A brief history of NATO and how it operates

Various national flags outside the NATO headquarters
The NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium | Image: Shutterstock

We regularly hear about NATO and its importance as a political body in the news, but where did it all begin? Here we look more closely at the history of NATO and how the organisation has developed over time.

NATO stands for the ‘North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’, and is sometimes known as the North Atlantic Alliance. It is headquartered in Brussels, Belgium. Let’s explore its foundations, purpose, and members.

When was NATO founded?

NATO was formed in 1949 with the signing of the Washington Treaty. It was founded by the USA, Canada, and ten European countries. It is a military alliance that states all members will come to each other’s aid should there be an armed attack against any single member. This is laid out in the regularly cited ‘Article 5’ of the Treaty.

The original twelve founding members of the alliance are Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK, and the USA.

Why was NATO founded?

In 1949, Soviet Russian leader Stalin managed to install his leadership and communist governments in most Eastern European counties. This created a buffer zone protecting the USSR from any Western attack. However, there was a fear that the USSR may do the same to countries in the rest of Europe, and so, in founding NATO, smaller countries were less vulnerable to both Soviet influences and attack.

The USA, in particular, had a real concern that communism would become the dominant force across the world. The formation of NATO meant the USA could place weapons in member states, making it easier to defend against any potential Soviet attack. Being part of NATO showed the growing number of Communist nations that the USA was committed to stopping communism from spreading.

What is NATO’s Purpose Today?

The Soviet Union fell in December 1991, yet NATO is still an active organisation. Its stated purpose is to guarantee the freedom and security of member states through both political and military means.

Its political role is to promote and support democracy and democratic values. It works to help members to consult and cooperate on security and defence measures and prevent any conflict.

While military action is a tool available to NATO, it states its commitment to ‘the peaceful resolution of disputes’, but it does have the military power to act in crises where necessary. NATO relies upon a system of collective security, and this requires all member states to agree to mutually defend any attack by an external party on states within the alliance. External forces are also allied with NATO to help in the event of military action.

Five Key Facts about NATO

There is so much information out there about NATO and its activities, so we’ve put together five key facts you need to know about this long-standing military alliance and its history.

NATO is now made up of 30 member states

Over the years 18 more countries have joined NATO’s founding members. - Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, and Turkey.

NATO has 40 additional security partner relationships

In addition to the member states in the alliance, there is also a huge network of security partners in over 40 different nations. Their security associates include the European Union and the African Union.

An attack on a NATO member is an attack on them all

Article 5 of the NATO treaty states that if a country attacks a single member, then it accounts to an attack on all the members. They are obliged to act in defence of the attacked nation.

Only one NATO member has no army

All NATO members are committed to defending their partners. Iceland is the only state without a standing army. Instead, it has a militarised coastguard, peacekeeping forces, and air defence systems.

NATO operates an ‘open door’ policy

The 10th article of the NATO treaty states that the alliance is open to any European country as long as it can abide by membership rules. Countries such as Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia have indicated their interest in joining the organisation.

NATO positions itself as the defender of the Western World, and the treaty continues to protect many countries to this day.