The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was established April 4, 1949, in Washington, D.C., with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty by Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom, and the United States. The original stated purpose of NATO as put forth in the treaty's preamble was to "safeguard the freedom, common heritage, and civilization of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy … promote stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area," and "unite their efforts for collective defense and for the preservation of peace and security." In fact NATO was created as a defensive political and military association. Its purpose was to protect the democracy, peace, and security of its members from the Soviet Union and its allies who were then joined together in the Warsaw Pact, NATO's Eastern nemesis.

The end of World War II found the nations of Western Europe—with the exception of Sweden, Switzerland, Spain, and Portugal—in a state of economic, political, and social turmoil. This turmoil was heightened by internal and external threats of communism. These threats emanated in large part from the expansionist-minded Soviet Union which by virtue of its military forces had annexed the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania and incorporated the nations of Eastern and Central Europe into the Soviet bloc. Numerous Cold War incidents and events including the founding of the Communist Information Bureau (Cominform) in 1947, the 1948 communist coup in Czechoslovakia, and the 1948 Berlin crisis and airlift fueled further fear of the Soviet Union. The invasion of South Korea by North Korea and the subsequent intervention by the People's Republic of China in the early 1950s also raised fears in the West of Soviet imperialism. Although taking place outside the European theater, events in Asia led many Western political strategists to believe that the Soviets were directing these and other events so as to test the resolve of the West on a global scale. In 1952 Turkey and Greece joined NATO and in 1955 the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) joined after earlier rejections. NATO was thus created for the eventuality of fighting a major war against the Soviet Union and its allies. The war as envisioned would be conventional in the sense that formidable air, land, and naval forces would do battle across the breadth of the European continent and its ocean boundaries. If such a war were to come about it would definitely not be a brushfire, or a hit-and-run guerrilla war.

Throughout its history the forces of nationalism often played havoc with NATO unity. In 1966 and 1967 France under President Charles de Gaulle (1890-1970) distanced itself from its NATO allies by demanding the withdrawal of NATO forces not under direct French command from home soil. In 1996, however, France again became, from a military standpoint, selectively involved in NATO. In 1976 Iceland nearly withdrew its NATO membership in a fishingrights dispute with Great Britain, and throughout much of the 1970s Greece and Turkey were bitterly divided over ethnic tensions on the island nation of Cyprus. Greece's problems with NATO were exacerbated in 1981 when a socialist government acceded to power in that country. The Soviet threat and the cajoling of the United States, however, overcame the divisive nationalist tendencies of NATO members and the organization remained largely intact.

For an organization founded for such an overt military purpose NATO has a unique dual military and civilian administration. The highest administrative organ of NATO is the North Atlantic Council, which is made up of representatives of member countries and has final decision-making authority. The council is chaired by NATO's secretary-general. The Defense Planning Committee is responsible for providing guidance to NATO's military arm. All members countries except France are represented on the committee. The Military Committee is made up of the chiefs-of-staff, or their representatives, from member countries and is the supreme military authority in NATO answerable only to the council. It directs Allied Command Europe and Allied Command Atlantic.

By the early 1990s NATO had nearly 4.3 million personnel under arms. They were generally considered to be well trained, well equipped, and of high morale. With the implosion of the Soviet Union beginning in 1989 and the disbanding of the Warsaw Pact in 1991, however, many questions arose and still continue to confront NATO: Who is NATO now to defend western Europe against?; What will be the role of NATO in the "new" Europe?; Should NATO extend membership to former communist bloc countries and the constituent republics of the former Soviet Union? Ironically, by 1994 Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, and the Czech and Slovak Republics began clamoring for NATO membership.

NATO claims that with the end of the Cold War it has been "restructured to enable it to participate in the development of cooperative security structures for the whole of Europe," and that it has "transformed its political and military structures in order to adapt them to peacekeeping and crisis management tasks in cooperation with countries which are not members of the Alliance and with other international organizations." U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 1998 told the North Atlantic Council Ministerial that NATO's "primary mission must remain collective defense against aggression," and that it must continue to adapt to the realities of Europe in the post-Cold War era. She went on to say that NATO must reach out to the emerging democracies and that a new "strategic concept" will include such activities as military intervention in Bosnia in defense of common interests. She supported President Bill Clinton's belief that NATO must guard against the spread of weapons of mass destruction, ethnic violence, and regional conflict. NATO's future role in Europe is thus envisioned as not to fight a major war but rather to serve in various peacekeeping roles and when necessary to militarily intervene in areas torn by ethnic hostilities and fighting—such as Bosnia and possibly Kosovo in Central Europe. It has even been suggested that NATO be responsible for the economic security of Europe. If for instance should future events in the Middle East threaten Europe's oil supply, then NATO might militarily intervene "out of area."

Many Europeans, however, feel that the United States is attempting to turn NATO into a global policeman assigned to patrol and protect American interests. Part of the American strategy in implementing this new role for NATO is seen as trying to scare Europe with the threat of expanded terrorism. A European diplomat voiced this concern to the New York Times in anticipation of NATO's April 1999 50th-anniversary summit meeting in Washington, stating: 'But we worry that America may be creating a new 'threat perception' that will scare our populations with visions of anthrax and gangrene, while allowing NATO to become a global organization."

Albright, Clinton, and the U.S. Senate all agree that NATO membership should be expanded to include those European countries that can demonstrate the political, economic, and military readiness to contribute to the collective security of Europe. This is made in reference to the former communist but now emerging democracies of Central and Eastern Europe and the constituent republics of the former Soviet Union, such as the Ukraine. There are many critics to this policy who claim that these countries need not be rewarded for becoming democratic as democracy is its own reward; that the needs of these countries are much better served by their joining the European Union; that to bring these countries up to NATO's military standards would ultimately cost the United States between $30 and $100 billion; and finally that to completely encircle the western portion of Russia with NATO countries (especially the Baltic States) would create a diplomatic nightmare and further fuel Russian geopolitical paranoia. Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic, however, are expected to join NATO in 1999.

[ Michael Knes ]


Albright, Madeleine. "The NATO Summit: Defining Purpose and Direction for the 21st Century." Dispatch (U.S. Department of State), June 1998, 7-10.

Coffey, Joseph I. The Future Role of NATO. New York: Foreign Policy Association, 1997.

Cohen, Roger. "Policy Battle within NATO as U.S. Talks of Wider Scope." New York Times, 28 November 1998, A4.

Gordon, Philip H., ed. NATO's Transformation: The Changing Shape of the Atlantic Alliance. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.

Mandelbaum, Michael. "The Wrong Idea at the Wrong Time? The Case against NATO Expansion." Current History, March 1998, 132-36.

North Atlantic Treaty Organization. "NATO: North Atlantic Treaty Organization." Brussels: North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 1998. Available from .

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