NATO: Purpose, History, Members and Alliances

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 (the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is an alliance of 28 member countries roughly bordering the North Atlantic Ocean. It includes Canada, the United States, Turkey and most members of the European Union.


On July 15, 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. That does not apply to an internal coup or civil war. (Source: "Turkey Coup: How Does NATO Respond?" NBC News, July 16, 2016.)

On July 8, 2016, NATO announced it would send up to 4,000 troops to the Baltic states and eastern Poland for the first time. It will increase air and sea patrols to shore up its eastern front after Russia'ss attack on Ukraine. (Source: "NATO Agrees to Reinforce Baltic States," Reuters, July 8, 2016.)

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 worries that too many Balkan countries along its border have joined NATO. (Source: "NATO Prepares for Expansion," WSJ , December 1, 2015.)

On November 16, 2015,  NATO responded to the Paris terror attacks by calling for a unified approach with the European Union.

It outlined three areas: meeting hybrid threats, supporting partners, and boosting the European defense industry. France did not invoke NATO's Article 5. That would be a formal declaration upon ISIS, the terrorist organization behind the attacks.  Article 5 states" armed attack upon one...shall be considered an attack upon them all." The United States invoked Aticle 5 when attacked by Al Qaeda after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

(Source: "NATO Addresses European Defense Agency," November 16, 2015. "Will NATO Respond to the Paris Attacks?" November 15, 2015)


NATO's purpose is to protect the freedom of its members. In recent years, NATO's purpose has expanded to include defense against weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and cyber attacks. Since its inception following World War II, NATO has continually redefined its focus as a military and political alliance to keep up with the changing face of war.

NATO protects the security of its members. However, it must also take into consideration aggression against non-members that threaten the stability of the region. That's why its September 2014 summit focused on President Putin's goal to create a "Little Russia" out of Ukraine's eastern region. Although Ukraine is not a NATO member, other former USSR countries are, and they're worried. President Obama vowed to defend countries such as Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. The U.S. contributes three-quarters of NATO's budget.

(Source: WSJ, U.S. Vows NATO Defense of Baltics, Sep. 4, 2014)

On August 28, 2014, NATO announced it had photos proving that Russia had invaded Ukraine. Although Ukraine is not a NATO member, it has been working closely with NATO over the years. Russia's invasion of Ukraine threatens NATO members who are afraid they will be next because they were also former U.S.S.R. satellite countries.

NATO expanded its role after the 9/11 attacks to include the war on terrorism. NATO led the mission in Afghanistan from August 2003 to December 2014. At its peak, it deployed 130,000 troops from NATO-member countries and a dozen non-members. In 2015, NATO began a non-combat support mission to Afghan troops.(Source: "NATO and Afghanistan," NATO, June 14, 2016.)

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 that extends beyond military might alone. (Source: NATO History)

Member Countries

NATO's 28 members include: 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 is represented by an ambassador, who is supported by officials that serve on the different NATO committees. From time to time, the President/Prime Minister, Foreign Affairs Minister or head of Defense will meet to discuss NATO business.


NATO is involved with three alliances that expand its influence beyond its 28 member countries.

  1. The Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council - Created in 1991, it includes 23 countries that support NATO's purpose. Participation in the Partnership allows partners a vehicle to become NATO members.
  2. The Mediterranean Dialogue - Begun in 1994, its goal is to bring a stabilizing influence to the Middle East region. Members of the dialogue include Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia.
  3. The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative - Launched in 2004, it includes these four members of the Gulf Cooperation Council: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and United Arab Emirates. Its goal is to foster peace throughout the larger Middle East region.

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


The founding members of NATO signed the North Atlantic Treaty on April 4, 1949.  NATO's primary purpose was to defend member nations against the large number of troops in pro-communist countries. The United States also wanted to maintain a presence in Europe, to prevent a resurgence of military nationalism and foster political union. In this way, NATO made the European Union possible. (Source: "NATO History," 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, including the USSR, Bulgaria, Hungary, Rumania, Poland, Czechoslovakia and East Germany. In response, NATO adopted the "Massive Retaliation" policy, which promised to use nuclear weapons if the Pact attacked. This deterrence policy allowed Europe to focus on economic development instead of building large conventional armies.

The Soviet Union, on the other hand, continued to build its military presence. By the end of the Cold War, it was spending three times what the U.S. 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, the NATO-Russia Founding Act was signed to build bilateral cooperation. In 2002, the NATO-Russia Council was formed to allow NATO members and Russia to partner on common security issues.

The collapse of the USSR led to unrest in its former satellite states. NATO expanded its focus to address this instability when a civil war in the former Yugoslavia turned into ethnic cleansing and 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, when NATO conducted a heavy 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. 

Continue Reading...