How NATO Works

By: Marshall Brain & Sarah Gleim  | 

NATO Headquarters
NATO was formed April 4, 1949 when 12 countries signed the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington, D.C. NATO

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a global organization that serves many purposes in the world's security. NATO was formed April 4, 1949 with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty by 12 founding member countries. The goal was to create a "pact of mutual assistance" to challenge any possibility that Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union would try to further extend control of Eastern Europe.

But the cornerstone of NATO is what's called collective defense. It is the basis of Article 5 of NATO's founding treaty and commits members to protect each other during acts of war.


From Article 5:

"The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.

Any such armed attack and all measures taken as a result thereof shall immediately be reported to the Security Council. Such measures shall be terminated when the Security Council has taken the measures necessary to restore and maintain international peace and security."

Article 5 has been invoked just once, in response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001.

But there's much more to NATO than just Article 5 and the idea of collective defense. Keep reading to learn about this powerful organization and its important role in the world's political landscape.


NATO Basics

NATO Headquarters
NATO Headquarters is located in in Brussels, Belgium and serves as its political and administrative center. NATO

As we mentioned previously, NATO is the acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, an alliance of countries that work together to implement the North Atlantic Treaty. NATO's 12 founding member countries include the U.S., Canada, the United Kingdom, France, Italy, Portugal, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. Greece and Turkey joined in 1952, followed by West Germany in 1955. Spain joined in 1982.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, several Eastern European countries joined, including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland in 1999; Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia in 2004; and Albania and Croatia in 2009. Montenegro was the last country to join NATO in 2017 [source: NATO].


When the founding members drafted the original treaty, there were disagreements on how many countries should join. The United Kingdom wanted to keep the NATO small and strong, but the United States wanted to include smaller, weaker countries — those more likely to succumb to the Soviets. France was most concerned with protecting its colonial territories, and Germany was a concern to all three countries [source: NATO].

Today, countries don't have to be members to work with NATO, however. Partnerships with non-NATO countries started back as far as 1991. The goal is to help these non-member nations become stable and democratic, with modern armed forces. Four partner countries have declared interests in NATO memberships: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Ukraine. Today, any European country can join NATO as long as it accepts the commitments and obligations of membership (more on that shortly) [source: NATO].

NATO Headquarters is located in in Brussels, Belgium and serves as its political and administrative center. Representatives from member countries, as well as civilian and military experts, work there daily consulting on global security issues. More than 5,000 meetings are held there annually. All decision-making at NATO is done by consensus, which is a central value that was included in the creation of NATO in 1949.

Consensus decision-making means that there is no voting at NATO. Instead, discussions take place until all 29 member nations can come to an acceptable solution — and then it is deemed a NATO decision. Oftentimes that means some member nations "agree to disagree." The job of leading the consensus decision-making process falls to the NATO secretary general [source: NATO].


How Is NATO Structured?

NATO North Atlantic Council
The North Atlantic Council (NAC), seen here meeting during a Defense Ministers' Session, is the main political decision-making body at NATO. NATO

There are 29 member nations that make up NATO. Each member country has a permanent delegation at NATO's headquarters in Brussels. An ambassador heads up every nation's delegation and this ambassador represents his/her government in NATO's consensus decision-making process. Kay Bailey Hutchison is the current U.S. ambassador to NATO.

Each member nation has a seat on the North Atlantic Council (NAC), the main political decision-making body at NATO. The NAC is chaired by the secretary general and meets at least once a week or as necessary. The Nuclear Planning Group has similar authority to the NAC, but only on matters regarding nuclear policies [source: NATO].


If decisions of the alliance have military implications, the Military Committee is brought in. The Military Committee is NATO's senior authority on all things military. It's the oldest committee in NATO after the NAC, and its primary responsibility is to advise the NAC and the Nuclear Planning Group, making it an essential link between NATO's political decision makers and its military structure. The Military Committee also prepares long-term assessments on countries and areas considered risks to NATO's interests.

How Is NATO Funded?

NATO Summit
NATO funding has been a hot-button issue as of late. Here NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and U.S. President Donald Trump are seen meeting during a breakfast where they discussed funding during the July 2018 NATO Summit. NATO

NATO's funding has been a contentious topic in the news lately. U.S. President Donald Trump has consistently accused America's NATO allies of falling behind on their bills. Even as Trump was on his way to Brussels for the July 2018 NATO Summit, he tweeted, "Many countries in NATO, which we are expected to defend, are not only short of their current commitment of 2% (which is low), but are also delinquent for many years in payments that have not been made. Will they reimburse the U.S.?" But is he right? Well, not completely.

Here's how NATO funding works. According to NATO's official guidelines, member nations are expected to commit a minimum of 2 percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) to spending on defense — meaning payments made by the government specifically to meet the needs of its armed forces. But only five countries currently do.


But during the 2014 summit in Wales, member nations pledged to increase their military spending to 2 percent of GDP by 2024. The United States far exceeds the 2 percent guideline, paying more than 3.5 percent of its GDP, the most of any member nation.

It's worth noting the 2 percent of GDP is still only a guideline and there is no penalty to countries that don't meet it. In 2017, 22 of 28 member nations followed through with the 2014 pledge and did increase their defense budgets [source: Kottasová]. But some smaller countries simply don't have the armies large enough to handle such huge increases, and the 2 percent GDP funding does not have to cover only defense to meet NATO requirements. Countries can choose to spend the money on NATO peace missions, or the fight against ISIS [source: Kottasová].

President Trump, however, doesn't believe 2 percent of GDP is sufficient, despite that most member nations can't meet that. As recent at July 11, 2018, while in Brussels at the NATO summit Trump suggested all NATO nations should commit 4 percent of GDP ... and immediately. "I think these countries have to step it up, not over a 10-year period, but they have to step it up immediately," Trump said during a bilateral breakfast with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg.

So what does all that money go to fund? More on that next.


NATO's Missions and Operations

NATO strategic training
In June 2017, British and German army engineers work together during a NATO mission to construct a floating bridge in Jonava, Lithuania. NATO

NATO takes active roles in many types of operations and missions across the globe. The organization is a leader in contributing to peace and security, promoting democratic values, and resolving international disputes. It also has military capabilities to intercede — alone or with other countries — whenever and wherever necessary.

NATO currently has 20,000 military personnel working on missions around the world, including operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo and the Mediterranean. NATO is also currently supporting allies in the African Union, and assisting with the refugee crisis in Europe. But NATO also is there when disaster strikes, helping with relief operations during natural, technological and humanitarian crises.


To ensure NATO can act on any given day to any given crisis, it maintains a modern defense plan based on an two key safeguards: cutting-edge weapons systems and forces trained to work together [source: NATO]. That means investing in the right mix of nuclear, conventional and ballistics missile defense capabilities remains core to NATO's overall strategy. And that costs big bucks — the 29 member nations spent an estimated $946 billion on defense in 2017, more than $683 billion of that was by the U.S.

So does the world still need NATO? Some, including President Trump, say its "obsolete." But during a time when there is deep uneasiness about Russia's expansionism, other nations disagree. Even before the debate over Russia's involvement in the U.S. 2016 election, there was concern over the Kremlin exerting influence on public opinion in the Baltic nations. And the Kremlin claims it was protecting the rights of ethnic Russians as its excuse for the annexation of Crimea.

So even while President Trump continues to disparage NATO, the United States military and other NATO member nations continue to devote their resources to building the agency's battle readiness, in case there is a crisis it must respond to, whether from Russia or any other aggressive neighbor.


Lots More Information

Related Articles

More Great Links

  • Donald Trump. @realdonaldtrump (July 11, 2018)
  • Kottasová, Ivana. "How NATO is funded and who pays what." CNN. May 25, 2017 (July 11, 2018)
  • NATO. "Collective Defence - Article 5." (July 11, 2018)
  • NATO. "Consensus Decision Making." (July 11, 2018)
  • NATO. "Defence Expenditures of NATO Countries (2008-2015)." (July 11, 2018)
  • NATO. "Enlargement." (July 11, 2018)
  • NATO. "NATO Member Countries." (July 11, 2018)
  • NATO. "NATO Member Countries." (July 11, 2018)
  • NATO. "North Atlantic Council." (July 11, 2018)
  • NATO. "Wales Summit Declaration." (July 11, 2018)
  • Porter, Tom. "What is NATO and How Is it Funded?" July 11, 2018 (July 11, 2018)
  • "Remarks by President Trump and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at Bilateral Breakfast." (July 11, 2018)