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NATO: From Creation to Current Status Essay

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Updated: Jul 21st, 2021


The paper discusses NATO which is a major military alliance among European States, the US and Canada. It highlights the historical context, which led to the formation of NATO. The history of the alliance is broken down into three major phases: the Cold War era, the Post Cold War, and the Post 9/11.

The paper reviews how NATO reinvented itself following the collapse of the Soviet Union and embarked on a successful enlargement process. The various issues that have faced the organization since its creation are discussed and its future estimated. The paper concludes by noting that NATO is a relevant security apparatus today and still serves as the best instrument for combating the security threats of the 21st century.


The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is rightfully regarded as the world’s most powerful military alliance. The organization was founded in 1949 with the primary objective of protecting Western Europe and the US from Soviet aggression.

The alliance was able to successfully achieve this goal and additionally ensure that no military rivalries emerge in the region. Following the end of the Cold War, the Soviet threat was neutralized and the alliance had to reinvent itself in order to remain relevant. It did this by expanding its role and increasing its membership.

This paper will set out to provide a detailed research of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization with focus given to the creation and purpose of this alliance. A review of how the organization has expanded over the years and the role it has played will be provided to demonstrate that NATO is still a valid security apparatus in world today.

Origins of NATO

A significant outcome of the World War II was the emergence of the United States of America and the Soviet Union as the two world super powers. While these countries had fought as allies in the war, their political differences pitted them against each other in the postwar years.

There was concern that the Soviet Union would make use of her considerable power to influence politics in Europe (Trachtenberg, 1999). The weakened postwar Europe would not be able to resist this Soviet threat. The US proposed to help bolster West Europe’s military capability by the formation of an alliance. NATO, therefore, began as a mutual defense pact among ten Western European countries, the US and Canada.

These twelve countries signed the Washington Treaty on April 4, 1949 in which they committed themselves to a mutual defense pact (Cornish, 2004). The treaty bound the member states and an attack on any member was to evoke a response from all members. NATO’s history can be divided into three distinct phases: the Cold War period, the decade following the end of the Cold War, and the current phase, which began with the terrorist attacks on the US on September 11, 2011.

Cold War Era

At the time of NATO’s formation, the Western Europe was a divided region still struggling to recover from the devastating effects of the just ended the World War II. While a Western European defense organization would have been preferred, the participation of the US was seen as crucial since it was the only country with enough military might to counter the USSR.

Trachtenberg (1999) observes that this alliance was a long-term American commitment to Western Europe’s security. Over time, this treaty turned into an organization with a political council and regular meetings being held by the allied foreign and defense ministers. This transformation into a full-fledged organization increased the influence and strength of the Treaty.

In its early years of existence, NATO’s role was primarily to prevent an attack against the territory of its member countries by the formidable Soviet Union and her allies. Seroka (2007) best articulates this point by documenting that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was originally designed to deal with a primary threat from international communism on the European continent.

West Germany joined NATO in 1955 and this strengthened the capability of the alliance in Europe since Germany had the manpower necessary to resist a conventional invasion by Soviet forces. This move precipitated the formation of the Warsaw Pact by the Soviet Union and her East European allies.

The alliance’s nuclear capability provided by the United States, which served as deterrence, was the main tool used to prevent an attack from the Soviet Union. However, NATO also adopted a strategy of flexible response and envisaged the use of conventional warfare before engaging in a nuclear confrontation.

Even so, Minuto-Rizzo (2007) reiterates that nuclear weapons were at the core of the alliance’s strategy and nuclear deterrence was the principle means of preventing a Soviet led attack on any of the member states. Since both sides (East and West Europe) knew the cost of a nuclear confrontation, the use of force to advance political aims was effectively excluded in the Cold War Europe.

The Post – Cold War Period

The end of the Cold War in 1989 was significant for NATO. Many political analysts forecasted that the alliance could be disbanded safely since the main aggressor in Europe had dissipated. In addition to this, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, which had been an alliance of East European nations formed to counter NATO, had already occurred.

However, this did not happen since NATO member states did not want to get rid of the alliance because of the numerous advantages they were enjoying because of their cooperation. Minuto-Rizzo (2007) observes that the transatlantic framework that “allowed all countries -big and small- to make their voices heard, to seek common solutions, and to train their forces together was too precious an asset to be squandered” (p.3).

Many member countries of the former Warsaw Pact also expressed interest in joining NATO in order to enjoy the advantages of the permanent transatlantic framework for consultation and cooperation. NATO, therefore, had to reorient itself to embrace the newly emerging democracies in Central and Eastern Europe.

NATO was able to develop new strategic concepts to incorporate new members and reorganize its military structures following the disappearance of the existential threat provided by the Soviet Union (Noetzel & Schreer, 2009). It adopted a policy of partnership and opened its doors for new members from Central and Eastern Europe.

The alliance also began to engage Russia: a move that was seen as integral to realizing the goals of an undivided Europe. The creation of the Permanent Joint Council (PJC) in 1997 is the most visible indication of an attempt to formalize the relationship between NATO and Russia. Labarre (2001) affirms that the PJC gave Russia a voice in NATO for the first time in history.

The post Cold War era also saw NATO for the first time in its history engaging in military action outside the territory of its member countries. This engagement came about because of the conflicts in the Balkans. NATO provided military support at the request of the United Nations and helped to pacify the Balkans. The alliance engaged in the deployment of peacekeeping forces in the region to sustain peace.

Post 9/11 Era

The third major phase in NATO’s existence came about following the September 11 terrorist attacks. On September12, 2001, NATO invoked Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, which instructs that, “An attack against one is an attack against all”. Minuto-Rizzo (2007) observes that 9/11 made it clear to NATO allies that their major threats no longer emanated from Europe, as had been the case during the Cold War. The new threats came from outside the continent in the form of international terrorism, failing states, and the threat of weapons of mass destruction.

The realities of 9/11 demonstrated to NATO the weakness of the traditional geographical approach to security that had been utilized for decades. This security approach had been effective when the potential threat emanated from the Soviet Union. International terrorism could not be countered using the same strategy and NATO had to be prepared to engage enemy forces at their source.

NATO Transformation

Originally, a regional security pact designed to protect Western Europe from a Soviet threat, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization has reinvented and transformed itself into an international security force with missions to “combat international terrorism, prevent weapons proliferations, and provide for Europe’s security” (Seroka, p.25).

The last decade has seen a significant enhancement of NATO’s military capabilities. The NATO Heads of State and Government summit in Prague, 2002, articulated the need for radical changes in the alliance’s military command structure. This military transformation begun with the establishment of one strategic command based in Europe to oversee all aspects of NATO’s operations. Another strategic command base was established in the US to advance the military aspects of transformation.

While NATO no longer faces the threat that led to its formation (the Soviet Union) it has continued to grow in the years following the collapse of the USSR. International terrorism has been the most significant issue addressed by NATO. Despite the fact that international terrorism does not present a strategic threat to NATO countries, it presents a real danger to security in the event that such elements could gain access to weapons of mass destruction.

A significant change in NATO’s strategic doctrine following the end of the Cold War has been a loss of influence by the United States. American dominance within NATO has been a reality since the beginning of the alliance. Noetzel and Schreer (2009) observe that the US set the terms of NATO’s formation and the country continued to play a leading role in its institutional development.

This has changed and member states of the alliance today are more vocal about their opposition to the US policies. This is evident from the stance taken by Germany and France concerning the war in Iraq.

NATO’s role has also expanded to include global interventionism. Wolff (2009) states that this radical change means that the alliance can be called upon to use its resources to maintain peace treaties or engage in combat to overthrow a government or hunt down terrorists.

NATO Enlargement

NATO has also pursued an aggressive policy of expansion over the last two decades. Enlargement serves the double purpose of strengthening European ties while at the same time broadening NATO’s influence in the world.

Enlargement of NATO is made possible by Article 10 of the Washington Treaty which allows for the admission of new members. According to Article 10, “any decision to invite a country to join the Alliance is taken by the North Atlantic Council, NATO’s principal decision-making body, on the basis of consensus among all Allies” (NATO, 2012).

NATO membership has increased to 28 countries mostly because of the open door policy to European countries. Bosnia and Herzegovina are engaged in the Membership Action Plan, which is a precursor to attaining full membership, and can be expected to join the organization in the near future.

NATO’s expansion process has been very successful and it has achieved remarkable outcomes. Seroka (2007) suggests that the expansion has not jeopardized relations with Russia, nor led to the remilitarization of the continent or increased tensions between member states on the European continent. On the contrary, NATO’s enlargement has led to modernization, standardization and increased the democratic control within the individual armed forces of its member states.

The large-scale enlargement efforts of post Cold War NATO have turned the organization into an inclusive European-wide organization committed to democracy and positioned to eliminate, almost entirely, the possibility of inter-state conflict within Europe. However, Russia has reacted angrily to NATO’s post Cold War expansions that have been viewed as deliberate actions to increase the Western sphere of influence at Moscow’s expense (Goldgeier, 2009).

Noetzel and Schreer (2009) note that “article 10 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which limits new members to European territory places an important limitation on NATO’s expansion” (p.217). Because of this statute, the organization has been unable to accommodate willing partners from other continents.

Seroka (2007) reveals that some of the allies led by the US hope to amend this in order to include members from all over the world and therefore guarantee NATO world-wide influence. These advocates see alliance with non-European democracies as crucial in a globalizing world. However, most members are concerned that such an expansion might dilute the alliance’s transatlantic character.

NATO Issues

Despite its significant successes, NATO has had some issues in the course of its existence. In its early years, the most serious crisis for NATO came in the form of Frances threat to withdraw from the Alliance. In March 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle announced that French forces would be withdrawn from the integrated military command of the NATO (Trachtenberg, 1999).

This withdrawal was in retaliation to what was seen by Paris as an ever-growing dominance by the US within the organization (Noetzel & Schreer, 2009). However, the ever-present threat of a Soviet attack prompted NATO members to resolve their conflicts and continue working together for a common defense.

The internal cohesion of NATO has also been affected by the establishment of another security player in Europe. The European Defense and Security Policy (EDSP), which was created in 1999, undermined and threatened the future cohesion of NATO. While the ESDP was supposed to be complementary to NATO’s capabilities, its objectives which are to provide military assistance to the EU states have undermined the importance of the Atlantic alliance.

In response to the attractiveness of the ESDP, this body was incorporated into the larger framework of the European Union’s Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP). Some observers see the ESDP as a move by European nations to create a competing security apparatus and therefore re-nationalize their security by diminishing the US role in European security and defense affairs (Noetzel & Schreer, 2009).

The reactions by NATO following 9/11 were also divisive to its political cohesion. Following 9/11, the US pursued a more assertive stance on how NATO should be utilized to counter the new threats. To begin with, the US declared war on terrorism; a call that was supported by her NATO allies.

While all the allies offered to support the US in its fight against international terrorism, the US administration chose not to give NATO a large role in the combat operation against the Taliban. Most European allies saw this as an indication that the US did not perceive the alliance to be of primary value in its efforts to shape the changing global security order (Noetzel & Schreer, 2009).

Another cause of contention in NATO was the US-led war against Iraq in 2003. From the onset, major European allies such as Germany and France opposed the war. However, the US went ahead and waged this controversial war. The political and military campaign against Saddam Hussein highlighted significant divisions between the US and some of her European allies.

Cornish (2004) documents that those deep divisions almost led to the collapse of NATO. The Bush administration, which had called on the war against Saddam, was accused of using NATO as an instrument of US foreign policy. This is because the US expected uncritical political and military support for the invasion of Iraq from its allies.

The alliance also suffers from a lack of commitment by all the members to consign troops to dangerous missions. This is evident from the war in Afghanistan where the US maintains the largest contingent. Most NATO countries have been unable to achieve the political support needed to send their troops to fight the Taliban. Goldgeier (2009) states that this reality has led to a “two-tiered alliance” comprising of those who are willing to fight, and those who are not.

The recent years have seen an increase in divergence of interests within the organization. This has led some commentators to predict that the alliance is on the path to disintegration and, ultimately, its failure (Noetzel & Schreer, 2009). This bleak reality is not the only possible future of NATO and provided the key challenges that the alliance faces are addressed, the future of the alliance is guaranteed.

Discussion and Conclusion

NATO remains to be a unique and invaluable alliance that continues to function as a reliable tool for multilateral military cooperation. The alliance is today engaged on several continents, under different capacities. This underscores the transformation that NATO has undergone since its formation in 1948.

While some commentators argued that NATO had outlived its usefulness following the disappearance of the Soviet threat to Western Europe, the alliance has flourished and played a useful role in the past 2 decades. Most notably, it has countered ethnic abuses in the former Yugoslavia and is involved in efforts to counter Islamic terrorists in Afghanistan.

This paper is set out to discuss NATO’s progress from its formation to today. It began by providing the historical context that made NATO necessary. It then articulated the three distinctive phases in NATO’s history, which are the Cold War era, the Post Cold War, and the Post 9/11.

The paper has revealed how the changes in the security environment have obliged NATO to transform itself and engage actively well beyond the territories of its members. NATO has evolved from the defensive entity, it was and it finds itself increasingly acting as a proactive risk manager. This alliance of transatlantic countries originally built to counter Soviet attack still presents the best instrument for combating the threats of the 21st century.


Cornish, P. (2004). NATO: the practice and politics of transformation. International Affairs, 80(1), 63-74.

Goldgeier, J. (2009). NATO’s future: facing old divisions and new threats. Harvard International Review, 23(2), 48-51.

Labarre, F. (2001). NATO-Russia relations and NATO enlargement in the Baltic Sea Region. Baltic Defense Review, 6(1), 46-69.

Minuto-Rizzo, A. (2007). NATO’s Transformation and New Partnerships: The Mediterranean. Mediterranean Quarterly, 18(3), 1-13.

NATO (2012). NATO enlargement. Retrieved from .

Noetzel, T., & Schreer, B. (2009). Does a multi-tier NATO matter? The Atlantic alliance and the process of strategic change. International Affairs, 85(2), 211–226.

Seroka, J. (2007). Security considerations in the Western Balkans: NATO’s evolution and expansion. East European Quarterly, 41(1), 25-38.

Trachtenberg, M. (1999). A Constructed Peace: The Making of the European Settlement 1945-1963. Princeton University Press, 1999.

Wolff, A. T. (2009). The structural and political crisis of NATO transformation. Journal of Transatlantic Studies, 7(4), 476492.

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