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Profile: Nato

Profile: Nato

Sculpture of Nato logo at organisation's Brussels HQ

Founded: 1949
Membership: 26 nations
Applicant nations: Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, FYR Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia

Formed in 1949 to counter the threat of post-war communist expansion as the Soviet Union sought to extend its influence in Europe, Nato – the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation – is the world’s most powerful regional defence alliance.

It has traditionally stated its general aim as being to “safeguard the freedom, common heritage and civilisation” of its members by promoting “stability and well-being in the North Atlantic area”.

Members agree that an armed attack against one shall be considered an attack against them all, and that they will come to the aid of each other.



Originally consisting of 12 countries, the organisation expanded to include Greece and Turkey in 1952 and West Germany in 1955. However, then, as now, the alliance was militarily dominated by the United States.

French soldier from Nato-led force, Kabul, Afghanistan, 2007

Afghan mission was Nato’s first non-European operation

In 1955 the Soviet Union created a counter-alliance called the Warsaw Pact, which dissolved after the break-up of the USSR in 1991.

The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland became the first former Warsaw Pact countries to gain Nato membership in 1999.

The next historic step came in 2004 when Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, republics of the USSR until its collapse in 1991, along with Slovenia, Slovakia, Bulgaria and Romania were welcomed as Nato members at a ceremony in Washington.

Bosnia, Montenegro and Serbia have joined Nato’s Partnership for Peace programme – a first step towards membership. At a summit in Bucharest in early April 2008, NATO countries invited Albania and Croatia to join on schedule. Greece vetoed Macedonia’s application, but the alliance agreed that the country would be invited when it settles its dispute with Greece over its name. Decisions on Georgia and Ukraine were deferred until December.


Nato was set up in the post-World War II atmosphere of anxiety, largely to block Soviet expansion into Europe. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and subsequent demise of the Warsaw Pact, therefore, left Nato with no obvious purpose.

Since then Nato has used its defensive role to justify a more proactive approach to “out of area” activities – arguing that instability in any part of Europe would constitute a threat to its members.

US peacekeeping soldier in Bosnia

The US made up part of the Nato-led force in Bosnia

Thus, at the end of 1995, for the first time ever, it organised a multinational Implementation Force (Ifor), under a United Nations mandate, to implement the military aspects of the Bosnian peace agreement.

In 1999 the alliance launched an 11-week campaign of air strikes against Yugoslavia to push Serb forces out of Kosovo. The strikes were the largest military operation ever undertaken by Nato, and the first time it had used force against a sovereign state without UN approval. A 16,000-strong Nato peacekeeping force remains in Kosovo.

In 2003 Nato took its operations outside Europe for the first time when it assumed strategic command of the UN-mandated peacekeeping force in and immediately around the Afghan capital, Kabul.

Changing relationships

Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Nato embarked on a series of steps designed to build new relationships with former Warsaw Pact countries and particularly with Russia, which was profoundly suspicious of the alliance’s plans to expand eastwards.

Kosovo Albanian man passes German Kfor peacekeeper, Prizren, 2007

Thousands of Nato-led peacekeepers remain in Kosovo

In 1994 Nato offered former Warsaw Pact members limited associations in the form of the Partnership for Peace programme, allowing them to participate in information sharing, joint exercises and peacekeeping operations.

But this simply appeared to confirm Russian fears that Nato posed a creeping threat to its security.

The Nato-Russia Permanent Joint Council was established in May 1997 to give Russia a consultative role in discussion of matters of mutual interest. While Moscow was given a voice, it rarely felt that it was really listened to.

Russia’s fears intensified when in 1999 the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland became the first former Soviet bloc states to join Nato, bringing the alliance’s borders 400 miles closer to the Russian frontier.

Aftermath of 11 September

The 11 September 2001 attacks on targets in the US are widely seen as a pivotal moment for Nato. The US did not involve the alliance in the international military campaign which followed, even though Secretary-General George Robertson quickly invoked Article Five of the Nato constitution declaring an attack on one member to be an attack on all.

Russia's President Putin at Nato-Russia summit in Italy, 2002

Russia’s President Putin at a Nato-Russia summit

Russia’s supportive reaction following the attacks proved to be the catalyst for a thaw in relations with Moscow. The establishment of the Nato-Russia Council was agreed in May 2002. This body gives Russia an equal role with the Nato countries in decision-making on policy to counter terrorism and other security threats.

While this development has been hailed by some as the moment when Nato brought Russia in from the cold, questions remain as to how the relationship will develop from here, particularly when Nato’s expansion reached the borders of Russia in early 2004 with the admission of seven new states.




Belgium (founder member)

Lithuania (from 2004)

Bulgaria (from 2004)

Luxembourg (founder member)

Canada (founder member)

Netherlands (founder member)

Czech Republic (from 1999)

Norway (founder member)

Denmark (founder member)

Poland (from 1999)

Estonia (from 2004)

Portugal (founder member)

France (founder member)

Romania (from 2004)

Germany (from 1955)

Slovakia (from 2004)

Greece (from 1952)

Slovenia (from 2004)

Hungary (from 1999)

Spain (from 1982)

Iceland (founder member)

Turkey (from 1952)

Italy (founder member)

UK (founder member)

Latvia (from 2004)

USA (founder member)



Leader: Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer
Mr De Hoop Scheffer has a reputation as a skilled diplomat

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer became Nato chief at the beginning of 2004, just as the alliance was facing some of the stiffest challenges in its history.

The US-British intervention in Iraq in March 2003 had left a deep split between the war coalition on the one side, and the anti-war camp led by France and Germany on the other.

A former Dutch foreign minister, he took on the challenge of trying to maintain good ties with Paris and Berlin while avoiding alienating the US. He has sought to strengthen Nato’s ties with the EU, which has moved towards formulating a defence policy of its own.

He seems to have the necessary qualities for the job. Another former Dutch foreign minister, Hans van den Broek, described him as “very skilled at walking on eggshells”, while others have referred to him as “a diplomatic tightrope walker”.

But he also has a reputation for being able to engage in tough talking when required. His predecessor as head of Nato, George Robertson, spoke admiringly of his “professionalism and straight talking”.

Born in Amsterdam in 1948, Jaap de Hoop Scheffer served in the Dutch air force and then worked at Nato headquarters before entering politics. He was elected to the Dutch parliament as a Christian Democrat in 1986 and later headed the parliamentary party before becoming foreign minister.



Disputes between Germany, France and the US over the 2003 invasion of Iraq caused one of the worst crises in Nato history. The alliance itself played no part in the invasion although most member countries did. It has since agreed to assist in the training of Iraqi security forces.

However, since that invasion analysts perceive Nato to be shaping a new role for itself. Confirmation of that was seen when it took command of the international peacekeeping force in Afghanistan in 2003. As the world becomes increasingly aware of the global terrorist threat, Nato officials now say the alliance must act to counter that threat.

Further evidence that the shift was continuing came shortly after the move into Afghanistan when the alliance launched a 9,000-strong rapid reaction force designed for swift deployment to troublespots anywhere in the world.

However, the reluctance of many Nato governments to supply reinforcements for the alliance’s Afghan mission in the face of an ongoing insurgency in the south has raised questions about Nato’s ability to sustain such large-scale operations.


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  1. ohh nato!

    September 12, 2008 at 3:49 PM

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