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 You are in: Under Secretary for Political Affairs > Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs > Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Releases > Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs Fact Sheets > 2002
Fact Sheet
Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs
Washington, DC
October 31, 2002

The U.S. and NATO: Frequently Asked Questions

What is NATO and what does it do?

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization) is an international security alliance created on April 4, 1949, to preserve peace and ensure security in the North Atlantic region. NATO’s treaty was created within the framework of Article 51 of the United Nations Charter that affirms the right of independent states to individual or collective defense. NATO currently has 19 members in Europe and North America, including the United States.

Why was it founded and how has it grown?

NATO was founded in order to provide a structure to guarantee the security of its 12 founding members against expansion and influence by the Soviet Union. The founding members were Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom, and the United States. In addition, NATO’s European members wanted to ensure that the United States remained involved in European security. Over the past 53 years, NATO has enlarged four times. Greece and Turkey joined in 1952; the Federal Republic of Germany joined in 1955; Spain joined in 1982; and Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic joined in 1999.

What are the obligations of NATO members toward one another?

NATO is based on the principle of "collective defense,“ which means that an attack on one member is considered an attack on all members. Article 5 of the NATO treaty states that, if one of the members is attacked, each member will take "such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force“ to restore security.

Has NATO ever acted to defend the United States?

On September 12, 2001, NATO took the historic action of invoking – for the first time – Article 5 of the NATO treaty. This Article embodies the principle of collective defense – that an attack on one member is an attack on all. The Alliance backed up this action by sending five AWACs aircraft and a detachment of 200 personnel to the United States in October 2001. These aircraft logged 3,000 hours patrolling American skies and protecting North American airspace. In addition, NATO ships patrolled the Eastern Mediterranean to keep terrorists from infiltrating into Europe, and all NATO allies have participated in either Operation Enduring Freedom, the military campaign against the Taliban, or in the current International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.

Has NATO ever taken military action or fought a war?

NATO’s first major involvement in peacekeeping began in late 1995 when it led the Implementation Force (IFOR) to secure the Dayton Peace Agreement ending five years of civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Stabilization Force (SFOR) is the successor to IFOR.

NATO’s most significant military operation to date took place in Kosovo. On March 24, 1999, NATO began a 78-day air campaign against the military forces of Yugoslavian President Slobodan Milosevic. Following the campaign, the Kosovo Force (KFOR), a NATO-led international peace-enforcement force, entered Kosovo. KFOR’s objectives are to maintain security in Kosovo, monitor and enforce compliance with the agreements that ended the conflict, and support the UN Mission in Kosovo.

How are decisions made in NATO? Can NATO make decisions on its own without U.S. approval?

Decisions in NATO are made by consensus; this means that every decision is mutually agreed among all of its members and is the expression of their collective will. Consensus is reached through regular consultations and coordination of the members. Since every member preserves its full independence and sovereignty, no decision may be made by NATO against the will of one of its members. At the same time, NATO can not prevent one of its members from taking individual action.

The main decision making body in NATO is the North Atlantic Council (NAC), which meets at least once a week and is comprised of the permanent representatives (Ambassadors) from each of its members. The NAC also meets at different levels – with Foreign Ministers, Defense Ministers, or Heads of Government. The NAC establishes subsidiary groups and committees that provide advice on military policy and strategy to NATO’s political leaders.

An international staff of civil servants, headed by the Secretary General of NATO, supports the activities of the decision-making bodies. The current Secretary General is Lord George Robertson of the United Kingdom. The current U.S. Ambassador to NATO is Nicholas Burns, a career diplomat in the U.S. Foreign Service.

Released on November 12, 2002

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