When the treaty was signed in Washington 52 years earlier by the United States and 11 other nations, Europe lay devastated by the second world war in a generation. Article 5 provided Europe an insurance policy against yet another world war and domination by the Soviet Union. The hope was that Article 5 would deter conflict, but the assumption was that if it were ever invoked, the United States would again come to Europe’s defense.
Instead, on Sept. 12, 2001, it was America’s closest friends across the Atlantic and Canada who pledged to help us respond to a very different type of attack. While the circumstances of Al Qaeda’s 2001 attacks on the United States were unforeseen in 1949, the alliance performed as intended.
R. Nicholas Burns, the United States ambassador to NATO at the time, recalled the moment when the leaders of the alliance stood together in the Brussels headquarters and unanimously declared that America had suffered an armed attack and that all were prepared to provide assistance. “When we needed allies the most, they were there for us,” Mr. Burns said. “The invocation of Article 5 demonstrated the power of the collective, versus the strength of one country trying to stand alone.”
Fifteen years later, NATO is a very different organization. The alliance now has 28 members and a 29th country, Montenegro, has been invited. It also has some 40 other countries as affiliated partners. For decades NATO’s military operations have promoted stability in Europe and beyond, especially in Afghanistan, where the allies have lost more than 1,000 soldiers. NATO’s combat-proven forces join new systems and programs, including rapid response formations, ballistic missile defense and cyberdefense. The alliance today is much different from the NATO of the Cold War, or even of 2001.