What Is NATO?

how does nato work? It offers protection of freedom and stability for members and their regions; NATO targets include weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, and cyber-attacks; NATO protection does not extend to civil wars or internal coups; When one NATO nation is attacked, all NATO nations will retaliate; NATO is funded by its members, with the U.S. contributing roughly 75% of NATO's budget.

The Balance / Hilary Allison


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.

Definition of NATO

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization is a national security alliance among the U.S., Canada, and their European allies. It was formed in the wake of World War II to keep the peace and encourage political and economic cooperation on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.

  • Acronym: NATO

While NATO is primarily a national security alliance, it does include an Economics Committee that seeks to provide a forum to discuss economics among members and to monitor economies within and outside of the Alliance. More broadly, NATO has been a stabilizing influence in Europe and North America, allowing the economies of its members to develop and flourish.

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 U.S.

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.

One key aspect of NATO is Article 5, which states that "an armed attack against one Ally is considered an attack against all Allies." In other words, an attack one NATO nation will cause all NATO nations to retaliate.

NATO has invoked Article 5 just once in its history, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the U.S.

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 U.S. 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 U.S. was forecast to spend 3.52% of its GDP on defense in 2021.


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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.


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: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. It began in 2004.

NATO also cooperates with eight other countries in joint security issues. Five of them are 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

Following Russia's military assault on Ukraine, NATO condemned Russia for its action and also the nation of Belarus for its participation in the attack. In its statement, the organization reiterated its commitment to Article 5 of the treaty (which does not extend to Ukraine, as it is not a NATO member).

At its meetings in July 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 U.S. and NATO to protect it from Russia while importing natural gas from that supplier. These requests were part of his larger argument that NATO had 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 World War II 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.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Which country is the newest member of NATO?

On March 20, 2020, North Macedonia became the newest and 30th member of NATO. Two million people live in North Macedonia.

Why is Ukraine not in NATO?

As an emerging democracy, Ukraine has been a strong partner with NATO. It has met several, but not all, criteria required to become a member nation.

How much money does the U.S. contribute to NATO?

Out of 30 countries, the U.S. contributes approximately 16% of NATO's yearly expenditures. It also spends the most on defense.

Article Sources

  1. North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “A Short History of NATO.”

  2. Institute for Geopolitics, Economy, and Security. "NATO Membership Brings Stability and Economic Growth."

  3. North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "Member Countries."

  4. North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "Collective Defence - Article 5."

  5. Middle East Institute. "Unpacking Turkey's Failed Coup: Causes and Consequences."

  6. North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “Defence Expenditure of NATO Countries (2014-2021),” Page 8.

  7. North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “Partners.”

  8. North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "Statement by the North Atlantic Council on Russia's Attack on Ukraine."

  9. North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "Brussels Summit Declaration."

  10. C-SPAN. "President Trump Breakfast With NATO Secretary General."

  11. The Brookings Institution. "As Trump Twists NATO's Arm, Let's Run the Math on Defense Spending."

  12. North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "Boosting NATO's Presence in the East and Southeast."

  13. North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "NATO Secretary General Condemns Terrorist Attacks in Paris."

  14. North Atlantic Treaty Organization. “NATO and Afghanistan.”

  15. NATO. "North Macedonia Joins NATO as 30th Ally."

  16. NATO. "Relations With Ukraine."

  17. NATO. "Funding NATO."