North Atlantic Treaty Organization

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North Atlantic Treaty Organization

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a collective security group that was established by the North Atlantic Treaty (34 U.N.T.S. 243) in 1949 to block the threat of military aggression in Europe by the Soviet Union. NATO united Western Europe and North America in a commitment of mutual security and collective Self-Defense. Its 19 members (as of early 2004)—Belgium, Canada, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States—have used NATO as a framework for cooperation in military, political, economic, and social matters.

NATO's military forces are organized into three main commands: the Atlantic Command, the Channel Command, and the Allied Command Europe. During peacetime, the three commands plan the defense of their areas and oversee and exercise the forces of member nations. The supreme Allied commander in Europe directs these units. Every supreme Allied commander through 1997 has been a U.S. general.

NATO established the North Atlantic Council, a nonmilitary policy group, in the 1950s. It is composed of permanent delegates from all member nations and is headed by a secretary-general. It is responsible for general policy, budget issues, and administrative actions. The Military Committee, consisting of the chiefs of staff of the member nations' armed forces, meets twice a year to define military policies and offer advice to the council.

The North Atlantic Treaty calls for the peaceful resolution of disputes, but article 5 pledges the use of the member nations' forces for collective self-defense. During the 1950s Western Europe was concerned about Soviet aggression. Though U.S. troops had been stationed in Europe since the end of World War II, the United States and European nations did not have the resources to match the Soviet Army soldier for soldier. Instead the United States stated that it would use Nuclear Weapons against Soviet aggression in Europe.

In the 1960s the alliance was tested. President Charles de Gaulle of France complained about U.S. domination and control of NATO. In 1966 France expelled NATO troops from its soil and removed its troops from NATO command, but it remained a member of the organization. This action led to the relocation of NATO headquarters from Paris to Brussels.

With the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe and in the Soviet Union and with the reunification of Germany, NATO underwent a reassessment period. As of 2003, 100,000 U.S. troops remain stationed in Europe, with another 10,000 troops stationed in Bosnia and Kosovo. In fact, the U.S. maintains the most powerful military force in Europe. Despite this situation, questions persist about the need for NATO in a post-Cold-War world, with critics calling for Europe to shoulder more of its own defense burden.

Despite the criticism, few U.S. leaders have expressed the desire to dismantle NATO. Instead, leaders appear to be seeking a new mission for the organization. Some have suggested that the United States retain a foothold in Europe to insure political stability. Others urge using NATO as a tool to defend western interests outside Europe. Then, too, since September 11, 2001, NATO has taken on an additional role in the "War on Terrorism." As part of the expanded membership and roles envisioned for NATO, the group has opened its membership to former Communist bloc countries of Eastern Europe. Russian leaders have objected to this idea, seeing it as an attempt to end a Russian sphere of influence that has existed for 50 years. In addition, nearly a year after U.S. coalition troops ousted the Taliban, 5,500 NATO troops were sent to Afghanistan to take over peace-keeping duties. This was the first time that NATO has mobilized a military force outside Europe.

This proposed expansion was met with hostility by Russia. In 1997, Russia entered into an agreement with NATO in which Russia itself accepted a small role in the alliance. This arrangement was an attempt to further thaw relations between Russia and the West. It also helped facilitate former Soviet bloc nations in joining the Western alliance. NATO formally expanded in 1999, when Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined. That expansion was approved only after long, contentious debate in the U.S. Senate and elsewhere.

In 2002, NATO entered into another new security agreement with Russia that further eased the entry of additional former Warsaw Pact countries into NATO. Under the new arrangement, Russia was given more authority in the new body than in the 1997 informal arrangement set up to nudge Moscow closer to the West. Even so, Russia's future involvement was expected to remain limited to certain areas, including crisis management, peacekeeping, and such military areas as air defense, search-and-rescue operations, and joint exercises.

On March 26, 2003, at NATO Headquarters, a special meeting of the North Atlantic Council was held for the signing of the Protocols of Accession. This ceremony marked the official invitation for joining NATO that was extended to seven countries: Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The seven countries were invited to join the Alliance at the NATO Summit in Prague in November 2002. The Protocols of Accession are amendments to the North Atlantic Treaty. When signed and ratified by the 19 NATO member countries, the new agreement will permit the invited countries to become parties to the treaty and members of NATO. From December 2002 to March 2003, a series of meetings were held between NATO and the individual invitees to discuss and formally confirm their interest, willingness, and ability to meet the political, legal, and military commitments of NATO membership.

Further readings

Assenova, Margarita. 2003. The Debate on NATO's Evolution. Washington, D.C.: CSIS Press.

Duignan, Peter. 2000. NATO: Its Past, Present, and Future. Stanford, Calif.: Hoover Institution Press.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Available online at <> (accessed August 1, 2003).

Schmidt, Gustav, ed. 2001. A History of NATO: The First Fifty Years. New York: Palgrave.


Cold War; Communism.

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