NATO: Definition, Purpose, History, Members

We Need NATO Now More Than Ever

U.S. Infantry Troops Arrive In Poland For Exercises
••• U.S. Infantry Troops Arrive In Poland For NATO Exercises. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Definition: NATO is an alliance of 28 countries bordering the North Atlantic Ocean. It includes Canada, the United States, Turkey and most members of the European Union. NATO is an acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The United States contributes three-fourths of NATO's budget. During the 2016 Presidential campaign, Donald Trump said other NATO members should contribute more. Trump also also accused it of being obsolete.

He argued that it focuses on defending Europe against Russia instead of combating terrorism. 

In 2017, President Trump reversed his position. He confessed to "not knowing much about NATO" during the campaign. (Sources: "Trump Rattles NATO With 'Obsolete' Blast," CNN, January 17, 2017. “Trump on NATO: ‘I Said It Was Obsolete. It’s No Longer Obsolete," The Washington Post, April 12, 2017.)


NATO's mission is to protect the freedom of its members. For example, on July 8, 2016, NATO announced it would send up to 4,000 troops to the Baltic states and eastern Poland. It will increase air and sea patrols to shore up its eastern front after Russia's attack on Ukraine. (Source: "NATO Agrees to Reinforce the Baltic States," Reuters, July 8, 2016.)

Its targets include weapons of mass destruction, terrorism and cyber attacks. On November 16, 2015, NATO responded to the terrorist attacks in Paris.

It called for a unified approach with the European Union, France and NATO. That's because France did not invoke NATO's Article 5. That would be a formal declaration of war upon the Islamic state group. France preferred to launch air strikes on its own. Article 5 states, "an armed attack upon one...

shall be considered an attack upon them all." (Sources: "NATO Addresses European Defense Agency," NATO, November 16, 2015. "Will NATO Respond to the Paris Attacks?" The Atlantic, November 15, 2015.)

The only time NATO invoked Article 5 was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It responded to U.S. requests for help in the War in Afghanistan. It took the lead from August 2003 to December 2014. At its peak, it deployed 130,000 troops. In 2015, it ended its combat role and began supporting Afghan troops. (Source: "NATO and Afghanistan," NATO, June 14, 2016.)

NATO's protection does not extend to member's civil wars or internal coups. On July 15, 2016, the Turkish military announced it had seized control of the government in a coup. But Turkish President Recep Erdogan announced early on July 16 that the coup had failed. As a NATO member, Turkey would receive its allies' support in the case of an attack, but not a coup. (Source: "Turkey Coup: How Does NATO Respond?" NBC News, July 16, 2016.)

NATO's second purpose is to protect the stability of the region. In those cases, it would defend non-members. On August 28, 2014, NATO announced it had photos proving that Russia invaded Ukraine. Although Ukraine is not a member, it had worked with NATO over the years.

Russia's invasion of Ukraine threatened nearby NATO members. They worried other former USSR satellite countries would be next.

As a result, NATO's September 2014 summit focused on Russia' aggression. President Putin vowed to create a "New Russia" out of Ukraine's eastern region. President Obama pledged to defend countries such as Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. (Source: "U.S. Vows NATO Defense of Baltics," The Wall Street Journal, September 4, 2014.)

NATO itself admits that "Peacekeeping has become at least as difficult as peacemaking." As a result, NATO is strengthening alliances throughout the world. In the age of globalization, transatlantic peace has become a worldwide effort. It extends beyond military might alone. (Source: "A Short History of NATO," North Atlantic Treaty Organization.)

Member Countries

NATO's 28 members are: Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom and the United States.

Each member designates an ambassador to NATO. They supply officials to serve on NATO committees. They send the appropriate official to discuss NATO business. That includes a country’s president, prime minister, foreign affairs minister or head of the department of defense.

On December 1, 2015, NATO announced its first expansion since 2009. It offered membership to Montenegro. Russia responded by calling the move a strategic threat to its national security. It’s worries by the number of Balkan countries along its border that have joined NATO. (Source: "NATO Prepares for Expansion," The Wall Street Journal, December 1, 2015.)


NATO participates in three alliances. That expands its influence beyond its 28 member countries. The Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council helps partners become NATO members. It includes 23 non-NATO countries that support NATO's purpose. It began in 1991.

The Mediterranean Dialogue seeks to stabilize the Middle East. Its non-NATO members include Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. It began in 1994. 

The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative works for peace throughout the larger Middle East region. It includes four members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. They are Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. It began in 2004.

NATO cooperates with eight other countries in joint security issues. There are five in Asia. They are Australia, Japan, Republic of Korea, Mongolia and New Zealand. There are two in the Middle East: Afghanistan and Pakistan. (Source: "Partnerships," NATO.)


The founding members of NATO signed the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949. NATO's primary purpose was to defend member nations against troops in pro-communist countries. The United States also wanted to maintain a presence in Europe. It sought to prevent a resurgence of aggressive nationalism and foster political union. In this way, NATO made the European Union possible. (Source: "A Short History of NATO," NATO.)

NATO and the Cold War

During the Cold War, NATO's mission expanded to prevent nuclear war. After West Germany joined NATO, the communist countries formed the Warsaw Pact alliance. That included the USSR, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. In response, NATO adopted the "Massive Retaliation" policy. It promised to use nuclear weapons if the Pact attacked. NATO's deterrence policy allowed Europe to focus on economic development. It didn't have to build large conventional armies.

The Soviet Union continued to build its military presence. By the end of the Cold War, it was spending three times what the United States was with only one-third the economic power. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, it was due to economic as well as ideological reasons.

After the USSR dissolved in the late 1980s, NATO's relationship with Russia thawed. In 1997, they signed the NATO-Russia Founding Act to build bilateral cooperation. In 2002, they formed the NATO-Russia Council to partner on shared security issues.

The collapse of the USSR led to unrest in its former satellite states. NATO got involved when Yugoslavia's civil war became genocide. NATO's initial support of a United Nations naval embargo led to the enforcement of a no-fly zone. Violations then led to a few airstrikes until September 1999. That's when NATO conducted a nine-day air campaign that ended the war. By December of that year, NATO deployed a peace-keeping force of 60,000 soldiers. That ended in 2004 when NATO transferred this function to the European Union.