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Background: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

May 14, 2010

Most everyone has heard of NATO, but how many people know where the world's most powerful military alliance came from, what it's for and where it's headed? Here is an overview of the most important facts.

NATO logo
NATO's logoImage: AP


"To keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down," that was how NATO's first secretary general characterized the purpose of the military alliance after it was formed in 1949.

NATO member states agree to defend one another - that is the core of the alliance. Article V of the NATO treaty states: "The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all."

With the outbreak of the Korean War, the main focus of the alliance emerged as defending Western Europe and North America against potential threats form Communist states, particularly the Soviet Union. West Germany became a NATO member in 1955, and the Soviet Union responded that same year by creating the Warsaw Pact, an alliance of Communist states in Eastern Europe.

With the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the frontlines were redrawn. The Cold War was over, and the Warsaw Pact dissolved, with many of its former members joining NATO. Russia, however, continues to eye NATO expansion to the east with mistrust and unease.

NATO reconnaissance planeImage: AP

In 1994, NATO intervened in the war in ex-Yugoslavia to prevent systematic ethnic violence by Serbs against Croatians and Bosnians. The prolonged bombing campaign against Serbia the following year represented a use of force that was not purely defensive, being justified instead by humanitarian considerations.

The collective defense clause of the original NATO treaty was invoked for the first time after the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001. After the United States toppled the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, NATO took over command and remains in charge of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in that country.


NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh RasmussenImage: AP

At present, there are 28 NATO member states. They are: Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. France withdrew from NATO's military structure in 1966 but rejoined in 1995.


NATO's headquarters are located in Brussels. Its top official is the secretary general, currently Anders Fogh Rasmussen from Denmark. The largest and most powerful member is the United States, but no American has ever officially headed the organization. NATO decisions are made by unanimous accord and not by majority voting.

NATO headquarters
NATO headquartersImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

NATO does not raise troops of its own. Instead, NATO forces are compromised of those from the militaries of its member states. The man who ultimately issues orders to NATO troops is the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). That post is always filled by a senior US military officer and is currently occupied by Navy Admiral James Stavridis. In addition, NATO also has an extensive civilian structure.


The collapse of Communism and the Warsaw Pact led many people to question NATO's continuing relevance. The alliance's intervention in the Balkans in the 1990s showed that NATO could be used as a force for creating stability, even when no member states were under direct threat.

Since 2001, Islamist terrorism and facing the challenges of asymetrical warfare have been among NATO's principle concerns, and the success of the war in Afghanistan is considered a major litmus test. Some observers fear that should NATO forces fail to achieve their mission of establishing a stable state friendly to the West in Afghanistan, the United States could lose interest in the alliance.

In Eastern Europe, NATO plans to try to improve its ties with Russia while leaving the doors open for other states in that region to become members. NATO would also like to deepen its cooperation with non-European democracies such as Japan and Australia.

Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Rob Mudge