DemDaily: What is NATO?

July 10, 2023

World leaders from 31 North American and European countries are gathering in Vilnius, Lithuania this week for a meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) -- at a critical point in its 74 year history.

NATO is an intergovernmental military alliance formed in 1949 with the purpose of providing a collective defense whereby its independent member states agree to mutual defense in response to an attack by any external party.

Formed in the aftermath of World War II to counter the threat of Soviet expansionism, the goal of NATO was to secure peace in Europe, promote cooperation amongst member countries, and collectively guard their freedom.

Originally comprising 12 member countries, it "commits its Allies to democracy, to individual liberty and the rule of law, as well as peaceful resolution to disputes."

The founding nations' aim was to ensure that the security of European and North American members were inseparably linked, with the understanding that an attack against one ally is an attack against all allies.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, NATO expanded its mission to working with non-member countries as well as international organizations, including the United Nations and the European Union (EU). It has also continued to modernize to meet the challenges of an increasingly more complex international security environment.

NATO's first coordinated military operation, against ethnic cleansing by Serbian separatist forces in former Yugoslavia, helped bring an end to the Bosnian War in 1995. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, NATO partners deployed forces to Afghanistan to counter terrorism and drug trafficking. During the Arab Spring in 2011 it led an air campaign over Libya in response to the Gaddafi regime's suppression of civilian dissent, and today, NATO is the collective force driving support for Ukraine against Russian aggression.

The most contentious period of the US' membership in NATO came during the administration of President Donald Trump, who, during the 2018 NATO Summit in Belgium, lambasted allies as allegedly underpaying their portion of dues, and left the 2019 Summit in London early after footage emerged of heads of other member states appearing to privately mock Trump.

How It Works
There is no NATO army. Each member state volunteers and pays for its own armed forces and their deployment, and is part of a cost-sharing agreement based on a percentage of each country's economy. NATO's goal is to have each member contribute 2% of their GDP (Gross Domestic Product) by 2024. Currently, 11 member states, including the US and United Kingdom, contribute at or above this threshold.

NATO 2023
The most salient discussions in Vilnius will focus on the Russia-Ukraine war, admittance of Sweden as NATO's 32nd member, and the extension of former Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg's term as NATO’s Secretary General.

At the top of the agenda is Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelinskyy's push for admittance of his war-torn country, now in its 16th month under attack by Russia, to NATO as a full member.

Despite the historic investment of military weapons and humanitarian support for Ukraine from NATO countries (led by the US with $78 billion), however, key alliance members are divided on the issue of its membership.

While some argue that admitting Urkaine is a necessary step to deter Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, others, including the United States, are wary of global escalation of the conflict.

US President Joe Biden, who will address the alliance on Wednesday, is expected to urge a redoubling of Western support for Ukraine, while also arguing that Ukraine is not ready for NATO membership while the war rages on. Moving too quickly, he has warned, puts the US and its NATO allies on the path to a direct clash with the nuclear-armed Russia and potentially risks a third World War.

Referring to NATO’s policy of collective defense, Biden said “It’s a commitment that we’ve all made no matter what. If the war is going on, then we’re all in war. We’re at war with Russia, if that were the case.” - CNN, 7/9/23

The President said the US will continue to support Ukraine's defense against Russia while Ukraine goes through the lengthy but deliberate process to “meet all the qualifications, from democratization to a whole range of other issues” for membership.

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Kimberly Scott

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Sources: CNN, Politico, NATO, Kiel Institute

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