NATO at 70: What is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization?

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NATO at 70: What is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization?

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) marks its 70th anniversary this week.

Foreign ministers from NATO countries are meeting in the United States‘s capital, Washington, DC, for the occasion, determined to show a united front in the midst of a long military stalemate in Afghanistan and tensions with Russia returning to Cold War-era levels.

But as NATO deploys thousands of troops and equipment to deter Russia and seeks solutions to fast-evolving new threats such as cyberattacks and hybrid warfare, its biggest challenge arguably lies within.

Here is what you need to know about NATO:

What is Nato?

NATO is a 70-year-old political and military alliance that joins the US and Canada with allies in Europe. The alliance grew largely out of Cold War fears of Soviet aggression and expansionism.

The US, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and the United Kingdom signed the initial treaty on April 4, 1949.

A key provision of the treaty, the so-called Article 5, states that if one member of the alliance is attacked in Europe or North America, it is to be considered an attack on all members. That effectively put Western Europe under the “nuclear umbrella” of the US. 

According to NATO, the alliance plays an important role in fighting “terrorism”. 

It has contributed more than 13,000 NATO troops for the training of local forces in Afghanistan. NATO is also a full member of the global coalition fighting the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL or ISIS) group. 

The head of the alliance is always a civilian secretary-general. Currently the NATO chief is former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg. NATO is led militarily by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe, who is also the commanding general of the Stuttgart-based US European Command, currently General Curtis Scaparrotti.

National liaison representatives to the then-SACLANT, NATO’s Supreme Atlantic Command for the Atlantic, discuss the world situation and defence of the Atlantic in the event of war, at their weekly meeting in SACLANT headquarters, Norfolk, Virginia on September 30, 1954 [File: Bill Allen/AP Photo]

Who are the members? 

NATO has grown from the original 12 countries to an alliance of 29. Several other nations are in membership negotiations.

Current member countries and the year they joined NATO: Albania (2009), Belgium (1949), Bulgaria (2004), Canada (1949), Croatia (2009), Czech Republic (1999), Denmark (1949), Estonia (2004), France (1949), Germany (1955), Greece (1952), Hungary (1999), Iceland (1949), Italy (1949), Latvia (2004), Lithuania (2004), Luxembourg (1949), Montenegro (2017), Netherlands (1949), Norway (1949), Poland (1999), Portugal (1949), Romania (2004), Slovakia (2004), Slovenia (2004), Spain (1982), Turkey (1952), UK (1949) and US (1949).

Why did NATO start? How has it changed?

NATO started as a largely political alliance, which changed quickly after the Soviets tested an atomic bomb in 1949, as well as after the Korean War broke out in 1950. General Dwight Eisenhower was appointed that year as the first supreme allied commander. Lord Ismay was the first secretary-general of NATO and appointed vice chairman of the North Atlantic Council in 1952.

The events prompted members to establish a centralised headquarters, commit joint-military resources and commit to “safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation of their peoples, founded on the principles of democracy, individual liberty and the rule of law”.

NATO has only once invoked Article 5, on September 12, 2001 following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center in the US. 

In its response to the attacks, the alliance activated Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS) reconnaissance flights over the US for months, operations that included 830 crew members from 13 NATO countries. It also launched maritime operations in the Mediterranean, and participated in US-led efforts in Afghanistan, where it has led the mission since 2003.

NATO has survived formidable challenges over the decades, including the Cuban missile crisis and the missile race in Europe. It’s also remained intact after internal divisions over the Suez Canal, the Iraq war and France’s departure from the alliance’s command structure. Officials say they are confident NATO will endure now even while there are spats over trade, climate change and the Iran nuclear deal.

All NATO allies agreed to move towards spending two percent of gross domestic product (GDP) on defence by 2024, but last month Berlin announced that its own figure was set to fall in the coming years, from 1.37 percent in 2020 to just 1.25 percent in 2023. German Chancellor Angela Merkel had earlier pledged to spend 1.5 percent by 2024. 

The news infuriated Washington, and NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg said Berlin must live up to commitments it had signed up to at a summit in 2014.

In 2018, only seven of NATO’s 29 member states hit the two-percent target.

Brigadier General Earl Johann Adolf von Kielmansegg inspects April 5, 1956 the four German airforce soldiers who were stationed at the NATO Headquarters in Paris, France [Str/AP Photo]

NATO versus Trump

US President Donald Trump made a memorable impression on leaders from Canada and European nations during his first NATO summit in May 2017. During a speech outside NATO’s new Brussels headquarters, he publicly humiliated them by pointing out their spending shortfalls and calling them out for owing massive amounts from previous years. Trump also cast doubt on whether they could count on Washington to fulfil NATO’s collective defence clause. 

Trump has repeatedly accused NATO allies – and economic powerhouse Germany in particular – of freeloading on US’s military muscle and reportedly threatened to “go it alone” if Europe did not step up. Several times over the course of 2018 Trump privately told his advisers he wanted to withdraw from NATO, the New York Times reported.

A big source of the internal strain is Trump’s recurrent demand that countries devote an amount equal to at least two percent of GDP to defence spending – although that metric takes no account of how well the money is spent – as well as the US president’s reluctance to criticise strongmen such as Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Trump, they said, is seen by allies as NATO’s “most urgent, and often most difficult, problem”.

In a warning to Trump to not to try to withdraw the US from the NATO military alliance, the US House of Representatives in January approved legislation aimed at preventing such a move. The NATO Support Act has now moved to the Senate. 

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg speaks while meeting with Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House [Joshua Roberts/Reuters]

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also invited Stoltenberg to address a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday. The invitation was backed by US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and followed votes earlier this year in which Republicans voiced opposition to Trump’s plans to draw down US troops in Syria and Afghanistan.

Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Stoltenberg’s predecessor as NATO’s top civilian official, cautioned in an email exchange with The Associated Press news agency that the US retreat would leave a vacuum that would be filled by autocrats and dictators.

On Monday as Trump met Stoltenberg at the White House, he said his pressure on NATO nations to pay more for their defence is leading to tens of billions of dollars more in contributions, but the allies may need to boost their budgets even more. 

“Since I came to office it’s a rocket ship up. We’ve picked up over $140bn in additional money, and we look like we’re going to have at least another $100bn in spending by the nations … by 2020,” he said, while also singling out Germany for not hitting the two percent target.  

What does Russia say about NATO?

The Kremlin has said NATO is a security threat in Eastern Europe and regards it as a hostile military bloc.

Last year Russian President Vladimir Putin warned NATO against cultivating closer ties with Ukraine and Georgia – which share a border with Russia – saying such a policy was irresponsible and would have unspecified consequences for the alliance.

Wrong-footed by Moscow with Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 and its intervention in Syria’s war in 2015, the US is distrustful of the Kremlin’s public message and wants to be ready for any eventuality.

Trump said a stronger NATO provides a bulwark against Russia, but that he believed relations with Moscow would be fine. As has been his norm, Trump was reluctant to criticise Russia on Tuesday.

Russia is sowing discord in the NATO alliance by selling to NATO member Turkey the S-400 air defence system. The US has halted delivery of equipment related to its F-35 fighter jets to Turkey over its S-400 plans. 

The US has said that Turkey’s purchase of the Russian air defence system would compromise the security of F-35 aircraft, which is built by Lockheed Martin Corp.

But acting US Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan said on Tuesday that he expected to resolve a dispute with Turkey over its purchase of Russia’s S-400 air defence system. 

Shanahan expressed optimism that the US and Turkey would find a way out of the crisis by persuading Turkey to buy the Patriot defence system, instead of S-400s.

“I expect we’ll solve the problem so that they have the right defence equipment in terms of Patriots and F-35s,” Shanahan told reporters at the Pentagon.

Shanahan added that he expected the US to ultimately carry out the delivery of F-35s currently at Luke Air Force base to Turkey, after resolving the dispute. 

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