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Updated: 21-Aug-2001 NATO Publications

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Chapter 7: Policy and Decision-Making
The Principal Policy and Decision-Making Institutions of the Alliance
  The North Atlantic Council

The North Atlantic Council (NAC) has effective political authority and powers of decision, and consists of Permanent Representatives of all member countries meeting together at least once a week. The Council also meets at higher levels involving Foreign Ministers, Defence Ministers or Heads of Government but it has the same authority and powers of decision-making, and its decisions have the same status and validity, at whatever level it meets. The Council has an important public profile and issues declarations and communiqués explaining the Alliance's policies and decisions to the general public and to governments of coun-tries which are not members of NATO.

The Council is the only body within the Alliance which derives its authority explicitly from the North Atlantic Treaty. The Council itself was given responsibility under the Treaty for setting up subsidiary bodies. Many committees and planning groups have since been created to support the work of the Council or to assume responsibility in specific fields such as defence planning, nuclear planning and military matters.

The Council thus provides a unique forum for wide-ranging consultation between member governments on all issues affecting their security and is the most important decision-making body in NATO. All member countries of NATO have an equal right to express their views round the Council table. Decisions are the expression of the collective will of member governments arrived at by common consent. All member governments are party to the policies formulated in the Council or under its authority and share in the consensus on which decisions are based.

Each government is represented on the Council by a Permanent Representative with ambassadorial rank. Each Permanent Representative is supported by a political and military staff or delegation to NATO, varying in size.

When the Council meets in this format, it is often referred to as the "Permanent Council". Twice each year, and sometimes more frequently, the Council meets at Ministerial level, when each nation is represented by its Minister of Foreign Affairs. Meetings of the Council also take place in Defence Ministers Sessions. Summit Meetings, attended by Heads of State or Government, are held whenever particularly important issues have to be addressed or at seminal moments in the evolution of Allied security policy.

While the Council normally meets at least once a week, it can be convened at short notice whenever necessary. Its meetings are chaired by the Secretary General of NATO or, in his absence, by his Deputy. The longest serving Ambassador or Permanent Representative on the Council assumes the title of Dean of the Council. Primarily a ceremonial function, the Dean may be called upon to play a more specific presiding role, for example in convening meetings and chairing discussions at the time of the selection of a new Secretary General. At Ministerial Meetings of Foreign Ministers, one country's Foreign Minister assumes the role of Honorary President. The position rotates annually among the nations in the order of the English alphabet. An Order of Precedence in the Permanent Council is established on the basis of length of service, but at meetings of the Council at any level, Permanent Representatives sit round the table in order of nationality, following the English alphabetical order. The same procedure is followed throughout the NATO committee structure.

Items discussed and decisions taken at meetings of the Council cover all aspects of the Organisation's activities and are frequently based on reports and recommendations prepared by subordinate committees at the Council's request. Equally, subjects may be raised by any one of the national representatives or by the Secretary General. Permanent Representatives act on instructions from their capitals, informing and explaining the views and policy decisions of their governments to their colleagues round the table. Conversely they report back to their national authorities on the views expressed and positions taken by other governments, informing them of new developments and keeping them abreast of movement towards consensus on important issues or areas where national positions diverge.

When decisions have to be made, action is agreed upon on the basis of unanimity and common accord. There is no voting or decision by majority. Each nation represented at the Council table or on any of its subordinate committees retains complete sovereignty and responsibility for its own decisions.

The work of the Council is prepared by subordinate Committees with responsibility for specific areas of policy. Much of this work involves the Senior Political Committee (SPC), consisting of Deputy Permanent Representatives, sometimes reinforced by appropriate national experts, depending on the subject. In such cases it is known as the SPC(R).The Senior Political Committee has particular responsibility for preparing most statements or communiqués to be issued by the Council and meets in advance of ministerial meetings to draft such texts for Council approval. Other aspects of political work may be handled by the regular Political Committee, which consists of Political Counsellors or Advisers from national delegations.

When the Council meets at the level of Defence Ministers, or is dealing with defence matters and questions relating to defence strategy, other senior committees, such as the Executive Working Group, may be involved as the principal advisory bodies. If financial matters are on the Council's agenda, the Senior Resource Board, or the Civil or Military Budget Committees, or the Infrastructure Committee, depending on which body is appropriate, will be responsible to the Council for preparing its work. Depending on the topic under discussion, the respective senior committee with responsibility for the subject area assumes the leading role in preparing Council meetings and following up on Council decisions.

The Secretariat of the Council is provided by the relevant Divisions and Offices of the International Staff, and in particular by the Executive Secretariat, which has a coordinating role in ensuring that Council mandates are executed and its decisions recorded and disseminated. The Executive Secretary is also the Secretary of the Council.

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