Article 4 and Article 5 of the NATO Treaty Explained

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As the investigation into a deadly explosion in Polish territory continues, Poland’s government has reserved the right to invoke Article 4 of NATO’s treaty, a provision that enables members to start a formal discussion within the alliance about threats to their security.

In the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s explosion, Poland suggested it might turn to Article 4. In the end, given the likelihood that the missile was Ukrainian, Poland refrained from doing so — but left open the possibility that it might do so later.

Article 4 does not commit the alliance to any military or political action, but simply states that the alliance’s members “will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the parties is threatened.”

An Article 4 discussion would, however, be a necessary first step toward a NATO decision to invoke Article 5, the treaty’s core provision, which defines NATO’s commitment to collective self-defense by treating an attack on one member as an attack on the entire alliance.

Although an invocation of Article 5 is often assumed to have military implications, the wording in the NATO treaty says only that its members will “assist” the party that has been attacked with “such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.” The alliance can also respond with economic or political action.

NATO was created after World War II, to serve as a Western bulwark against the Soviet Union. Poland has been a NATO member since 1999. Ukraine is not a member, but in 2008, NATO promised both Ukraine eventual membership, without specifying when. The Russian president has called the expansion of NATO menacing, and the prospect of Ukraine joining it a major threat.

According to NATO’s description of its consultation process, a discussion triggered under Article 4 would be conducted by the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s decision-making body.

Article 4 has been invoked seven times since the alliance’s founding in 1949, according to NATO. It said the most recent instance was on Feb. 24, when several of its Central European members initiated discussion about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Turkey has requested Article 4 discussions several times in recent years, including after 33 of its soldiers were killed by pro-Syrian government forces in Syria in September 2020. NATO’s secretary general issued a statement condemning the Syrian regime and its allied Russian forces for conducting “indiscriminate airstrikes,” but the alliance took no formal action.

NATO has invoked Article 5 only once in its history, the day after the 9/11 attacks on the United States in 2001. That led to NATO’s participation in Afghanistan during the U.S.-led war and occupation there from 2003-2021.


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