What Is NATO?

NATO Explained

U.S. infantry troops march in formation as they leave an aircraft on their arrival in Poland as part of NATO exercises
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Gallup / Getty Images

Table of Contents
Table of Contents

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is an alliance of 30 countries that border the North Atlantic Ocean. The Alliance includes the United States, most European Union members, the United Kingdom, Canada, and Turkey.

Keep reading to learn more about why this organization was formed and how it functions today.

Definition of NATO

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a military alliance between the United States, Canada, and their European allies. It was formed in the wake of World War II to keep the peace and encourage political cooperation on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

  • Acronym: NATO

Member Countries

NATO's 30 members are Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, United Kingdom, and the United States.

Each member designates an ambassador to NATO as well as officials to serve on NATO committees and discuss NATO business. These designees could include a country’s president, prime minister, foreign affairs minister, or head of a defense department.

On December 1, 2015, NATO announced its first expansion since 2009, offering membership to Montenegro. Russia responded by calling the move a strategic threat to its national security. Russia is worried by the number of Balkan countries along its border that have joined NATO.

How Does NATO Work?

NATO's mission is to protect the freedom of its members and the stability of their regions. Its targets include weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and cyber-attacks.

A key aspect of the alliance is Article 5, which states that "an armed attack against one Ally is considered an attack against all Allies." In other words, if someone attacks one NATO nation, all NATO nations will retaliate.

The only time NATO invoked Article 5 was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

NATO's protection does not extend to members' civil wars or internal coups. During a 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, for example, NATO did not intervene on either side of the conflict. As a NATO member, Turkey would receive its allies' support in the case of an attack, but not in case of a coup.

NATO is funded by its members. The United States contributes roughly three-fourths of NATO's budget. Only 10 countries have reached the target spending level of 2% of gross domestic product (GDP). The United States was forecast to spend 3.52% of its GDP on defense in 2021.

History

The founding members of NATO signed the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949. It worked in conjunction with the United Nations, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. The organizations were created during the 1944 Bretton Woods Conference.

NATO's primary purpose was to defend member nations from threats by communist countries. The United States also wanted to maintain a presence in Europe. It sought to prevent a resurgence of aggressive nationalism and to foster political union. In this way, NATO made the formation of the European Union possible. U.S. military protection gave European nations the safety needed to rebuild after World War II's devastation.

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, which 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 members of 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 spending, with only one-third of 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 early 1990s, 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 airstrikes until September 1999, when NATO conducted a nine-day air campaign that ended the war. By December of that year, NATO deployed a peacekeeping force of 60,000 soldiers. That ended in 2004 when NATO transferred the function to the European Union.

Alliances

NATO participates in three alliances that expand its influence beyond its 30 member countries. The first is the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, which helps partners become NATO members. It includes 20 non-NATO countries that support NATO's purpose. It began in 1991.

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.

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 also cooperates with eight other countries in joint security issues. There are five Asia-Pacific countries, which include Australia, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mongolia, and New Zealand. There is one in South America (Colombia), and there are three cooperative countries in the Middle East: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Pakistan.

Notable Happenings

At its meetings on July 11 and 12, 2018, NATO approved new steps to contain Russia. These include two new military commands and expanded efforts against cyber warfare and counter-terrorism as well as a new plan to deter Russian aggression against Poland and the Baltic States.

U.S. President Donald Trump also used the July 2018 meeting to request that NATO nations increase their defense spending, and he criticized Germany for asking the United States to protect it from Russia while importing natural gas from that supplier. These requests were part of his larger argument that NATO has become obsolete.

During the 2016 meeting, NATO announced that it would increase its presence in the Baltic states and eastern Poland. It increased air and sea patrols to shore up its eastern front after Russia attacked Ukraine.

On November 14, 2015, NATO responded to the terrorist attacks in Paris. It called for a unified approach with the European Union, France, and NATO members. France did not invoke NATO's Article 5, which would have been a formal declaration of war upon the Islamic State group (ISIS). France preferred to launch airstrikes on its own.

NATO 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. In June 2021, it announced it would withdraw those support forces, as well.

Key Takeaways

  • The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a 30-member alliance formed in the wake of WWII with the goal of protecting democratic freedom.
  • NATO includes the U.S. and Canada, as well as dozens of nations in Europe.
  • In addition to the core NATO alliance, NATO has partnerships with countries in other regions.