Vol. 4, No. 14 (July 15, 2011)

Azerbaijan’s place in NATO’s evolving strategic concept

Azad Aslanov*
Third Secretary
Mission of the Republic of Azerbaijan to NATO

NATO nations during the NATO Lisbon Summit held last November endorsed a new Strategic Concept for the Alliance, [1] one that has important implications not only for them but for countries like Azerbaijan which have partnership relations with it as well.  That is the case even though from a strictly legal perspective, it remains unclear precisely where the document stands in the hierarchy of NATO documents.  But its importance as an indication of alliance policy is clear if one compares it with the previous document of its kind adopted in 1999.

Perhaps the most notable shift between the two documents is that the latter expands both qualitatively and quantitatively the right of the Alliance to engage actively to defend/protect its member states.  Thus, the document speaks of “attack” instead of “armed attack” as mentioned in Article 51 of the UN Charter from which the Alliance’s Article 5 derives its legal support.  Thus, by broadly interpreting the definition, the scope of “attack” would encompass also cyber attack (paragraph 12), attack on vital communication, transport and transit routes (paragraph 13), even climate change, water scarcity and other constraints and restraints of economic and environmental nature (paragraph 15).  Paragraphs 4.a and 16 also note “attack,” instead of “armed attack.”  The 1999 Strategic Concept spoke only of action in the case of a “threat of aggression.” [2]

The phrase “defend one another...against new threats to the safety of our citizens” empowers the Alliance to react against anything it views as a threat.  This is significant because although the document does not define threats in any detail, it specifies that the Alliance may deploy its military forces where and when required.  As will be seen, the term “...where required” is harmonized in the document with the constraints set out in paragraph 1 of Article 52 of the UN Charter. [3] Although Paragraph 4 of the document enumerates the core tasks of the Alliance regarding deterrence and defense, a close reading of the document as a whole suggests that its authors are now focusing on the following threats and challenges in particular: the proliferation of weapons, terrorism, instability or conflicts beyond NATO borders that threaten Alliance security, including by extremism, terrorism, and trans-national illegal activities such as trafficking in arms, narcotics and people, as well as cyber attack and other attacks on vital infrastructures.

This represents a dramatic expansion of the terms of reference of the 1999 document, which allowed for intervention only in case of “threat of aggression” or “armed attack.”  In all other cases, that document only called for consultation among the allies as required under Article 4 of the Washington Treaty. 

This is much close to the language of Article 51 of the UN Charter which does not allow invasion even in case of “threat.”  Indeed, it requires that the UN Security Council (UNSC) determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression [4] and authorizes intervention only if an armed attack occurs. [5] Put simply, a literal interpretation of the Article 51 rules out the right of “preemptive self-defence.”

The new NATO Concept says that the Alliance will remain committed to the purposes and principles of the UN Charter and reaffirms the primary responsibility of the Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security.  But—and this may prove critical—the Concept does not specify whether Security Council authorization is necessary for the Alliance’s future operations, a shift in emphasis from the 1999 Concept.  That earlier NATO document also recognized the primary responsibility of the Security Council for the maintenance of international peace and security, and it mentioned that the Security Council contributed to security and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.  The new NATO document envisages only working together with the United Nations to prevents crisis, manage conflicts and stabilize post-conflict situations while not sticking to any specific geographic dimension.

The document also specifies that crises and conflicts beyond NATO’s borders can pose a direct threat to the security of Alliance, and it leaves to the Alliance itself to determine which represent such threats.  Indeed, reading the document as a whole, the radius of “conflict” area could be interpreted to encompass any territory around the globe.  Engaging in crisis management “when necessary” appears to equate with “where possible,” an expansive reading of NATO’s readiness to act out of area. 

All of this has an impact on the relationship between NATO and its partners, including Azerbaijan, especially since the new Concept uses new terms like “new partners” and “partners around the globe,” thereby opening the way for expansion without any limit geographically and involving ever more countries in NATO-led operations and their design.  At the same time, however, “more consultations” and similar language do not provide an explicit role for partners in the decision making process.  To that extent, the status of partners in NATO resembles that of observers in some international organizations.  

That raises the question as to why partner countries should be interested in endorsing NATO’s actions, especially since the Alliance retains its commitment to safeguard in the first instance the freedom and security only of its members.  Moreover, NATO is not the responsible body for ensuring global peace and security and NATO does not guarantee the security of its partners.  Though territorial integrity is one of the important principles of the 1994 PfP Framework Document, NATO has not done much to restore that of Azerbaijan even though Baku was one of the first of the partners to subscribe to the document.  

* The ideas expressed here reflect the personal views of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan or the Mission of the Republic of Azerbaijan to NATO.


[1] The full text is available at http://www.nato.int/lisbon2010/strategic-concept-2010-eng.pdf (accessed 11 July 2011).

[2] ”...Alliance performs the following fundamental security tasks: …. Deterrence and Defence: To deter and defend against any threat of aggression against any NATO member state as provided for in Articles 5 and 6 of the Washington Treaty” (NATO’s Strategic Concept, 24 April 1999, Part I, paragraph 10). 

[3] “Nothing in the present Charter precludes the existence of regional arrangements or agencies for dealing with such matters relating to the maintenance of international peace and security as are appropriate for regional action provided that such arrangements or agencies and their activities are consistent with the Purposes and Principles of the United Nations” (UN Charter, Article 52, paragraph 1). 

[4] UN Charter, Article 39, available at http://www.un.org/en/documents/charter/chapter7.shtml (accessed 11 July 2011).

[5] “Nothing in the present Charter shall impair the inherent right of individual or collective self-defence if an armed attack occurs against a Member of the United Nations, until the Security Council has taken measures necessary to maintain international peace and security.  Measures taken by Members in the exercise of this right of self-defence shall be immediately reported to the Security Council and shall not in any way affect the authority and responsibility of the Security Council under the present Charter to take at any time such action as it deems necessary in order to maintain or restore international peace and security” (UN Charter, Article 51).