What is NATO? History, facts, members and why it was created
After the Russian invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, Google searches for NATO spiked. Most Americans may take being a member of the alliance for granted, but for some countries not in the alliance, like Ukraine, it poses security risks.
Not long after the Russians invaded, Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO, because of the war in Ukraine.
But what is NATO? And, who belongs to it? Why isn't Ukraine a member, and why was Russia upset that Sweden and Finland want to join?
What is NATO?
NATO is an intergovernmental military alliance with two North American countries – the U.S. and Canada – and 28 European countries. Founded in 1949 after the end of World War II, NATO is the “largest peacetime military alliance in the world,” according to the U.S. Department of State.
According to the State Department, NATO was the first peacetime military alliance the U.S. entered outside of the Western Hemisphere. While it is often believed NATO was formed in response to the threat posed by the Soviet Union and possible spread of communism over Europe after World War II, this is only partially true.
According to NATO, the alliance was formed for three purposes: in response to threats from the Soviet Union, to forbid a nationalistic militarism revival "in Europe with a strong North American presence on the continent, and to encourage European political integration."
This was a break from traditional U.S foreign policy since historically the U.S. had practiced a policy of diplomatic isolationism which had stemmed from President George Washington’s Farewell Address which advocated for “non-involvement in European wars and politics.”
Why was NATO formed?
World War II was the deadliest international conflict in history, killing between 60 million to 80 million people. Civilians accounted for between 50 million to 55 million of casualties. Additionally, 6 million Jewish people also died at the hands of the Nazis in the Holocaust, according to History.com.
Unlike destruction caused during World War I, which was largely confined to battle fields, countries and cities were decimated across Europe. Estimated damages to governments involved in the conflict amounted to more than $1 trillion, according to Britannica.
As a result of this mass destruction, European nations required large influxes of aid to help rebuild their economies. To do this, they largely looked to the United States to help in their recovery efforts because the U.S. was seen as economically strong at a time when the continent was struggling.
U.S. Secretary of State John Marshall proposed a large-scale economic recovery program called the European Recovery Program, known as the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan, enacted in 1948, intended to facilitate European economic integration and promote a shared idea of cooperation between Europe and the United States. According to History.com, the program which provided $15 billion in economic aid to Europe was also meant to halt the spread of communism in Europe.
Despite receiving an invite, the Soviet Union refused to participate in the Marshall Plan. The Marshall Plan thus added to the growing divide between Eastern and Western Europe and became a catalyst for the formation of NATO, according to History.com.
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What events led to NATO?
At the time the Marshall Plan was enacted, the Soviet Union was posing a threat to democracies across the Europe, including the 1948 Soviet-sponsored coup in Czechoslovakia that overthrew a democratically elected government.
Following the coup in reaction to the democratic consolidation of Western Germany, the Soviet union blockaded Western Berlin in 1948 in an attempt to consolidate its hold on the city.
According to History.com, this was in an attempt to block the U.S., Britain and France from traveling to their sectors of Berlin, which were surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany. Although the Western powers were able to airlift vital supplies to West Berlin for over a year, the events of the Berlin Blockade and the airlift effort was the first conflict in the Cold War, according to History.com.
These events, however, made the U.S. fearful that in the case of future security concerns Western European nations may consider "negotiating with the Soviets." To prevent this, the Truman administration proposed a European-American alliance that would commit the U.S. to securing Western Europe. Additionally, although the Marshall Plan had helped to stabilize European economies, European countries needed confidence in their own security before they would consider trading with one another again.
According to NATO, after much negotiation among the democracies of Western Europe, it was determined the only way to deter the Soviet Union, prevent the revival of European militarism and lay the groundwork for political integration was for a transatlantic security agreement. With this, talks to form NATO were born.
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When was NATO formed?
After debates between the nations of Western Europe and negotiations within the U.S. Congress, NATO was formed on April 4, 1949, with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty.
According to NATO, the following are the countries that signed into the alliance in 1949:
- United States
- United Kingdom
NATO has adapted over the years as new world conflicts have arisen. A notable change in the alliance was during the events of the Korean War when many saw North Korea’s attack on South Korea as a communist attack directed by the Soviet Union. In response to this, the U.S. increased troop commitments to Europe to stop possible Soviet aggression on the Continent, according to the U.S. Department of State.
What was the Warsaw Pact?
West Germany's entry into NATO in 1955 with the addition of the Federal Republic of Germany into the alliance led to Soviet retaliation through the formation of the Warsaw Treaty Organization, known as the Warsaw Pact.
The Soviet Union hoped with the formation of the Warsaw Pact it could contain West Germany, negotiate with NATO as an equal partner and tie Eastern capitals closer to Moscow at a time when civil unrest was rising in Eastern Europe.
The following are the countries that originally signed onto the Warsaw Pact:
- The Soviet Union
- The German Democratic Republic (East Germany)
Unlike NATO, the Warsaw Pact did not stand the test of time and was disbanded in 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
What is Article 5 of NATO?
With the signing of the alliance, NATO countries agreed to collective defense. Article 5 says that an attack on one ally should be considered an attack on all. The first time Article 5 of NATO was evoked was after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Who are the member states of NATO in 2022?
The following are the current member states of NATO. Months after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Finland and Sweden submitted applications to join NATO over security concerns sparked by the war.
The following are member states of NATO:
- Czech Republic
- North Macedonia
- United Kingdom
- United States
Why is Ukraine not in NATO?
Article 10 of NATO states that any European country can ask to join the alliance. Countries are allowed to join the alliance if all other NATO allies agree, according to Article 10.
Ukraine has had a long-standing intention to join NATO, especially after the 2014 Russian annexation of Crimea, which made the intention a priority of Ukraine, The Washington Post reported. Although NATO promised to add Ukraine to the alliance in 2008 and then again in 2021, Ukraine still remains outside of the group.
Ukraine’s intention to join NATO contributed to the Russian invasion in February. Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that NATO and the U.S. had not done enough to halt NATO’s expansion into Europe. Putin has demanded that NATO return to its 1997 status meaning that 14 states including the Baltic states, Poland and Romania, would need to withdraw from the alliance.
Putin has also demanded that the U.S. and NATO promise that Ukraine will never become a NATO state, something that has been rejected by the U.S. and NATO.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has called for more support from NATO countries, including asking for a no-fly zone. His request has gone unfulfilled as the U.S. has stated that creating a no-fly zone creates the risk of engaging militarily with Russia, something the U.S. hopes to avoid.
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