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What is NATO and why was it created?

Rob Mudge
June 12, 2023

Russia's ongoing war against Ukraine has made the alliance more relevant again. DW explains the origins and purposes of the trans-Atlantic security alliance and Article 5, the collective defense clause.

A soldier standing in front of an Airbus A400M
NATO's cornerstone is to provide mutual defense to its allies through political and military means against external threatsImage: Jane Schmidt/Bundeswehr

NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, was formed in 1949 with the aim, first and foremost, of acting as a deterrent to the threat of Soviet expansion in Europe after World War II. Beyond that, the United States saw it as a tool to prevent the resurgence of nationalist tendencies in Europe and to foster political integration on the continent.

Its origins, however, actually go back to 1947, when the United Kingdom and France signed the Treaty of Dunkirk as an alliance to counter the eventuality of a German attack in the aftermath of the war.

The original 12 founding members of the political and military alliance are: the United States, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal.

Security collective

At its core, the organization, which currently has 31 members, acts as a collective security alliance with the aim of providing mutual defense through military and political means if a member state is threatened by an external country.

This cornerstone is laid out in Article 5 of the charter, the collective defense clause:

"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 and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area."

Article 5 has been invoked once, by the United States, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in 2001.

Finland to safeguard new NATO border with Russia

A bulwark against Soviet Russia

The Soviet Union responded to NATO by creating its own military alliance with seven other Eastern European communist states in 1955, dubbed the Warsaw Pact.

But the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the ensuing collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, paved the way for a new post-Cold War security order in Europe.

Freed from their Soviet shackles, a number of former Warsaw Pact countries became NATO members. Visegrad Group members Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic joined in 1999. Five years later, in 2004, NATO admitted the so-called Vilnius Group, made up of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia. Albania and Croatia joined in 2009, while Montenegro and North Macedonia did so in 2020.

Finland became the most recent member in April 2023. Its Nordic neighbor, Sweden, has also applied to join the bloc, however its accession bid is currently being blocked by Turkey and Hungary.

Three countries are currently categorized as "aspiring members": Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia and Ukraine. 

NATO's open-door policy

Against the backdrop of the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine, the latter's ambition to join the alliance has again gathered pace.

For Russia, the notion of its former Soviet satellite Ukraine joining NATO is a red line. NATO's so-called open door policy, as outlined in Article 10 of the treaty, allows any European country that can enhance and contribute "to the security of the North Atlantic area" to join.

"Countries aspiring for NATO membership are also expected to meet certain political, economic and military goals in order to ensure that they will become contributors to Alliance security as well as beneficiaries of it," it says on NATO's site.

Sweden discards neutrality, awaits NATO membership

Edited by: Martin Kuebler

This piece was originally published on Nov. 15, 2022. It has been updated to reflect Finland's membership and Sweden's accession bid.