What Is NATO and Why It Matters

5 min read

| By Beth Manar |

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a political and military alliance that began with a treaty signed by the United States, Canada, and ten Western European countries on April 4, 1949. NATO was formed as a bulwark against what many capitalist countries in North America and Europe saw as an expansionist threat by the Soviet Union after communist regimes were established in East Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria. One of the tenets of the treaty is Article 5, which allows for collective defense in the event of aggression against any member state, which many in Western Europe feared.

Though the United States and Soviet Union joined with an alliance of countries to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II (1939-1945), relations between the two powerful countries began to fray after the end of the war. The capitalist United States and communist Soviet Union began to vie for ideological influence, and a period known as the Cold War began. During the Cold War, the two competing major world powers did not engage in active warfare against each other, but they built vast military stockpiles, including nuclear weapons, and sought to exert control in other countries across Europe, Asia, South America, and Africa.

As Soviet influence grew during the Cold War, particularly in Eastern Europe, other countries entered NATO, including Greece, Turkey, and Germany in the 1950s. In 1955, the Soviet Union and several Eastern European communist countries formed the Warsaw Pact as a counter to NATO, creating a stark division within Europe.

In 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed, and became the Russian Federation (Russia), and the Cold War ended. Though NATO did not actively participate in any military conflicts during the Cold War, it has intervened militarily in several conflicts since the fall of the Soviet Union. Its first use of military force occurred during the Bosnian War when it enforced a United Nations’ (UN) no-fly zone and actively engaged in a bombing campaign against Bosnian Serb positions in 1994 and 1995. Since then, NATO forces have engaged in military interventions, one war, two military operations, and several peacekeeping missions, usually at the request of the UN. In 1999, NATO launched air strikes in Serbia to force the Serbian government to protect Albanian citizens in Kosovo, Yugoslavia. It deployed warships in Operation Ocean Shield to protect ships in the Gulf of Aden and the Indian Ocean from Somali pirates from 2008 to 2016. And in 2011, NATO enforced a no-fly zone over Libya.

Despite the original intent of NATO, as of July 2018, the only time Article 5 has ever been invoked was after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States. At that time, NATO issued the statement: ”The United States’ NATO allies stand ready to provide the assistance that may be required as a consequence of these acts of barbarism.” NATO then sent troops to help the United States fight the Taliban in Afghanistan. NATO has maintained a presence in Afghanistan in some capacity since then as part of the fight against terrorism. Not all NATO nations have always agreed with the United States, and NATO did not assist with the US invasion in Iraq in 2003, though it did participate in training Iraqi security forces from 2004 to 2011. In the eyes of many NATO members, Russia remains a threat to NATO nations due to its part in conflicts in Georgia beginning in 2008, its invasion of Ukraine to annex Crimea in 2014, its part in the ongoing war in Syria, and its continued attempts at interference in elections in several countries, including the United States in 2016.

As of 2018, NATO remains the most powerful military organization in the world, growing to 29 members by July 2018, and maintains permanent standing forces on active duty and air defense system and forces. Its premise of collective defense has been praised for keeping Europe generally at peace for almost 70 years, however it has come under consistent criticism from Russia as provoking tensions and even from representatives of its own member nations, including US President Donald Trump, who at times has called it “obsolete” and questioned its effectiveness. Trump has stated that the United States bears the brunt of the cost for NATO military defense and has called for other member countries to devote more spending toward the alliance. However, others argue that NATO’s value to the United States and its other members lies in its ability to promote peace by serving as a deterrent to those who recognize that an attack on one country will provoke defense by many and to encourage cooperation among its many partners to fight the more modern problems of terrorism, piracy, and cybercrime together.

Coverage of NATO and its historical and current impacts can be found in many Gale products. Here is a selection of topic portals, media, and articles from several of our databases:

These informative articles can be found in eBooks available from GVRL:

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