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History of NATO in 20th and 21th Centuries Research Paper

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Updated: Jul 21st, 2021

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is an intergovernmental military alliance which was founded in April 1949. It was formed through the North Atlantic Treaty which was signed on 4th of April the same year. It has its headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.

NATO comprises a system of collective where all the member states are in agreement to mutual defense in situations where a member is attacked by a non-member state or states. In its early years, NATO was more of a political association than a military alliance.

However, it took its real direction during the Korean War when member states integrated the military structure, and built it around the US commanders to help the US and its allies in the war. This document discusses the history of NATO, the military operations it engaged in, its membership and cooperation with non member states, as well as, the structure of NATO.

History of NATO

The signing of the Treaty of Brussels in March 1948 by five European countries which included the UK, Netherlands, France, Belgium and Luxembourg marked the beginning for the formation of NATO (Gheciu 161). The Treaty of Brussels and the Soviet Blockade were the basis for the formation of the Western European Union’s Defense Organization which was formed later the same year.

Talks between the Western European Union and the US began almost immediately to form a military alliance which could effectively respond to the USSR’s military power. The signing of the treaty took place in 1949 in Washington, D. C. The treaty was signed by the five members who were already bonded by the Treaty of Brussels, the US, Italy, Portugal, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, and Norway ((Hendrickson 82).

The member states involved in the treaty agreed to respond to an armed attack by an external party on a member state or member states. It was agreed that a member state could individually or as a united front assist in defending the member state(s) under attack. The member states maintain the freedom to decide on the nature of its response. The agreement in the North Atlantic Treaty was not unanimous since some Icelanders had preferred to neutrality.

The creation of NATO also called for the standardization of military technology, terminology, as well as, procedures among NATO members. This meant that the European NATO countries had to adopt the US military practices.

Cold War

The Korean War which began in 1950 was very significant in NATO’s history is it formed the first military test for the military alliance. It compelled the alliance to restructure its military to make it solid. The Lisbon conference held in 1952, established NATO’s Long-Term Defense Plan (Kamps and Isby 127).

The Post of Secretary General of NATO was created. Baron Hastings was appointed as the first Secretary General of NATO (Hendrickson 175). During the same year, Turkey and Greece joined NATO after a series of negotiations led by the US and the UK. During this time, it had 15 ready divisions based in Central Europe, and 10 in Italy and Scandinavia (Hendrickson 176).

NATO’s maritime exercise began in September 1952 (Kamps and Isby 127). This operation was termed as Operation Mainbrace where military personnel were brought to practice the defense of Norway and Denmark. More maritime exercises followed, and they included Operation Grand Slam, which was its first naval exercise in the Mediterranean Sea.

It involved convoy protection, as well as, striking fleet operations. It also involved naval shipping control. This was done in Northern Italy and Grand Repulse. The Allied Air Force Central Europe, the British Army on the Rhine, as well as, the Netherlands Corps were involved in the exercise.

An atomic air-ground exercise was conducted by the Central Army Group, as well as, Weldfast, and involved Greek, Italian, British, the US and Turkish naval forces. During this time, the Western European Union was preparing to hand over resistance to Soviet Union to NATO. NATO armed forces like NATO Tiger Association became very close to its tank gunnery competitors who include the Canadian Army Trophy (Kamps and Isby 127).

The Soviet Union attempted to join NATO in 1954 with the view that its membership in the alliance would help preserve peace in Europe. However, member states rejected the move as they felt that admission of the Soviet Union into the alliance would weaken NATO. The following year, West Germany joined the alliance.

It joined at time when NATO really needed its support to build conventional forces which could resist the Soviet invasion. This led to the signing of the Warsaw Pact in 1955 by the East European countries such as Poland, Bulgaria, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Albania, Hungary, Romania and the Soviet Union as a response to the increasing strength of NATO alliance. This formed the opposing sides during the Cold War.

The French Withdrawal

In 1958, the then French president, Charles de Gaulle’s felt threatened by US’s greater role in the alliance as he perceived that the US’s strong role led to special benefits to the UK (Beer 98). He favored the establishment of a tripartite directorate which would form an equal platform for France, the UK and the US.

He also wanted NATO to expand its coverage to include its geographical areas of interest, and in particular, French Algeria where it was involved in counter-insurgency. It therefore sought NATO assistance. Moreover, he did not favor being involved in a NATO-Warsaw Pact war in an event that East Germany invaded West Germany (Asmus 267).

In March 1959, he ordered for the withdrawal of its Mediterranean Fleet which was until then under NATO command. In June the same year, he ordered for the removal of foreign nuclear weapons in the country. The US was forced to remove its 200 aircrafts which had operated in France and to surrender air force bases by 1967 (Asmus 267).

However, France still showed solidarity with members of the NATO alliance in the Cuban Missile Crisis which took place in 1962 (Asmus 267). On the contrary, De Gaulle still pursued the withdrawal of France’s Channel and Atlantic fleets from NATO’s command to achieve fully independent defense.

Finally, in 1966, France pulled off all its armed forces from NATO’s command. France asked all non-French NATO military troops to leave the country (Asmus 268). As a result, the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) was transferred from Rocquencourt, France to Casteau, Belgium in 1967.

Despite these actions that were taken by the French, it still remained in NATO and committed to join in the defense of Europe in case of any attack by the Communist Block. The Lemnitzer-Ailleret Agreement between the French and the US official provided the details of how French forces would be integrated into NATO’s command structure should East Germany attack West Germany (Beer 102).

Détente and escalation

The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty signed in 1968 opened the debate for nuclear sharing arrangements. As a result, NATO countries formally defined the aims for the alliance. These included; to maintain security; as well as, to pursue de`tente (Beer 112). De`tente meant that the alliance had to organize defense level deemed necessary to counter the offensive capabilities of the Warsaw Pact.

As a result, ministers from NATO countries approved the deployment of two new warheads, Perishing II and US GLCM cruise missiles in Europe to counter the nuclear capabilities of the Warsaw Pact and to strengthen the Western Block’s negotiating position as regards to nuclear disarmament. Advanced Perishing II missiles, as well as, were deployed in Western Europe, particularly West Germany to strike military targets of the Warsaw Pact SS-20 should war erupt. This response occurred between 1983 and 1984 (Hendrickson 121).

In 19760s-70s, the membership of the alliance had remained almost static except for one major instance. Greece withdrew its armed forces from NATO’s command structure as a result of the invasion of Cyprus by Turkey in 1974 (Beer 114). However, following Turkish cooperation, Greek forces were readmitted into NATO’s command structure in 1980. In 1982, Spain became a member of NATO following a referendum (Hendrickson 116).

Post Cold War

The collapse of the Warsaw Pact in 1991 led to the end of the Cold War, and the end of NATO’s main enemy. This meant that the members of the alliance had to make strategic re-evaluation of the purpose of NATO, as well as, its nature and tasks (Bozo and Eide, 8). NATO expanded to Eastern Europe including areas which had not been of its major concerns. The reunification of West and East Germany in 1990 led to the automatic entry of East Germany into NATO.

The Two Plus Four Treaty that had been signed earlier in the year had provided for their automatic entry. It was also agreed that nuclear weapons, as well as, foreign troops would not be based in the east. France later rejoined NATO’s Military Command in 1995, although it maintained an independent nuclear deterrent (Hendrickson 134).

Estonia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Lithuania, Romania, Latvia and Slovakia joined in March 2004, while Albania and Croatia joined in 2009. In the same month in 2004, NATO began its Baltic Air Policing to support the sovereignty of Estonia, Lithuania, as well as, Latvia. It provided them with fighters to counter aerial intrusions by any unwanted body.

The immediate restructuring of NATO’s military structure involved reducing the military personnel and reorganizing the system. New forces like the Headquarters Allied Command Europe Rapid Reaction Corps were established (Gheciu 345). The military personnel reduction followed an agreement during the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe which had been signed by the Warsaw Pact and NATO, in Paris in 1990.

New NATO structures include NATO Response Force formed in 2002 (Gheciu 345). Allied Command Operations was formed in 2003 to drive its current operations, and Allied Command Transformation established to steer future capabilities of the organization (Gheciu 345).


NATO has 28 members states which include the US, the UK, Canada, France, Germany, Albania, Lithuania, Latvia, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia, Hungary, Greece, Turkey, Romania, Portugal, Norway, Netherlands, Spain, Croatia, Poland, Czech Republic, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Estonia, Iceland and Luxembourg.

More members are still expected to join especially former member states of the Warsaw Pact from the Eastern European region. Georgia, the Republic of Macedonia and Ukraine were promised future membership during the 2008 summit held in Bucharest (Heuser 197).

Cooperation between NATO and non-member states

Euro-Atlantic Partnership

In its efforts to achieve further co-operation between its member states and its 22 partner countries, NATO has created a double framework which include the Partnership for Peace (PIP) and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. The PIP program was created in 1994. This program allows for individual bilateral relations involving NATO and each partner nation. PIP program is part of the operational wing of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership.

Its members include former, as well as, current members of the Commonwealth of Independent States, capitalist countries that had remained militarily neutral during the Cold War, and other partner countries which had maintained socialist economies during the Cold War. Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) established in 1997, provides all the 49 member countries with forum for constant consultation, dialogue, as well as, coordination between members.

There is also the Mediterranean Dialogue which was created in 1994 to manage bilateral relations between Israel, North Africa nations and NATO. For cooperating countries in the Middle East, Istanbul Cooperation Initiative was established in 2004 to provide a dialogue forum for them. The participants in this program include Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kuwait (Hendrickson 184).

Individual Partnership Action Plans

This program was established in the Prague Summit conducted in November 2002. The program is open to all nations with the ability as well as the political will to intensify their association with NATO (Bozo and Eide 6). The current members include Ukraine, Bosnia, Georgia, Moldova, Montenegro, Kazakhstan, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Contact Countries

The organization’s contact countries include non-NATO countries which are not in its Individual partnership Action Plan, and do not form part of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership, but contribute to its peacekeeping operations. Its organization’s guidelines do not allow for establishment of formal institutionalized relations with its allies, but creates initiatives to improve cooperation with them. Countries which are currently within this category include Japan, Australia, South Korea and New Zealand.

NATO’S structures

NATO’s headquarters are in Brussels, Belgium. The staff at its headquarters is drawn from member countries. They also include civilian officers, diplomats, as well as, military officers from partner countries. International Military Staff, as well as, International Staff who are serving in their armed forces also form part of the NATO staff at the headquarters.

NATO Council

Each member state sends a delegation to its headquarters in Brussels. The senior permanent member of every mission forms part of the Permanent Representative who is normally an experienced diplomatic ambassador or a senior civil servant.

Together, they form the North Atlantic Council. The body has governance authority, as well as, decision-making powers in the organization. They meet at least once per week and the meetings are chaired by the Secretary General of NATO.

They also meet occasionally at high-level conventions involving heads of states; foreign and defense ministers to make major decisions concerning the organization’s policies. Decisions are made on the basis of common accord, as well as, unanimity. Each country retains full sovereignty and is also responsible for its decisions (Gheciu 345).

NATO Parliamentary Assembly

It is responsible for setting broad strategic goals for the organization. The body meets twice during the year, and this includes during its Annual Session. It is the political integration organ of NATO, and is therefore charged with generating political policy, as well as, agenda setting for the council.

It takes reports from the Political Committee, Defense and Security Committee, Economics and Security Committee, Science and Technology Committee, and the Committee on the Civil Dimension of Security. The reports present the directions agreed upon by the individual national governments through their own stakeholders and political processes (Hendrickson 187).

Military Structures

Each country sends a Military Representative, who is a senior military officer in the nation’s armed forces. He or she is supported by the country’s International Military Staff.

Military Representatives from member states form NATO’s Military Committee. This body recommends to NATO’s political organs the actions or measures important for the common defense of NATO’s areas of coverage. Its major role is to provide advice, as well as, direction on NATO’s military policy (Gheciu 346). NATO’s military activities are headed by the Chairman of the NATO Military Committee.

Two Strategic Commanders who take charge of all the military matters in their jurisdiction on behalf of the Military Committee (Abrial 1). They provide overall direction and are also responsible for the conduct of the NATO military. The Military Committee provides directions to the Allied Command Operations (ACO) and the Allied Command Transformation (ACT).

ACO is tasked with operational, strategic, as well as, tactical management of NATO combat and troops of the allied forces. On the other hand, ACT is charged with the induction of armed forces from new member countries into NATO, researching and improving training capability for NATO military (Abrial 1).

Military Operations

Bosnia War

NATO’s intervention in the Bosnia War began in April 1993. It began by putting into effect the no-fly zone through the Operation Deny Flight, which continued in Herzegovina and Central Bosnia up to the end of the war in December 1995. From June 1993 to October 1996, NATO military adopted the Operation Sharp Guard by implementing maritime arms embargo and by placing economic sanctions on Yugoslavia.

In February 1994, the alliance army began its military actions by striking four Bosnia Serb aircraft which were violating its no-fly zone. Its bombing campaign which was conducted by the Operation Deliberate Force commenced in August 1995. The bombing campaign and the military airstrikes led to the end of the war later the same year (Hendrickson 175).

Kosovo War

NATO’s involvement in the Kosovo War began on March 24, 1999 and ended on the eleventh of June the same year. In this war, NATO deployed the Operation Allied Force on a 60-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, although France and some nations felt that NATO should have asked for an approval from the UN Security Council.

It ended when the Yugoslavian leader, Slobodan Milosevic, finally accepted the UN resolution 1244 which was NATO’s demands. During the war, it deployed the ACE Mobile Force to distribute humanitarian aid to Kosovo refugees (Bozo and Eide, 8). It also established a NATO-led force under the mandate of the UN to carry out military operations in Kosovo.

Military operations in Afghanistan

The 11 September attacks were the first major attack on member state in NATO’s history. This invoked Article 5 of NATO Charter (Bozo, and Eide 3). The Alliance expressed significant unity in April 2003 when NATO ambassadors unanimously agreed that NATO take command of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

NATO officially took charge of the mission in Afghanistan in August 2003. NATO responded to the attacks by deploying various forces which included the Operation Active Endeavour, as well as, Operation Eagle Assist to prevent entry of weapons of mass destruction plus movement of terrorists.

They were also deployed to aid security of shipping. During the first stages of the war, ISAF was tasked with securing Kabul and its environs from Al Qaeda, the Taliban and warlords in order to enhance the creation of the Afghan Transitional Administration.

Two months later, the UN Security Council approved the expansion of ISAF’s operations throughout the country. NATO appointed Hikmet Cetin, a Turkish as a Senior Civilian Representative in the war in January 2004. He was to be in charge of advancing political-military aspects of NATO in Afghanistan.

In 2006, ISAF extended its intensive military operations in Southern Afghanistan which continued through to 2008. The NATO-led force comprised typically of troops from the UK, Canada, Netherlands, Turkey and the US anti-terrorism military. As the war in the south intensified, France released a troop of Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft to reinforce the NATO troops in the south.

NATO training mission in Iraq

Training of the Iraqi security forces began in August 2004 as a response to the request made by Iraqi Interim Government. Following pressure from the US, NATO established NATO Training Mission-Iraqi to help develop Iraqi security forces institutions, as well as, structures which would help them build sustainable capabilities to address its security problems.

Operations in Libya

Libyan uprising which began early this year escalated, and as result called for military intervention to protect the lives of the civilians. Military actions were therefore authorized by the UN Security Council. NATO forces began by imposing a no-fly zone over the country. It also enforced an arms embargo on Libya. With support from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, it began implementing the UN resolutions beginning the end of March.


NATO has gone through many difficulties in its quest to protect the North Atlantic states and its coverage areas. Divisions in the alliance have occasionally undermined its defense activities and peace missions. Some countries have not fully committed their military forces under NATO’s military command.

Some countries have also opposed military interventions particularly in crisis where they are not directly affected. Such oppositions and accusations of members overstepping NATO’s mandate have occasional created tension among member states. Despite the challenges, NATO has succeeded in military interventions and also played a key role in bringing peace in Europe.

Works Cited

Abrial, Stéphane. French Air Force: Supreme Allied Commander Transformation. NATO OTAN, 2009. 05 July, 2011.

. Opening NATO’s Door: How the Alliance Remade Itself for a New Era , 2002. Print.

. Integration and Disintegration in NATO: Processes of Alliance Cohesion and Prospects for Atlantic Community. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1969. Print.

Bozo, Frederic and Eide, Espen Barth. Should NATO play a more political role?. Nato Review. NATO OTAN, 2005.05 July, 2011. .

Gheciu, Alexandra. NATO in the ‘New Europe’. Stanford, CA: , 2005. Print.

Hendrickson, Ryan . Diplomacy and War at NATO: The Secretary General and Military Action After the Cold War. Columbia, MO: , 2006. Print.

Heuser, Beatrice. NATO: Alliance of Democracies and Nuclear Deterrence. In Sven G. Holtsmark, Vojtech Mastny und Andreas Wenger (ed): War Plans and Alliances in the Cold War: Threat Perceptions in the East and West. London: Routledge, 2006. Print.

Kamps, Charles and Isby, David. Armies of NATO’s Central Front. London: Jane’s Publishing Company Ltd, 1985. Print.

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