The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

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Editor: Elizabeth P. Manar
Date: 2014
Worldmark Modern Conflict and Diplomacy
From: Worldmark Modern Conflict and Diplomacy(Vol. 2: Japanese Invasion of China to Yugoslav Wars. )
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Organization overview
Pages: 5
Content Level: (Level 5)
Lexile Measure: 1320L

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The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military alliance between the United States, Canada, and Western European countries. It was formed for “collective defense,” whereby member states stand together in mutual defense in the event of an attack on another member state. NATO was founded in 1949 and continues to be the foremost military alliance in the world. Although none of the countries included in NATO have been directly attacked by another nation since NATO's creation, the alliance has been used to create an international army of sorts, which has intervened in several international conflicts over the years.

The combined military spending of NATO members constitutes more than 70 percent of the world's total military spending. NATO currently includes 28 countries, with an additional 22 countries participating in NATO's Partnership for Peace program. Fifteen more nations are involved in institutionalized dialogue programs with NATO, including former NATO enemy Russia. The military alliance has been successful in preventing another war in Europe and is evolving into a truly global taskforce. The brunt of its military might is still concentrated on the U.S. armed forces. As the world power dynamics continue to shift, NATO will need to evolve to stay abreast of events so that it can ensure peace and prosperity for each of its member nations and for the world at large.

Historical Background

NATO was founded in 1949 by 12 original member states: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. All of these countries had been allies in World War II (1939–45). During the war these Western nations had been aided by the Soviet Union, and together they had successfully defeated the Germans and other Axis powers. After the war ended, however, political and economic differences between the Western nations and the Soviet Union and its eastern bloc (the Warsaw Pact) quickly became a source of contention.

European leaders could not afford another world war and feared the rising power of the Soviet Union. They believed that an alliance with the United States was essential to counter the military power of the Soviet Union and prevent another rise in nationalist militarism in Europe. The original aim of the alliance, according to NATO's first secretary general, Lord Hastings Ismay (1887–1965), was “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

NATO was created during the Cold War era (1947–91), a time of political and military rivalry between the United States and the Soviet Union. For its first few years NATO was essentially a political association between Western Europe and North America. But as the Cold War tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union grew, NATO formed a more formal military structure, controlled by two U.S. supreme commanders.

Over the next four decades the relationship between NATO's European nations and the United States ebbed and flowed. NATO critics doubted the alliance's ability to protect Western Europe in case of a Soviet invasion. France was particularly concerned, and withdrew from NATO in 1966 to form its own independent nuclear deterrent. Despite frequent high tensions, during the entire Cold War era NATO did not directly engage in any military conflicts.

Impacts and Issues

The issues that NATO has faced in its more than 50 years have changed through the passage of time. The alliance was successful in preventing another major war in Page 403  |  Top of ArticleEurope, but tensions emerged between treaty members, principally France, over the dominance of the United States. Also after the fall of the Soviet Union and the entrance of former Soviet satellites into the alliance, the Russian government became concerned about NATO encroaching on its sphere of influence. As the threat of a Soviet attack diminished, the expansion of NATO's role to include fighting wars in southern Europe and other parts of the world transformed the institution from a defensive alliance against Russia to a protector of Western interests throughout the world and created tensions between the United States and the other members.

President Harry S. Truman signs the North Atlantic Treaty which marked the beginning of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), behind him are (from left) Sir Derrick Hoyes Miller

President Harry S. Truman signs the North Atlantic Treaty which marked the beginning of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), behind him are (from left) Sir Derrick Hoyes Miller, Henrik de Kauffman, W. D. Matthews, Louis Johnson, Wilhelm Munthe de Morgenstienne, Henry Bonnet, Pedro Theotonio Pereira, Dean Acheson, Jontchess Reuchlin, and Mario Lucienni. © MPI/Getty Images


NATO's expansion has occurred in five phases since the inauguration of its 12 founding member states. The first three stages took place during the Cold War era. In 1952 Greece and Turkey, each considered strategically vital to the West, were admitted into NATO. Neither of these Mediterranean countries borders the Atlantic Ocean, but their locations were overlooked because they served as a buffer against the spread of Communism. Three years later West Germany was admitted into NATO out of fear that the Communist East might annex it. A nearly three-decade hiatus on new members followed until Spain became a NATO signatory in 1982. Each of these expansions of NATO was directly related to Cold War dynamics. A further 17 years would pass before NATO was extended again, and this time it was because the Cold War had officially ended and the world was suddenly a very different place.

The dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended the Cold War and changed the dynamics of European politics. Former Soviet client states remained wary of their former colonial master, Russia, after decades of Page 404  |  Top of Articlerepression. They simultaneously sought reassurance that they would never again fall under Russian control, while also seeking to become fully integrated with the democratic West.

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A so-called cold war is a war in which the two principal parties never actually declare war but instead subtly try to defeat each other. The Cold War between the United States and Soviet Union lasted more than four decades without the two nations ever directly confronting each other militarily. The tension between the two nations did occasionally erupt in full-blown “hot wars,” in which the United States (aided by its allies in NATO) and the Soviet Union indirectly fought to reduce each other's international power. The Korean War (1950–53), Vietnam War (1954–75), Yom Kippur War (1973), and the Soviet War in Afghanistan (1979–89) were each hot wars that occurred in conjunction with the larger Cold War.

Political and economic instability within Russia was deemed a grave international threat. Indeed some political analysts likened Russia to Germany after the conclusion of World War I (1914–18): a wounded nation, capable of striking back with terrifying and unpredictable force. In a speech made in 1993, NATO secretary general Manfred Warner (1934–1994) said: “The first and most important area where change must come is in further developing our ability to project stability to the East.”

As such, it was at once inevitable and inherently attractive for NATO to expand its membership into the former Soviet bloc. In 1999 the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Poland joined NATO. They were followed by Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia five years later. In 2009 Albania and Croatia joined, bringing the alliance's total number of signatories to 28.

In 2009 France rejoined NATO, and in September 2009 French general Stéphane Abrial (1954–) became head of Allied Command Transformation. The post is one of two supreme command positions in NATO, and Abrial is the first non–American to hold one of these positions. This move, among others, is a clear sign that NATO is no longer controlled by the United States, but is instead becoming a more European-focused alliance.

NATO and Russia

The expansion of NATO into the old Communist East has been the cause of much controversy, particularly from within Russia. The end of the Cold War left NATO without a clearly defined enemy in its sights, but the expansion into former Russian heartlands antagonized its old enemy. The Russian government has signaled its consternation at everything from proposed missile defense systems on its doorstep to NATO forces “encircling” the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad, located on the Baltic coast between Poland and Lithuania.

Some former Soviet colonies have not been invited to join NATO, which has left them vulnerable to Russian interference. For example the Russian invasion of Georgia in August 2008, ostensibly in support of South Ossetian and Abkhazian secessionists, probably would not have happened if Georgia had been a NATO member. Indeed the invasion was seen by some military analysts as a direct challenge to NATO by Russia.

Russia has long objected to the eastward expansion of NATO into former Soviet territory, and has typically viewed the organization with suspicion or outright hostility. A November 2010 NATO summit showed some easing of Russian-NATO tensions. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev (1965–) attended the summit, the first time a Russian representative has attended a NATO meeting since the 2008 conflict in Georgia.

At the meeting Russia agreed to cooperate with NATO in building a missile defense shield for all of Europe and in supplying training and supplies for the war effort in Afghanistan. Little mention was made of the ongoing Russian occupation of parts of Georgia. Analysts argued that NATO's interest in expanding eastward has waned, both because the organization has come to understand that Russia would move aggressively, as it did in Georgia, to protect its territorial interests, and because Russian cooperation in a variety of NATO initiatives would be beneficial.

New Challenges and Strategies

The alliance's expansion has begged questions about NATO's overall strategic direction. Does it remain a defensive alliance, or has it become so large that it can be considered a global military force? Does the now overwhelming European influence mean it is a European Union military force by proxy? NATO's size also means that less consensus is likely to be reached on major issues. For instance NATO refused to back an invasion of Iraq in 2003, even though many of its members joined the U.S.-led invasion independently.

The challenges facing NATO signatories have also changed in the past decade. Rather than simply facing hostile nations, NATO now faces a less predictable threat in the form of terrorism. For most of its existence NATO assumed the format of a regional alliance that concentrated on the reactive defense of the treaty area. Perhaps its most urgent task now is helping to prevent an international crisis and armed conflict sparked by terrorism. Such an event could happen anywhere in the world. NATO believes that its expansion is an essential part of enhancing global security and ensuring stability in the modern era.

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Military Operations

During the Cold War era, NATO did not directly engage in open warfare. But since 1994 NATO forces have been engaged in three interventions, one war, and two additional military operations. Although each of these instances was supposedly addressed with an international army, NATO's armed forces relied heavily on the military might of the United States.

NATO Interventions On three occasions NATO has engaged in a military intervention. In 1994 NATO took its first wartime action by shooting down Bosnian Serb aircraft that illegally entered the no-fly zone in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The no-fly zone had been ordered by the United Nations, which had asked NATO to enforce its order since there was some concern that the Bosnian War (1992–95), if allowed to get out of control, could negatively affect all of Europe. Soon after these first shots were fired, NATO forces actively engaged in a bombing campaign that helped bring the Bosnian War to an end. The UN asked NATO to remain in the area as a peacekeeping force, which it did until 2004.

In 1999 NATO armed forces were sent to protect Albanian citizens in Kosovo, Yugoslavia. NATO's decision to enter the area was prompted by a request from the UN. Soon afterward it was proposed that all future NATO military attacks should be at the command of the UN, but this motion was vigorously opposed by most NATO nations.

In 2011 NATO once again intervened in global affairs. The UN had declared a no-fly zone over Libya, which was embroiled in a civil war. When this no-fly zone was crossed, NATO forces were asked to respond. After five months of conflict, several European nations began to withdraw their troops, and the United States was left to carry the majority of the military burden. This event has caused the United States to begin to openly question whether NATO is still a worthwhile alliance or if it has become a drain on the U.S. armed forces.

The NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (L) and Hungarian Minister of Defence Csaba Hende (R) review a military honor guard during a ground breaking ceremony for the enlargement

The NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen (L) and Hungarian Minister of Defence Csaba Hende (R) review a military honor guard during a ground breaking ceremony for the enlargement of NATO's Strategy Airlift Capability (SAC) base in Papa Airbase about 93 miles (150 kilometers) west of the Hungarian capital Budapest on July 1, 2013. With less than 140 staffed people of the multi-national military aviation safety systems, the SAC's heavy airlift wing (HAW) is operating from the base. Since the delivery of the first aircraft in 2009, the Wing has flown over 10,000 hours, delivered more than 40,000 tons of cargo and moved over 23,000 passengers over 6 continents, including missions to Mali, Haiti, Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Africa, and Europe. © Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

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The War in Afghanistan The terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, caused the United States to invoke Article 5 of the NATO Charter for the first time in the organization's history. Article 5 states that any attack on a member nation shall be considered a threat on all. The United States asked NATO to lend its forces to help the United States fight the Taliban in Afghanistan and to help prevent the movement of terrorists or weapons of mass destruction.

NATO troops were deployed to Afghanistan on October 1, 2001. Only a year later, however, several NATO nations, notably France and Belgium, began to question the involvement of NATO in the region. The United States asked NATO to join it in invading Iraq in 2003, but NATO refused, although several of its nations independently sent troops to aid the United States. NATO troops have been in Afghanistan since 2001 and are slated to be removed in December 2014.

Additional Military Operations NATO has been involved in two additional military operations. In 2004 the Iraqi Interim Government asked NATO to assist Iraqi security forces in building an effective and sustainable system for maintaining peace within the nation. NATO Training Mission-Iraq began in August 2004 and officially concluded in December 2011.

In 2009 NATO deployed warships in Operation Ocean Shield, meant to protect vital maritime traffic in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean from attacks by Somali pirates. Most of the warships were from the United States, although several vessels from other NATO nations were included in the fleet. The operation is expected to continue until at least the end of 2014.

Future Implications

In a speech delivered on June 10, 2011, in Brussels, Belgium, outgoing U.S. secretary of defense Robert Gates (1943–) offered unusually blunt criticism of NATO and its member states. Gates said that NATO members “are apparently willing and eager for American taxpayers to assume the growing security burden left by reductions in European defense budgets.” Gates used NATO action in Libya in May and June of that year as examples of what he considered the major failings of NATO. He said, “The mightiest military alliance in history is only 11 weeks into an operation against a poorly armed regime in a sparsely populated country—yet many allies are beginning to run short of munitions, requiring the U.S., once more, to make up the difference.” Gates went so far as to warn that future U.S. leaders may not find the alliance worthwhile.

NATO remains the most powerful military alliance in the world. However, as it is currently structured, the alliance remains essentially an agreement between the United States and Europe to provide mutual aid. As long as that alliance is felt to serve both parties, it will almost certainly continue as an important military force into the foreseeable future. If, however, the United States continues to feel that it is carrying the brunt of the burden of the alliance, NATO may be forced to redefine its goals and strategies.


Kaplan, Lawrence. NATO Divided, NATO United: The Evolution of an Alliance. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2004.

Nazemroaya, Mahdi Darius. The Globalization of NATO. Atlanta, GA: Clarity Press, 2012.

Sloan, Stanley. A Permanent Alliance?: NATO and the Transatlantic Bargain from Truman to Obama. New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2010.

Web Sites

Masters, Jonathan. “The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).” Council on Foreign Relations, May 17, 2012. (accessed November 26, 2013).

North Atlantic Treaty Organization. (accessed November 26, 2013).

Office of the Historian. “Milestones: 1945–1952: North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), 1949.” U.S. Department of State. (accessed November 26, 2013).

Source Citation

Source Citation   

Gale Document Number: GALE|CX3784400071