North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO)

Meeting of the North Atlantic Council at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. (Photo Courtesy NATO)

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed by a group of nations in 1949 to provide mutual aid and a common defense in case of aggression in Western Europe by the Soviet Union and other members of the Communist bloc. The North Atlantic treaty, by which NATO was established, was signed in Washington, D.C., on April 4, 1949. Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States were the original members. Greece and Turkey joined in 1952, West Germany in 1955, Spain in 1982, and a reunited Germany in 1990.

The chief governing body is the North Atlantic Council. It is composed of permanent representatives of the member states, who sit in continuous session at NATO's headquarters near Brussels, Belgium. The chairman of the council is the secretary-general.

The Military Committee is the highest military authority of NATO. It is composed of the chiefs of staff--or their aides--of the member countries, plus a civilian representative for Iceland. There are three NATO military commands--the European, Atlantic, and Channel Commands--plus the Canada-United States Regional Planning Group.

The European Command, the most important of the three, is headed by the Supreme Allied Commander, Europe. The European Command has four subcommands--for Northern, Central, and Southern Europe, and the Mediterranean.

The alliance has not been without conflicts among its members. For example, France withdrew its military forces from the NATO command in 1966, although it remained a member of the NATO council. And tensions between Greece and Turkey led Greece to withdraw some troops from NATO in the 1970's and 1980's. Objections to stationing U.S. missiles in several countries during the 1980's also tested the alliance's strength.

In 1999, NATO celebrated its 50th anniversary with the addition of three new members--Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. But festivities were overshadowed by the civil war in Yugoslavia. In March 1999, after failing to help negotiate a peace settlement, NATO began air strikes against the Serbs for the slaughter of ethnic Albanians in the province of Kosovo. In June, NATO ceased its attacks and installed peacekeeping forces throughout the region.

In 2002, at a summit meeting in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, all the members of NATO supported a U.N. resolution demanding that Iraq disarm. At the same conference, seven additional former Communist countries--Latvia, Estonia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia--were formally invited to join the organization.

Reviewed by Norman D. Palmer
University of Pennsylvania