• World
  • Apr 04

Explainer - NATO’s 75th anniversary

• NATO foreign ministers met in Brussels to celebrate the 75th anniversary of their alliance.

• The ministers marked the signing in Washington on April 4, 1949, of the North Atlantic Treaty that established the transatlantic political and military alliance.

• The NATO ministers agreed to start planning for a greater NATO role in coordinating security assistance and training for Ukraine.

• NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has proposed a fund of 100 billion euros to support Ukraine’s military over five years.

A short history of North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)

• The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki meant the end of World War II.

• The aftermath of World War II saw much of Europe devastated. Approximately 36.5 million Europeans had died in the conflict, 19 million of them civilians. 

• The US, British, and Soviet military forces divided and occupied Germany. Also divided into occupation zones, Berlin was located far inside Soviet-controlled eastern Germany. 

• The US, UK, and France controlled western portions of the city, while Soviet troops controlled the eastern sector. As the wartime alliance between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union ended and friendly relations turned hostile, the question of whether the western occupation zones in Berlin would remain under Western Allied control or whether the city would be absorbed into Soviet-controlled eastern Germany led to the Berlin Crisis. 

• The occupation and governance of Germany after the War had long been disputed, and in June 1948, Soviet Union premier Joseph Stalin implemented a blockade against West Berlin, which was then under joint US, British, and French control but surrounded by Soviet-controlled East Germany. 

• The crisis was a result of competing occupation policies and rising tensions between Western powers and the Soviet Union.

• This Berlin Crisis brought the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of conflict.

• The US and the UK responded by airlifting food and fuel to Berlin from Allied air bases in western Germany. 

• Several Western European democracies had come together to implement various projects for greater military cooperation and collective defence, including the creation of the Western Union in 1948, later to become the Western European Union in 1954. 

• In the end, it was determined that only a truly transatlantic security agreement could deter Soviet aggression while simultaneously preventing the revival of European militarism and laying the groundwork for political integration.

• The North Atlantic Treaty (also called the Washington Treaty) was signed on 4 April, 1949 by the United States, Canada, and 10 Western European nations to provide collective security against the Soviet Union.

• The Berlin Crisis ended on May 12, 1949, when Soviet forces lifted the blockade on land access to western Berlin.

• The Berlin Crisis of 1948–1949 solidified the division of Europe. 

• Two weeks after the end of the blockade, the state of West Germany was established, soon followed by the creation of East Germany.

• While the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty had created Allies, it had not created a military structure that could effectively coordinate their actions. 

• This changed when growing worries about Soviet intentions culminated in the Soviet detonation of an atomic bomb in 1949 and in the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950. 

• NATO soon gained a consolidated command structure with a military headquarters based in the Parisian suburb of Rocquencourt, near Versailles. This was Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, or SHAPE, with US General Dwight D. Eisenhower as the first Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR). 

• Soon afterward, the Allies established a permanent civilian secretariat in Paris, and named NATO’s first Secretary General, Lord Ismay of the United Kingdom.

• The Treaty’s renowned Article 5 provides that if a NATO ally is the victim of an armed attack, each and every other member of the Alliance will consider this act of violence as an armed attack against all members and will take the actions it deems necessary to assist the ally attacked.

• New allies joined the Alliance. Greece and Turkey in 1952, and West Germany in 1955.

• In reaction to West Germany’s NATO accession, the Soviet Union formed the Warsaw Pact in 1955. 

• The Warsaw Pact was a collective defence treaty established by the Soviet Union and seven other Soviet satellite states in Central and Eastern Europe: Albania, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland and Romania (Albania withdrew in 1968).

• NATO and the Warsaw Pact were ideologically opposed and, over time, built up their own defences starting an arms race that lasted throughout the Cold War.

• Germany became the hub of espionage and military activity throughout the Cold War and the centre-stage of diplomatic posturing. 

• Soviet-occupied Berlin remained the capital of East Germany while West Germany chose Bonn. 

• Europe settled into an uneasy stand-off, symbolised by the construction of the Berlin Wall in 1961.

• The Berlin Wall became the symbol of the Cold War and a tangible manifestation of the world’s separation into two distinct ideological blocs.

• For 45 years, Germany was split in two. The East administered by the Soviet Union and the West by the Western Allies.

• In 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev came to power in USSR 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.

• The fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989 seemed to proclaim a new era of open markets and peace.

• With the reunification of Germany on 3 October 1990, Berlin was reinstated as the capital city of united Germany.

• The Warsaw Pact was declared at an end on February 25, 1991.

• Less than a year after the fall of the Berlin Wall came Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, with war between a US-led coalition and Iraqi forces taking place in early 1991. These events led to NATO engaging in its first-ever operational roles, with the alliance monitoring events and providing air defence packages to Turkey between August 1990 and March 1991. 

• In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a coalition of countries — including many NATO Allies — militarily intervened in Afghanistan in 2001. 

The growth of NATO

• In 1949, there were 12 founding members of the alliance: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States. 

• Since its creation on April 4, 1949, the alliance has grown from 12 founding members to 32 member countries.

• The other member countries are: Greece and Turkey (1952), Germany (1955), Spain (1982), the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland (1999), Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia (2004), Albania and Croatia (2009), Montenegro (2017), North Macedonia (2020), Finland (2023) and Sweden (2024).

• NATO’s two newest members, Finland and Sweden, joined in direct response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022.

• NATO headquarters is the political and administrative centre of the Alliance. It is located in Brussels, Belgium. 

• The Secretary General is the Alliance’s top international civil servant. This person is responsible for steering the process of consultation and decision-making in the Alliance and ensuring that decisions are implemented.

• At its heart is the concept of collective defence, the idea that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all, giving US military protection to Western Europe.

• It remains the largest peacetime military alliance in the world.

• NATO brings together sovereign countries from Europe and North America, consulting and cooperating in the field of security and defence.

• All alliance decisions are taken by consensus, with each ally having an equal say. Members are committed to the same values and share the strategic goal of maintaining security in the Euro-Atlantic area.

• NATO’s fundamental goal is to safeguard the Allies’ freedom and security by political and military means.

• NATO enables members to consult and cooperate on defence and security-related issues to solve problems, build trust and, in the long run, prevent conflict.

• NATO is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes. If diplomatic efforts fail, it has the military power to undertake crisis-management operations.

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