Following the destruction of World War II and the 1948 communist takeover of Czechoslovakia, North American and European countries sought a way to deter Soviet expansionism, prevent the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe, and encourage European political integration. Seeking to accomplish these goals through a transatlantic security agreement, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed on April 4, 1949, and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was formed. Article 5 of the Treaty established a fundamental principle shared by all member countries of the Alliance: “[A]n armed attack against one or more of them…shall be considered an attack against them all.” The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, marked the first time in NATO’s history that Article 5 was invoked. For additional information on the history of the Alliance, go here.
NATO’s central purpose is to safeguard the freedom and security of its members through political and military means. Today, NATO brings together 28 member countries from Europe and North America, consulting and cooperating in the fields of security and defense. NATO provides a unique transatlantic link for political and security cooperation. Serving as a political and military alliance, the organization’s primary goals are the collective defense of its members and the maintenance of a democratic peace in the North Atlantic area. All 28 allies have an equal say, the Alliance’s decisions must be unanimous and consensual, and its members must respect the basic values that underpin the Alliance: democracy, individual liberty, and the rule of law.
NATO operates through the actions of three main bodies: The North Atlantic Council (NAC), the Military Committee (MC), and the Nuclear Planning Group (NPG). The NAC is the Alliance’s principal political decision-making body. Representing all 28 member states, the NAC and its network of committees provide the framework for Allies to consult, cooperate, and plan for multinational activities—both political and military in nature. The Military Committee (MC) is the senior military authority in NATO and serves as the primary source of military advice to NATO’s civilian decision-making bodies. The NPG reviews the Alliance’s nuclear policy in light of ever-changing security challenges and adapts it, as necessary.
The organization also maintains bilateral ties with individual Euro-Atlantic partner countries through NATO’s Partnership for Peace (PfP) program. Composed of 22 countries, the PfP allows countries to establish partnerships with NATO on activities of specific interest to the partners’ abilities or ambitions. Spanning the entire spectrum of NATO operations, PfP activities allow individual countries the opportunity to build practical relationships with NATO, and further promote the organization’s democratic values and commitment to stable security environments.
1949, Washington, DC, USA
Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom, and the United States
Greece, Turkey (1952); Germany (1955); Spain (1982); Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland (1999); Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia (2004); Albania, Croatia (2009)
28 NATO Member Countries
- Representing 51 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product
40 NATO Partner Countries
- Member and partner countries represent 71 percent of the world’s Gross Domestic Product
Purpose & Objectives
NATO’s fundamental role and enduring purpose is to safeguard the freedom and security of its member countries by political and military means.
- Politically: through diplomacy, dialogue and consensus, and cooperation
- Militarily: through collective defense, crisis management operations, and maintenance of adequate military capabilities
NATO member countries support the common values of democracy, freedom, solidarity, rule of law, well-being, individual liberty, and peace and stability.
- Help to create a stable and secure environment
- Welcome new members
- Forge partnerships
- Lead crisis management operations
- Combat existing and emerging threats
- Develop military capabilities
The North Atlantic Council (NAC) is NATO’s principal political decision-making body.
- The NAC is chaired by the NATO Secretary General. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Prime Minister of Denmark, is the current secretary general.
All NATO member countries have a seat at the NAC, which meets weekly at the level of “Permanent Representative” (also known as “PermRep” or “ambassador to NATO”).
- The Honorable Ivo H. Daalder is the U.S. Ambassador to NATO.
- NATO member countries’ chiefs of defense meet three times per year. Foreign ministers meet twice per year, and the heads of state and government meet at summits every few years.
- The NAC provides a forum for wide-ranging consultation between members on all issues affecting their peace and security. Each country represented retains complete sovereignty and responsibility for its own decisions.
- All members have an equal right to express their views and share in the consensus on which decisions are based. Agreement is reached on the basis of unanimity and common accord. There is no voting or decision by majority. Policies decided upon by the NAC are supported by and are the expression of the collective will of all the sovereign states that are members of the Alliance.
- The NAC issues declarations and communiqués explaining the Alliance’s policies and decisions. These documents are normally published after ministerial or summit meetings.
The Military Committee (MC) is NATO’s senior military advisory authority.
- The MC is chaired by the Chairman of the Military Committee. General Knud Bartels is the current chairman.
The MC meets weekly. Its membership consists of senior military officers from NATO member countries who serve as their country’s Military Representatives (also known as “MILREPs”).
- The U.S. Military Representative to NATO is Vice Admiral Richard K. Gallagher.
- The MC provides consensus-based advice on military policy and strategy to the NAC, especially prior to any NATO authorization of military activities or operations.
- The MC represents an essential link between the political decision-making process and the military structure of NATO. It translates political decisions and guidance into military direction for NATO’s two strategic commanders: Supreme Allied Commander Operations and Supreme Allied Commander Transformation.
- The MC prepares an annual long-term assessment of the strength and capabilities of countries and areas posing a risk to NATO’s interests.
The Nuclear Planning Group (NPG) is NATO’s primary authority on nuclear policy issues. It addresses issues of nuclear arms control and nuclear proliferation.
- The NPG is chaired by the NATO Secretary General (Anders Fogh Rasmussen). All member countries are represented except France, which elected not to participate.
- The NPG meets yearly at the level of minister of defense and, when necessary, at the level of ambassador.
The NPG discusses nuclear policy matters, including:
- Safety, security, and survivability of nuclear weapons;
- Communications and information systems; and
- Deployment issues.
- The NPG provides a forum in which NATO member countries can participate in the development of the Alliance’s nuclear policy and in decisions on NATO’s nuclear posture, irrespective of whether or not they themselves maintain nuclear weapons.
- Decisions are taken by consensus within the NPG. Policies that are agreed upon represent the common position of all participating countries.
NATO summit meetings provide periodic opportunities for heads of state, defense ministers, foreign ministers, and other officials from member governments to evaluate and provide strategic direction for Alliance activities. These meetings represent important junctures in the Alliance’s decision-making process. Summits have been used to introduce new policies, invite new members into the Alliance, launch major new initiatives, and build partnerships with non-NATO countries. A total of 25 summits have been convened since NATO’s formation in 1949.
NATO summits are effectively meetings of the North Atlantic Council (NAC)—the Alliance’s principal political decision-making body—at its highest level (that of Heads of State and Government). Due to the political significance of summit meetings, agenda items typically address issues of overarching political or strategic importance. Agenda items can relate to the internal functioning of the Alliance as well as NATO’s relations with external partners.
The last NATO summit was held in 2010 in Lisbon, Portugal. Heads of state and government adopted a new Strategic Concept establishing the Alliance’s mission plan for the next decade. Titled “Active Engagement, Modern Defence,” the Strategic Concept outlined three essential core tasks: collective defense, crisis management, and cooperative security.
- In addition to the adoption of the new Strategic Concept, leaders set a deadline of the end of 2014 for a halt to combat operations in Afghanistan and agreed to establish a missile defense shield that would cover all NATO member states. A 54-point declaration was issued by the heads of state and government at the summit’s conclusion.
- The Atlantic Council, a leading partner organization of The Chicago Council, provided this analysis of the decisions and progress made in Lisbon.
The NATO Summit in Chicago:
The 25th NATO Summit will take place in Chicago, IL, on May 20-21, 2012.
In October 2011, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen previewed the summit’s agenda: “In Chicago, we must make sure that NATO remains committed to our operations and values, capable of tackling future threats, and even more closely connected to our partners. To make this happen, I have four priorities for the summit: Afghanistan, missile defence, smart defence, and our cooperation with global partners.”
- Secretary General Rasmussen recently emphasized this fourth priority—“how we can work better together, both within NATO and with our partners”—in remarks at the Munich Security Conference on February 4, 2012.
Potential agenda items / issues for discussion:
- Afghanistan and transition 2014
- Missile defense
- Smart defense: pooling resources and sharing capabilities
- Building global partnerships with non-NATO countries
- Implementation of new “Strategic Concept,” updated in 2010 Lisbon Summit from previous 1999 concept
- Critical capabilities commitment
- Turkey’s role in region
- NATO’s relationship with Russia
- Use of non-military resources/capabilities (diplomacy and development)
- Non-proliferations efforts
- National budgeting decisions and capability developments
- NATO’s role in future operations, such as Operation Unified Protector in Libya
- Strengthen intelligence and surveillance (UAV) capabilities