In one of a series of interviews with filmmaker Oliver Stone (which will be aired by the U.S. cable network Showtime starting on June 12), Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed that the United States uses the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) as a foreign policy tool, giving allies little say in the decision-making process.
“Nowadays, NATO is a mere instrument of U.S. foreign policy,” Putin told Stone. “It has no allies, it has only vassals. When a country becomes a NATO member, it is very hard for it to resist pressure from a big country … like the United States.”
That excerpt from Stone’s interviews with the Russian leader was cited by the Russian website Lenta.ru in a June 3 report.
Experts and officials from NATO, Germany and the United States told Polygraph.info that NATO is a consensus-based organization, in which every member, regardless of its size, has an equal say in decision-making. They also said NATO’s political unity makes it the most successful alliance in history.
From the time it was created in 1949, NATO has been based on the principle that consensus would be the sole basis for its decision-making. The alliance also draws power from the fact that membership in the organization is the free choice of sovereign nations.
“NATO is an Alliance based on common values and common interests. NATO Members decide freely to join the Alliance and participate in its actions,” Germany’s Ambassador to the United States Peter Wittig told Polygraph.info by email. “Bound by the mutual security guarantees, Allies understand that the strength of the Alliance is more than the sum of the individual strengths of its Member States. This bundling of military and political power has proven to be our main asset throughout the last decades.”
The United States is the largest country in the alliance, and currently accounts for about 72 percent of NATO’s total defense expenditures. NATO members agree that “there is an over-reliance by the Alliance as a whole on the United States.”
However, the size of the American contribution to NATO’s defense spending does not limit the rights of smaller members.
“The United States is big – and so it contributes a lot and gets a lot of respect and authority – but that does not change the fundamental rule that every country gets an equal vote,” wrote Kurt Volker, former U.S. Ambassador to NATO and current executive director of the McCain Institute for International Leadership, in an email to Polygraph.info.
NATO decisions require unanimous consent. “Every country has to agree – even one dissenting voice means that NATO does not move an inch,” said Volker. However, he added: “NATO members are also realistic. If one country sends a substantial number of soldiers or money into an operation, other allies will naturally defer a bit to the views of that country.”
German Ambassador Wittig agrees. Even if one country leads a particular operation, he said, every NATO member has “veto power.” But he noted that since the decisions are made by consensus, a veto “is only used very restrictively.”
The Kremlin has repeatedly claimed that NATO threatens Russia. The 2010 Russian Military Doctrine identified NATO enlargement as the number one threat to Russia’s national security.
Yet, since World War II, Russia is the only country that has unilaterally changed borders in Europe by military force. In 2008, Russia invaded Georgia and, after re-positioning its troops in the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, it recognized these territories as independent states. In 2014, Russia used military force to annex Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and to this day continues to support separatists in eastern Ukraine.
“Today, Europe and North America need one another as much as ever and our transatlantic bond is as essential as ever in keeping our nations safe,” a NATO official told Polygraph.info via email. This is why NATO leaders agreed to continue a “dual track approach” toward Russia, consisting of “meaningful dialogue combined with strong defense and deterrence.”
“Allies do not and will not recognize Russia's illegal and illegitimate annexation of Crimea,” the NATO official wrote. “And in direct response to Russia's actions, NATO has enhanced its presence in the eastern part of our Alliance. Not to provoke conflict, but to prevent conflict and preserve peace.”
Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty signed by all members of NATO says that an armed attack against one shall be considered an attack against them all.
This is what makes NATO “one of the most successful alliances in history,” said German Ambassador Wittig. “The fact that now 29 allies come together to address collective defense and other common security policy challenges is an asset for each and every ally. We all value the strategic importance and long-term orientation of the alliance – with regard to current and future challenges.”
Volker also believes that NATO’s greatest strength is its unity based on shared values and interests.
“That is why Vladimir Putin spends so much effort trying to drive wedges between NATO countries,” Volker said. “A NATO that is divided is much weaker, and much more susceptible to Russian ‘incentives’ and ‘punishments’ than a NATO that is united.”
He added that “when all NATO allies decide and act together, no-one in the world can seriously challenge that.”