Database definition

What is NATO? | NATO definition

NATO is the abbreviation for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which was established in 1949 in the aftermath of World War II and at the start of the Cold War.

After Nazi Germany was defeated in 1945, Germany was occupied by the victorious Allied powers, including the United States, United Kingdom, France, and the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union blocked Allied access to parts of Berlin in 1948, Germany was divided into two separate nations: the Federal Republic of Germany and the German Democratic Republic. The United States, Canada, and ten European nations responded by signing the North Atlantic Treaty, in response to the perceived threat from the Soviet Union.

Article 5 of the treaty states that NATO members will collectively respond to an attack on any other member. “The parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America will be considered an attack against them all,” reads, according to the official NATO website. Participating countries are not obligated to respond with military force, but may choose to support other members with political, economic or other assistance.

August 29, 1949, President Harry S. Truman (1884 – 1972) signs the North Atlantic Treaty which marks the beginning of NATO (Image credit: Getty Images/MPI)

NATO’s Mission

“NATO’s essential purpose is to safeguard the freedom and security of its members by political and military means,” says the Brussels-based group’s website.

But the group’s adherence to military action is unambiguous: “If diplomatic efforts fail, it has the military capability to undertake crisis management operations.

NATO also expressed its commitment to “democratic values” and the sharing of resources that will strengthen the defense and security of member countries by preventing conflicts, according to the US Mission to NATO.

NATO members

NATO currently has 30 member states. The original 12 members from 1949 are Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom and United States .

According to the organisation’s website, any European state is able to join the group, further providing it with the “principles of this treaty and contributing to the security of the North Atlantic area”.

In 2004, a year after NATO took command of the coalition of nations fighting in Afghanistan, another group of countries joined: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. In 2009, Albania and Croatia became members.

French soldiers are taking part in a major exercise as part of NATO’s ‘Enhanced Forward Presence’ (EFP) deployment in Poland and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. (Image credit: Getty Images / Alain Jocard)

In addition to its member countries, NATO maintains strategic partnerships with other countries through its “Membership Action Plan”, which offers assistance and advice to countries wishing to join NATO. Four countries are currently trying to join NATO through these projects: Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and the Macedonian Republic.

The 30 member states are (with the year they joined).

  • Belgium (1949)
  • Canada (1949)
  • Denmark (1949)
  • French (1949)
  • Iceland (1949)
  • Italy (1949)
  • Luxemburg (1949)
  • Netherlands (1949)
  • Norway (1949)
  • Portuguese (1949)
  • The United Kingdom (1949)
  • The United States (1949)
  • Greece (1952)
  • Turkey (1952)
  • Germany (1955)
  • Spain (1982)
  • Czech Republic (1999)
  • Hungary (1999)
  • Poland (1999)
  • Bulgaria (2004)
  • Estonia (2004)
  • Latvia (2004)
  • Lithuania (2004)
  • Romania (2004)
  • Slovakia (2004)
  • Slovenia (2004)
  • Albania (2009)
  • Croatia (2009)
  • Montenegro (2017)
  • North Macedonia (2020)

In 2006, it was agreed that each member state would commit 2% of its GDP to defense spending, in order to meet its contractual obligations to each other in the event of an attack. However, very few Member States have reached this level of spending, while the United States spends up to 3.6% on defence, according to Time magazine.

NATO organization

NATO member countries are represented by a delegation, each headed by a “permanent representative” who is usually a diplomat or senior military officer. These representatives form the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s main administrative body.

The Chairman of the North Atlantic Council and Director General of NATO is the Secretary General, who is appointed by consensus of NATO members. The general secretary generally serves a four-year term, although this term can be extended.

NATO’s Chief of Military Operations is the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who is usually an American military leader (the Secretary General is usually a European).

The current NATO Secretary General is Jens Stoltenberg, former Prime Minister of Norway and UN Special Envoy, according to the official NATO website.

NATO Action

In the years following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, NATO’s mission changed somewhat as a result.

During the Balkan conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, NATO troops carried out their first wartime actions, including the downing of Bosnian aircraft, bombing campaigns and other strikes aerial. NATO forces still maintain a presence of around 3,500 troops in Kosovo.

There was also a NATO response to the Iraqi invasion of neighboring Kuwait in 1991, which sparked the first Gulf War. However, this mission, named Operation Anchor Guard, was largely to observe and help support any offensive against member state Turkey.

An American NATO soldier photographed in Bosnia, 1996

A U.S. soldier from the NATO Peace Implementation Force (IFOR) stands guard atop his Bradley Fighting Vehicle January 1, 1996 near the northern Bosnian town of Srebrenik. (Image credit: Getty Images/Odd Andersen)

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, NATO troops were called into action to fulfill the group’s charter. In 2003, NATO took control of military operations in the counter-terrorist occupation of Afghanistan, leading the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) until January 1, 2015.

NATO forces have also been active in counter-piracy efforts off the east coast of Africa and in the 2011 civil war in Libya.

After the annexation of the Ukrainian region of Crimea by Russia, NATO played a role in the management of the diplomatic crisis. Although neither Russia nor Ukraine are members of NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin has expressed interest in joining the alliance, the Guardian reported. The prospect of Ukraine joining the alliance, strongly opposed by Russia, was cited as a major cause of the February 2022 crisis, which threatened to spark a war between the two nations, according to the New York. Times.

Further Reading

The American Office of the Historian has a long history of NATO, while the non-profit institution Brookings has a in-depth article on NATO’s role in the Bosnian conflict, written by Ivo H. Daalder, former US Ambassador to NATO.