Pledge is a pact to defend one another, guarantee its members’ peaceful exchanges, and provide collective security. The Pledge has stood as NATO’s promise of mutual political and military support for its members through formal and informal means. However, the increasing complexity of today’s geopolitical environment highlights that NATO’s consensus rule limits The Pledge’s ability to provide consistent and meaningful support to allies. This article proposes a Secretary General Discretionary Tool (SGDT), which would grant the Secretary General two broad authorities: 1) the ability to direct the preparation of important contingency operations; and 2) the ability to shorten the committee process for certain high-priority decisions. The SGDT would allow ten or more countries to collaborate while not forcing the entire alliance to participate politically or militarily if their constituents do not approve. As a result, the framework provides clear guidelines for NATO and limits infighting on the legitimacy of sub-regional security issues.

NATO is to geopolitical security what Augusta National is to the sport of golf; both are exclusive, private clubs with one key feature (collective defense for the former and a premier golf course for the latter) that unites current members and encourages others to apply. Both institutions have built their reputations on their longevity, heritage, and an ability to adapt to the changing landscape in their respective fields – a flexibility which is essential to maintaining their global standing.  

Augusta National, which has hosted the prestigious Masters every year since 1934, has proven its adaptability. The course, though synonymous with southern American heritage, famously changed two of its longstanding traditions – its Black caddies-only rule (ended in 1983) and exclusion of women (ended in 2012 with the accession of Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore) – to ensure continued growth in a changing world. Although initially contentious, these changes made the institution more productive for its patrons, members, and the game of golf.

At first glance, comparing a defense treaty organization to a golf club may not seem intuitive; however, this comparison can be helpful in illuminating the ways in which adapting NATO to its current challenges through a Secretary General Discretionary Tool (SGDT) can leave the organization stronger and more responsive in the long-run. In the early 1950s, Lord Hastings Ismay, NATO’s first Secretary General, described the alliance’s founding as a method to “Keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and the Germans down.” From 1949 until 1991, the institution was synonymous with western democracy and opposing communism. Since 1991, NATO has evolved from a 16-nation defensive alliance designed to quell Soviet aggression into a dynamic 32-nation security guarantor. In addition to its membership, NATO’s post-Cold War expansion extended also to its scope. In the 1990s, the institution became the enforcement mechanism for the United Nations Security Council’s Bosnia peace agreement enforcement via the Implementation Force (IFOR) and Stabilization Force (SFOR) missions. In the early 2000s, NATO extended its out-of-area activities even further by creating the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and Operation Resolute Support (ORS) missions in Afghanistan, which took the institution outside of Europe for the first time. Despite tensions between allies, this post-Cold War evolution has made NATO the world’s premier military alliance and has enabled it to maintain security in the Transatlantic region and project power globally whenever threats to its members’ interests arise.

As NATO enters a new chapter in 2022, evolving geopolitical circumstances demand an update and shift to Ismay’s aforementioned guiding principle to “keep the Americans in, the Russians out, and protect The Pledge.” The alliance’s new identity encourages the institution to tweak the consensus rule to allow coalitions of the willing within NATO to address more nuanced concerns within the alliance. 

What is The Pledge?

Canadian Diplomat Escott Reid, a NATO founding father, explained The Pledge in the 1940s as a pact whereby all members treat an attack against one member as an attack against all. This principle served as the heart of the alliance to which all other elements of the Washington Treaty (NATO’s founding document) were subordinate. The strategic goal of The Pledge was to counter the spread of communism via a security community – defined as a group of nations integrated and guided by a sense of unity and a promise between members to resolve issues without violence – of Transatlantic liberal democracies. The Pledge was later codified as Article 5 of the NATO Charter, which organizes NATO’s core purpose and animates its enduring mission to support an attacked ally via whatever actions deemed necessary, including the use of armed force.  

NATO admission guarantees peaceful exchanges and collective security via The Pledge. Joining the alliance provides economic opportunities and a full range of diplomatic ties across the Transatlantic region. The promise of collective security via NATO membership has allowed Europe to prosper under peaceful conditions since WWII in a way few could have imagined at the time of NATO’s founding in 1949.

The Pledge also implicitly forges twenty-nine bilateral agreements between each NATO member and the other 29 Allies. These bilateral agreements create a duty for each alliance member to defend an ally independent of how NATO views the situation. The explicit Article 5 protection and implicit bilateral agreements between all NATO allies create two layers of solidarity.  As a result, allies obtain opportunities to develop and cultivate common security interests with a subset of members who can engage with more granular and nationally contextualized information. For example, in November 2015, a group of NATO member countries in eastern Europe (Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia) emerged as the Bucharest Nine in response to Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. Sweden and Finland’s ongoing integration into NATO creates an opportunity for a more comprehensive security strategy in the Balkans and Arctic regions to counter Russian interests. 

Despite multiple iterations, The Pledge has stood as NATO’s promise of mutual political and military support for its members through formal and informal means. However, the consensus rule limits The Pledge’s ability to provide consistent and meaningful support. 

The Consensus Rule and How it Works

Although NATO’s charter never established a voting procedure, the keystone of the institution, Article 5, led to the adoption of a consensus model. As a result, policy decisions from NATO are consequential because they express the collective will of the transatlantic region’s governments. By offering each country the option to veto any significant policy, NATO allows each ally to protect its national sovereignty. Although each country has a veto, NATO does not require an affirmative vote because it uses an institutional norm called the silence procedure. This procedure, used throughout NATO, allows an ally to voice concern about a proposal anonymously or consent to the community’s will within a specified time. The subtle difference between a decision-making method that allows a nation to acquiesce (despite its public or private reservations) and a method that obligates a state to cast an official vote gives countries a save face feature, improving the probability of consensus and minimizing direct conflict between countries.

The silence procedure has two main benefits. First, it allows the Secretary General to influence the institution formally and informally. Second, it provides powerful nations an opportunity to create side deals. The Secretary General aids consensus-building by having informal discussions at NATO headquarters with individual allies who express concerns about a particular policy. Additionally, he or she uses formal written communication to set the organization’s political vision. These formal proposals and objections set the table for informal negotiations between governments advocating and objecting to a given policy. As with any international political body, countries make formal or informal side payments to help move a course of action forward. The silence procedure thereby provides NATO members sufficient plausible deniability around the practice of trading resources for political or military gain.

While sticking steadfastly to the consensus rule creates a unique level of standing internationally, many experts and critics argue the need to reconsider and adjust the use of this decision-making tool. In a January 2008 interview, a former Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) NATO's military leader, General James Jones, explained the critiques of NATO's consensus rule land in one of three broad buckets. First, the size of NATO creates a diverse set of interests which is often too challenging to coalesce unless the organization takes a lowest-common-denominator approach. Second, the consensus rules restrict the agility of the alliance to make quick decisions. Third, the number of security concerns is significantly larger today than during the Cold War.

Tweaking the Consensus Rule Via the Secretary General Discretionary Tool

During the 2010 Strategic Concept development, then Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen commissioned a group of experts to look at ways to speed up NATO’s decision-making process without altering the consensus rule. The experts made four recommendations: 1) recognize that the NAC must approve any departure from the consensus principle; 2) preserve the consensus rule for the most important decisions involving Article 5 commitments, budgets, new missions, or new members; 3) identify means on less vital questions for allies to register concerns short of a veto; and 4) establish that the implementation of decisions arrived at by consensus should not be delayed by lower-level efforts to review those decisions.

Using the combination of the 2010 group of experts’, Leo Michel’s, and Loren Traugutt’s recommendations on tweaking the consensus rule, I propose a Secretary General Discretionary Tool (SGDT). The SGDT would grant the Secretary General two broad authorities: 1) the ability to direct the preparation of important contingency operations; and 2) the ability to shorten the committee process for certain high-priority decisions.  

The SGDT would give the Secretary General the power to initiate and chair a NATO committee of contributors (NCC) once a significant quorum (ten or more countries) of members expresses an interest in a particular security issue. After forming an NCC, the Secretary General would define a specific task, role, and timeline for the coalition’s formation to ensure a narrow scope for the operation. Once the timeline expires, the NCC dissolves.

The Secretary General would brief allies outside of the NCC regularly but would not allow them to impact its management of the daily activities. Nations outside of the NCC would have the option to join once they committed a proportional contribution to the operation. I define proportional as at least half the country’s expected percentage of NATO troops. For example, if an NCC’s operation required 10,000 troops, France (~6.5% of NATO’s total force) would have to pledge at least 320 soldiers before joining the NCC. This provision establishes a minimum standard for late adopters to put sufficient skin in the game to participate. Expecting a requisite contribution discourages countries from joining an operation to meddle and bog down the NCC’s decision-making process. Once the NCC has established its goals, timeline, and objectives, the Secretary General would then direct the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR), the military leader of NATO, typically a United States General, to design a contingency plan for the NCC nations’ militaries. Giving the Secretary General, traditionally a European, the authority to plan activities without consensus shields national capitals from taking a stand on specific issues early that could be politically damaging later. Additionally, shifting more responsibilities toward the Europeans prepares the institution for the United States’ potential reallocation of resources toward the Indo-Pacific.

In the past, Secretary Generals have illustrated executive leadership to help the institution overcome internal friction to pass policy. For example, in 1999 during Operation Allied Force, Secretary General Javier Solana used a summary of discussion to keep contentious decisions within the North Atlantic Council, a tactic which prevented cumbersome extra steps. Formalizing powers like this would prevent essential decisions from getting bogged down in the bureaucracy of unnecessarily achieving multiple rounds of consensus. Providing more tools for the political leader of NATO to navigate consensus would streamline NATO’s process of selecting, developing, and pursuing out-of-area activities.


Traditional neorealist alliance theory explains that coalitions are temporary, non-permanent arrangements formed when two or more states believe a common foe is a menace to their security. While The Pledge, as currently practiced, sets the stage for mutual support, some challenges currently facing NATO require a more nuanced approach to the region’s security concerns.

The SGDT proposed in this piece would provide a space for ten or more countries to collaborate while not forcing allies to participate politically or militarily if their constituents do not approve. By mandating clear definitions, missions, roles, and, most importantly, a timeline on coalitions of the willing, the NCC framework provides clear guidelines for the alliance as a whole and limits infighting on the legitimacy of sub-regional security issues. With the SGDT format, NATO could have quickly developed forces to act earlier in Kosovo, Iraq, and Libya without damaging relationships within the alliance. Additionally, the format could help the Alliance address future developments with actors who challenge the current rules-based norms that NATO supports. Overall, tweaking the consensus rule would provide a necessary update to The Pledge that could allow NATO to provide its members mutual support while also minimizing rent-seeking within the alliance.

 Dr. Nathan Dial is an active-duty major in the US Air Force, currently serving as an RC-135 Pilot at Offutt AFB, Nebraska.