North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Updated: May 10, 2021
In this Article

    NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was created in 1949. It was a group effort by European nations, Canada, and the United States to create a military alliance and provide a deterrent against Soviet Union expansionism among other purposes.

    NATO is said to be the first military alliance the U.S agreed to that includes nations from outside the west.

    Purpose And Mission Of NATO

    NATO The NATO official site divides the purpose of NATO into two basic categories: political and military. The official site says the agency’s purpose is, “to guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means”.

    On the political front, NATO promotes democracy and democratic values, and provides a venue for member nations to consult on defense, security, and cooperation to ensure both.

    On the military side, NATO’s mission statement includes a commitment to “the peaceful resolution of disputes” but reserves the right to act militarily in a crisis-management capacity. The authorization for this is found in the founding treaty of NATO but may also be authorized via a mandate from the United Nations.

    The NATO official site states that in addition to acting as a firewall against Soviet expansion, the organization was also created to prevent “the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe through a strong North American presence on the continent”.

    Original Founding Members of NATO

    The founding member nations that comprised the first version of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization included:

    • Belgium
    • Canada
    • Denmark
    • France
    • Iceland
    • Italy
    • Luxembourg
    • Netherlands
    • Norway
    • Portugal
    • United Kingdom
    • United States

    The original purpose of NATO–to counter expansion of Soviet Russia–ended with the dissolution of the U.S.S.R. But as official sources remind, “the world has continued to be a dangerous place throughout the nearly seven decades since NATO was formed”.

    NATO Activities

    On a daily basis, NATO member nations consult one another across a variety of concerns, issues, and fields. The official site reminds that NATO actions are carried out as an “expression of the collective will of all 30 member countries”. All decisions about NATO operations are made by consensus. NATO is committed to operations in a variety of locations which at press time included:

    •  Afghanistan
    •  Kosovo
    •  Mediterranean security
    •  African Union support

    NATO does not operate in a vacuum. It works with 40 non-member countries including both discussion and cooperation for NATO missions. There are NATO working groups, a nuclear planning group, a “North Atlantic Council”, and subcommittees.

    While it’s true that NATO listens to its partner nations who are non-members, these countries do not have the same authority as NATO member countries.

    Who Belongs To NATO

    There are 30 countries with NATO membership. They include, in alphabetical order:

    •  Albania (2009)
    •  Belgium (1949)
    •  Bulgaria (2004)
    •  Canada (1949)
    •  Croatia (2009)
    •  Czech Republic (1999)
    •  Denmark (1949)
    •  Estonia (2004)
    •  France (1949)
    •  Germany (1955)
    •  Greece (1952)
    •  Hungary (1999)
    •  Iceland (1949)
    •  Italy (1949)
    •  Latvia (2004)
    •  Lithuania (2004)
    •  Luxembourg (1949)
    •  Montenegro (2017)
    •  Netherlands (1949)
    •  North Macedonia (2020)
    •  Norway (1949)
    •  Poland (1999)
    •  Portugal (1949)
    •  Romania (2004)
    •  Slovakia (2004)
    •  Slovenia (2004)
    •  Spain (1982)
    •  Turkey (1952)
    •  The United Kingdom (1949)
    •  The United States (1949)

    A Brief History of NATO

    Following World War Two, there were serious issues associated with economic stability, government aid for postwar recovery, and the reestablishment of order. Unfortunately, not all nations approached this with the same concern for people or boundaries.

    The Marshall Plan was among the efforts designed to help Europe recover from the war. This economic recovery program was intended not only to help the people and nations of Europe but also to increase cooperation and partnerships between those countries and the United States.

    Russia Digs In Its Heels

    The government of the Soviet Union refused to allow its states in Eastern Europe to benefit from the Marshall Plan or participate in it in any way. This created a series of security concerns. Between 1947 and 1948, a civil war in Greece, and a Soviet-backed coup in Czechoslovakia contributed greatly to these worries. But it wasn’t until Stalin attempted to test the resolve of the west in 1948 by blockading West Berlin that America and its allies would see how far things might have to go.

    The Berlin Airlift

    The blockade resulted in the historic Berlin Airlift and brought all parties to the brink of another armed conflict. American military leaders worried that European nations might choose to negotiate with the U.S.S.R. instead of the United States. Talk of a Euro/American alliance began in the highest levels of the federal government.

    A group of western nations agreed to something called the Brussels Treaty, which was viewed as a group security measure against further Russian hostility. Signed in 1948, the treaty provided for the collective defense of signatory nations–if one is attacked, all are attacked. The signing of this treaty coincides with the start of the peacetime draft ordered by President Truman, as well as the discussion of how to work around the Soviet Union as a member of the United Nations.

    Russia And The United Nations

    This is how NATO came to be–Russia held veto power at the U.N. and for any international alliance to be effective with that in mind? Circumstances dictated a new organization must be formed.

    There were plenty of negotiations. Who would be the “first responder” if a member nation got attacked? Who bears the responsibility for logistics, planning, funding, and other details? These were all worked out prior to the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty of 1949.

    The same year, President Truman made proposals to further enhance the organization including a Mutual Defense Assistance Program. This was approved by Congress to the tune of more than one billion dollars (in 1949 money) for creating a defense network for Western Europe.

    The Warsaw Treaty Organization

    Not to be outdone, the Soviet Union tried to create the Russian version of a regional alliance. This resulted in the Warsaw Treaty Organization, incorporating Eastern European states into it.

    NATO doctrines would continue to evolve. In the 1950s, the concept of “massive retaliation” from NATO via the United States’ nuclear stockpile was designed as a deterrent against the Soviet Union. In contemporary times, the threat of the Soviet Union has long since past, but both American and Russian nuclear stockpiles still exist, as does NATO.

    NATO’s role over the decades sometimes brought questions about its relevance. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, it seemed that the old threats of communism were receding. The Cold War was ending. Did NATO have a future in a world where it may no longer be needed?

    That type of question would ultimately be moot; security and stability challenges persisted even after the end of the Cold War. The need for cooperation and a unified front against contemporary threats in the wake of World War Two and the Cold War is still there.

    In the 21st Century, NATO has expanded to include some former Soviet states, and remains among the largest peacetime military alliances in the world. The Yugoslavian conflict, 9/11, and the global threat of terrorism has required NATO to continue functioning, but also to innovate new ways to remain useful and relevant on the world stage.

    As the NATO official site reminds, member nations have come to understand “military power is no longer enough to ensure peace and stability. Peacekeeping has become at least as difficult as peacemaking”. In the days of the Cold War, security for member nations basically involved defense against a specific set of threats. In today’s world, the definition of security now includes freedom from extremism and the consequences associated with the failure of certain nation-states. NATO’s mission is more relevant than ever.

    About The AuthorJoe Wallace is a 13-year veteran of the United States Air Force and a former reporter for Air Force Television News

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