Just What Is NATO Exactly?

If you have been paying attention to the news lately, you might have heard the term ‘NATO’ getting thrown around some. The organization was a campaign issue during the 2016 presidential campaign, as the Republican candidate Donald Trump threatened to weaken or even leave the alliance, charging that some nations were not paying their share. After his win and assuming power in the White House, his commitment to the alliance was a foreign affairs matter in his first trip overseas. The constant mention of NATO in the news left a lot of folks wondering what NATO is and how does it influence politics in the US.

NATO is an acronym for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Its roots trace back to the conclusion of World War II in the European theater. It took the combined Allied forces from North America, Western European nations, and the Soviet Union to defeat Nazi Germany. As a result, the USSR (now Russia) occupied much of Eastern Europe at the end of the war, including half of Germany. Those nations had communist rule and were politically and militarily subservient to Moscow’s wishes. They collectively formed a multinational alliance known as the Warsaw Pact.

NATO was a vehicle for the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and other nations to join together to stand with one another in the threat of global war with the Soviet Union and its vassal states. The actual line-up of NATO states has grown and changed over time, now reaching to places like Turkey and the Baltic States. Many other former Soviet republics or Warsaw Pact nations are either now members of the Alliance or petitioning to join.

Article V of the NATO charter is what states that allies must come to the aid of a member state when attacked. Despite all the tension of the Cold War, this clause was only triggered once during the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C.

While the Cold War is long over and the Warsaw Pact is gone, a resurgent Russia is challenging the strength and unity of the remaining NATO alliance. The possibility of a Russian invasion of places like the Baltic states concerns the alliance possibly being triggered and used, and while President Trump did not initially voice support for Article V commitment, he has done so since. The alliance will stay in the news for some time to come.