Your Complete Guide to NATO

Konark Sikka, MPP, Staff Writer, Brief Policy Perspectives

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military alliance between the United States and multiple European countries that dates back to the Cold War era. During that time, NATO was a major pillar of American foreign policy and served as a deterrent to the Soviet Union’s attempts to spread its influence in Europe. The alliance continued to serve a purpose after the end of the Cold War as well, as NATO members were involved in the War on Terror and continue to be so to this day. Recently, NATO’s relevance  was called into question during the 2016 American Presidential Elections.With geopolitics rapidly changing, here’s a brief rundown on the history and functions of NATO.

How did NATO Emerge?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is a military alliance consisting of 28 countries spanning North America and Europe. Its origins date back to the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, when it  originally contained just 12 countries, including the United States.

NATO emerged just a few years after the conclusion of the second World War and was created at a time when Cold War tensions loomed large in the background. Concerns over the Soviet Union’s expansion into Europe developed immediately after the conclusion of World War II. In the run-up to 1949, the occurrence of the Berlin Blockade provides an example that led to those concerns. NATO emerged as an attempt to counter a conflict with the Soviet Union, potentially of the scope of another World War, with every Western European nation making up the original 12 signatories of the North Atlantic Treaty.

Role and functions of NATO

Owing to NATO’s primary function of serving as a deterrent to Soviet Union’s presence in Europe, NATO is foremost a military alliance. The crucial elements of the treaty are Articles 4 and 5. Article 4 states that when the territorial integrity, political independence, or security of any member is threatened, then consultation between member states over military issues will be undertaken. Article 5 enshrines the position that member states should consider a military attack on another member state as an attack on themselves. It is important to note that the treaty does not state anywhere that an attack on a member state would mean every other member state would have to militarily defend them.Instead, the treaty leaves retaliation options open to the discretion of each member state.

The political structure of NATO consists of the permanent delegations of member states who meet at NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. They come together to meet every week as the North Atlantic Council, which is the principal political body of NATO.

The military command structure of NATO is split into two major groups: the Military Committee and the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE). The Military Committee is the senior military authority within NATO. It plays the role of being the intermediary between the political structure of NATO and SHAPE serves as the senior military authority. SHAPE meanwhile, is led by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and is responsible for preparing and conducting on-the-ground military actions undertaken by NATO. The military forces in NATO are the forces of the member states themselves, who usually only come together under this NATO military command structure when conducting operations specifically undertaken by NATO.

America and NATO

The Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) is always an American flag officer or general officer. The current SACEUR is Air Force General Philip M. Breedlove. Of member states, the United States also contributes the most monetarily to NATO. The United States’ share of NATO’s budget stood at 22% last year, compared to 15% from Germany, 11% from France, and 10% from the United Kingdom.                                                                                        

This disparity in the contributions by European nations has come under criticism and is an issue that NATO has acknowledged and responded to by making changes in its financing policy. For instance, NATO has issued a guideline requiring each member state to spend at least 2% of their GDP on defense. While not all nations have yet met the requirement, many member states have been ramping up their government budgets in attempts to meet that target. Nevertheless, NATO offers much in terms of benefits.

For instance, the common funding budget, to which the United States contributes 22%, pays for NATO’s military operations. This means that the military operations in Afghanistan were undertaken not only the United States, but also by NATO and these operations , have been paid for and will continue to be paid for, in part, by NATO allies. NATO allies also contribute a significant number of troops. For the current operation in Afghanistan, NATO members provide 46% of the troops. Hence, without NATO, the US would have to deploy more troops, meaning higher costs and more risk for American lives.

NATO also enables the United States to more easily project power in Asia. For instance, without NATO, Turkey might be less willing to host United States military bases (Turkey is also a NATO member, making it easier to establish a base there), which would eliminate a strategically important launching pad for American military operations in the Middle East.

Apart from that, NATO has also contributed to the prevention of war in Europe since its conception in the 1940s. NATO has other significant conflict prevention benefits, such as helping to  prevent nuclear proliferation. If NATO were to be disbanded, this would mean only the United Kingdom and France would have nuclear weapons of their own in Europe, with Russia to the east as the other state with nuclear weapons. Germany and Eastern European nations would be incentivized to push for nuclear weapons of their own in such a scenario. However, due to NATO’s nuclear sharing agreement, this scenario has been prevented.

Given the reasons above, the benefits that NATO provides outweigh the costs, even today. The military bases that NATO members provide are regularly used in the fight against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). In fact, NATO has also announced its plans to fight against ISIL. NATO also helps in keeping Europe stable and gives the United States reliable allies and partners in Europe, even today. Given the strategic and even fiscal benefits that NATO provides, it continues to serve as one of the major pillars of American foreign policy, as well as help keeping the world more geopolitically stable.

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