It is commonly stated that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was formed in reaction to the Soviet Union’s threat. This is just partly correct. In truth, the formation of the Alliance was part of a larger strategy to dissuade Soviet expansionism, prevent the return of nationalist militarism in Europe by a strong North American presence on the continent, and encourage European political unification.

Much of Europe was destroyed in the aftermath of World War II in ways that are now impossible to imagine. The conflict had killed around 36.5 million Europeans, 19 million of whom were civilians. Rationing and refugee camps ruled daily life. In certain locations, infant mortality was one in every four. Millions of orphans roamed the charred remains.

Furthermore, Communists assisted by the Soviet Union were posing a danger to democratically elected governments throughout Europe. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia ousted the democratically elected government in that nation in February 1948, with clandestine support from the Soviet Union. In response to West Germany’s democratic consolidation, the Soviets blockaded Allied-controlled West Berlin in an attempt to strengthen their grip on the German capital. The courage of the Berlin Airlift brought some satisfaction to future Allies, but poverty remained a serious danger to democracy and security.

Fortunately, at that time, the United States had abandoned its customary policy of diplomatic isolationism. Aid supplied by the US-funded Marshall Plan (also known as the European Recovery Program) and other ways aided in the restoration of economic stability. However, before European countries could start talking and dealing with one another, they needed to be confident in their security. Military cooperation, as well as the security it would provide, would have to evolve in tandem with economic and political advancement. With this in mind, numerous Western European democracies joined together to pursue a variety of programmes aimed at increasing military cooperation and collective defence, including the establishment of the Western Union in 1948, subsequently renamed the Western European Union in 1954. In the end, only a genuinely transatlantic security accord might deter Soviet invasion while also avoiding the return of European militarism and creating the framework for political union.

As a result, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed on April 4, 1949, after considerable discussion and controversy. According to the Treaty’s legendary Article 5, the new Allies agreed that “an armed assault on one or more of them… must be regarded an attack against them all,” and that in the aftermath of such an attack, each Ally would take “such measures as may be necessary.”

Significantly, Articles 2 and 3 of the Treaty served essential functions that were not directly related to the prospect of assault. Article 3 set the groundwork for the Allies’ collaboration in military readiness, while Article 2 gave them some latitude in non-military cooperation. While the North Atlantic Treaty established Allies, it did not establish a military system capable of successfully coordinating their activities. This began to change when mounting concerns about Soviet intentions culminated in the Soviet testing of an atomic weapon in 1949 and the commencement of the Korean War in 1950. The impact on the Alliance was significant. NATO quickly established a unified command structure, with a military headquarters in the Paris neighbourhood of Rocquencourt, near Versailles. 

This was the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, or SHAPE, and the first Supreme Allied Commander Europe, or SACEUR, was US General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Soon after, the Allies formed a permanent civilian secretariat in Paris and appointed Lord Ismay of the United Kingdom as NATO’s first Secretary General.

Political stability was gradually restored to Western Europe as a result of aid and a security umbrella, and the post-war economic miracle started. Greece and Turkey joined the Alliance in 1952, and West Germany in 1955. The first tentative moves toward European political union were taken. In response to West Germany’s NATO membership, the Soviet Union and its client nations in Eastern Europe founded the Warsaw Pact in 1955. Europe fell into an uneasy truce, symbolised by the 1961 erection of the Berlin Wall.

NATO established the strategic doctrine of at the time “”Massive Retaliation” — if the Soviet Union launched an assault, NATO would react with nuclear weapons. The doctrine’s intended impact was to dissuade either side from taking risks, because any strike, no matter how little, might have resulted in a complete nuclear exchange. Concurrently, “Massive Retaliation” enabled Alliance members to concentrate their efforts on economic expansion rather than the maintenance of huge conventional armies. The Alliance also made its initial steps toward a political and military role. The smaller Allies, in particular, had urged for deeper non-military collaboration since the Alliance’s inception, and the Suez Crisis in the fall of 1956 exposed the lack of political consultation that had split certain members.

The Foreign Ministers of Norway, Italy, and Canada – the “Three Wise Men” – delivered a report to the North Atlantic Council recommending more robust consultation and scientific cooperation within the Alliance, and the report’s conclusions led, among other things, to the establishment of the NATO Science Programme.


This unhappy but steady status quo began to shift in the 1960s. As Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and US President John F. Kennedy narrowly escaped confrontation in Cuba, and as American participation in Vietnam grew, Cold War tensions resurfaced. Despite this unfavourable start, by the end of the decade, what had been essentially a defense-based organisation had come to represent a new phenomenon: détente, a reduction of tensions between the Western and Eastern blocs driven by a reluctant acceptance of the status quo. NATO and SHAPE unexpectedly relocated during this decade. France expressed its desire to withdraw from NATO’s integrated military command structure in March 1966, and demanded that all Allied headquarters be removed from French territory.

Significantly, France remained a member of the Alliance and continuously stated its determination to stand alongside its allies in the event of war. During following peacekeeping missions, France proved to be one of the Alliance’s most important force contributions. Flexibility has always been critical to NATO’s success, and France’s resignation from NATO’s integrated military command structure indicated that, unlike the Warsaw Pact, NATO could accept various points of view among its members.

As a reminder of this point, in August 1968, the Soviet Union led an invasion of Czechoslovakia that put an end to a period of political liberalisation in that country known as the Prague Spring. Like a similar invasion of Hungary in 1956 and military repression in Berlin in 1953, Soviet actions demonstrated what became known as the Brezhnev Doctrine: given the choice between short-term control of Eastern European client states and long-run political and economic reform, the Soviet Union would choose to maintain short-term control. The end of this policy would await a Soviet leader willing to choose long-run reform.Détente had many faces. West German Chancellor Willy Brandt’s Ostpolitik sought to encourage European stability through closer relations between Eastern and Western Europe. US President John F. Kennedy’s strategy of “Flexible Response” sought to replace Massive Retaliation’s absolute dichotomy of peace or total nuclear war. Adopted in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Flexible Response enhanced NATO’s conventional defence posture by offering military responses short of a full nuclear exchange in the event of conflict. Also during this time, a report entitled “The Future Tasks of the Alliance”, delivered in December 1967 to the North Atlantic Council by Belgian Foreign Minister Pierre Harmel, recommended that NATO should have a political track promoting dialogue and détente between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. The role of NATO had become not merely to preserve the status quo, but to help change it.

The Harmel Report helped to lay the foundation for the convening of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe in 1973. Two years later, the Conference led to the negotiation of the Helsinki Final Act. The Act bound its signatories – including the Soviet Union and members of the Warsaw Pact – to respect the fundamental freedom of their citizens, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief. Soviet rulers internally played down these clauses within the Act, attaching more importance to the Western recognition of the Soviet role in Eastern Europe. Eventually, however, the Soviets came to learn that they had bound themselves to powerful and potentially subversive ideas.

The cold war

The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, as well as the deployment of SS-20 Saber ballistic missiles in Europe, resulted in the suspension of détente. To counter the Soviet deployment, the Allies decided to deploy nuclear-capable Pershing II and ground-launched cruise missiles in Western Europe while continuing talks with the Soviets. The deployment was not supposed to start until 1983. Meanwhile, the Allies intended to reach an agreement on armaments control that would eliminate the need for the weapons. Lacking the hoped-for agreement with the Soviets, NATO countries endured internal conflict when deployment began in 1983. Following the ascent of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet Premier in 1985, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces

Lacking the hoped-for agreement with the Soviets, NATO countries endured internal conflict when deployment began in 1983. Following the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet Premier in 1985, the United States and the Soviet Union signed the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces. This is now considered the first sign that the Cold War was coming to an end. The 1980s also saw NATO’s first new member since 1955 join. A newly democratic Spain joined the transatlantic Alliance in 1982.

By the mid-1980s, most international observers believed that Soviet Communism had lost the intellectual battle with the West. Dissidents had dismantled the ideological supports of Communist regimes, a process aided in retrospect by the Soviet Union’s own ostensible adherence to human rights principles outlined by the Helsinki Final Act. By the late 1980s, the communist government of Poland found itself forced to negotiate with the formerly repressed independent trade union “Solidarity” and its leader, Lech Wałęsa. Soon other democratic activists in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union itself would begin to demand those very rights.

By this time, command economies in the Warsaw Pact were disintegrating. The Soviet Union was spending three times as much as the United States on defence with an economy that was one-third the size. Mikhail Gorbachev came to power with the intention of fundamentally reforming the communist system. When the East German regime began to collapse in 1989, the Soviet Union did not intervene, reversing the Brezhnev Doctrine. This time, the Soviets chose long-run reform over a short-run control that was increasingly beyond their capabilities, setting in motion a train of events that led to the break-up of the Warsaw Pact.

NATO endured because while the Soviet Union was no more, the Alliance’s two other original if unspoken mandates still held: to deter the rise of militant nationalism and to provide the foundation of collective security that would encourage democratisation and political integration in Europe. The definition of “Europe” had merely expanded eastward. Before the consolidation of peace and security could begin, however, one spectre haunting European politics remained to be exorcised. Since the Franco-Prussian War, Europe had struggled to come to terms with a united Germany at its heart. The incorporation of a re-unified Germany into the Alliance put this most ancient and destructive of dilemmas to rest.


In 1991 as in 1949, NATO was to be the foundation stone for a larger, pan-European security architecture. In December 1991, the Allies established the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, renamed the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997. This forum brought the Allies together with their Central European, Eastern European, and Central Asian neighbours for joint consultations. Many of these newly liberated countries – or partners, as they were soon called – saw a relationship with NATO as fundamental to their own aspirations for stability, democracy, and European integration. Cooperation also extended southward. In 1994, the Alliance founded the Mediterranean Dialogue with six non-member Mediterranean countries: Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, with Algeria also joining in 2000. The Dialogue seeks to contribute to security and stability in the Mediterranean through better mutual understanding.

This fledgling cooperation was soon put to the test. The collapse of Communism had given way to the rise of nationalism and ethnic violence, particularly in the former Yugoslavia. At first, Allies hesitated to intervene in what was perceived as a Yugoslav civil war. Later the conflict came to be seen as a war of aggression and ethnic cleansing, and the Alliance decided to act. Initially, NATO offered its full support to United Nations efforts to end war crimes, including direct military action in the form of a naval embargo. Soon the enforcement of a no-fly zone led to airstrikes against heavy weapons violating UN resolutions. Finally, the Alliance carried out a nine-day air campaign in September 1995 that played a major role in ending the conflict. In December of that year, NATO deployed a UN-mandated, multinational force of 60 000 soldiers to help implement the Dayton Peace Agreement and to create the conditions for a self-sustaining peace. In 2004, NATO handed over this role to the European Union.

By the end of 1998, over 300 000 Kosovar Albanians had fled their homes during conflict between Albanian separatists in Kosovo and Serbian military and police. Following the failure of intense international efforts to resolve the crisis, the Alliance conducted air strikes for 78 days and flew 38 000 sorties with the goal of allowing a multinational peacekeeping force to enter Kosovo and cease ethnic cleansing in the region. On 4 June 1999, NATO suspended its air campaign after confirming that a withdrawal of the Serbian army from Kosovo had begun, and the deployment of the NATO-led Kosovo Force (KFOR) followed shortly thereafter. Today, KFOR troops are still deployed in Kosovo to help maintain a safe and secure environment and freedom of movement for all citizens, irrespective of their ethnic origin.


The 21st century will not be all about peacebuilding, however. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014 and its aggressive actions against Ukraine have been a sobering reminder of the importance of NATO’s core task: collective defence. This, coupled with the Syrian conflict, the rise of ISIL and terrorism (and often home-bred terrorism), has become a brutal reality across many continents. Meanwhile, tensions rise as migrants seek refuge from conflict in countries that are struggling with the weight of ethnic and religious strife, demographic pressures and economic underperformance. Cyberattacks are becoming ever more frequent and ever more destructive. And through social media and other means, the opponents of liberal open societies are spreading disinformation and propaganda that seek to undermine the values that NATO has always sought to protect and promote. Altogether, the complexity of the current security environment is such that NATO’s flexibility is, yet again, put to the test.

Since its founding in 1949, the transatlantic Alliance’s flexibility, embedded in its original Treaty, has allowed it to suit the different requirements of different times. In the 1950s, the Alliance was a purely defensive organization. In the 1960s, NATO became a political instrument for détente. In the 1990s, the Alliance was a tool for the stabilization of Eastern Europe and Central Asia through the incorporation of new Partners and Allies. In the first half of the 21st century, NATO faces an ever-growing number of new threats. As the foundation stone of transatlantic peace and freedom, NATO must be ready to meet this challenge.