Issue 03 of our print magazine is available to buy now

Issue 03 is available to buy now

What is NATO?
The Basics

What is NATO?

The Basics is a series exploring the concepts and individuals essential to purposeful business.
16th Mar 2022

In the wake of devastation left by World War Two leaders worked together to establish a new world order. The United Nations was established in 1945, and shortly after, in 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was formed. Originally made up of 12 countries from Europe and North America, the Organisation now has 30 member states, who have all committed to uphold the same principles of individual liberty, democracy and freedom. 

One of the most important principles of NATO is the system of collective security – in short, if one country is attacked or threatened, then all other NATO members are attacked too. The system was put in place during the Cold War in response to the growing threat of the Soviet Union, and has remained in place since then.

How does it work? 

Countries who are members contribute a small amount of their national defence budget to NATO which goes towards running the organisation’s headquarters in Belgium and the integrated military command sites across Europe and North America. 

When called upon for military interventions, countries contribute their own military forces and pay for the deployment. There is no centralised NATO army or military power; all armed forces that fight for NATO are part of individual national armies. 

“Security in our daily lives is key to our well-being. NATO’s purpose is to guarantee the freedom and security of its members through political and military means.”


The system provides an enormous amount of both political and military heft to any country who’s a member. Other states who want to threaten or attack a NATO member must contend with the knowledge that they are also attacking some 30 other nations, many of which have the largest military forces in the world. It acts as a huge deterrent for international conflict. So far, this ‘collective security’ principle has only been put into action once, following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US.

What are its goals? 

For the first four decades of its existence, NATO’s main concern was the Cold War. Collective defence was a foundational aspect of the organisation, acting as a deterrent that kept all member states more secure. 

With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, there were questions over the continued need for an organisation like NATO. But despite the geopolitical landscape changing and evolving, NATO’s core principles of collective defence, crisis management and cooperative security, have proved to be important and universal enough to continue to apply to any circumstances. 

“NATO’s fundamental and enduring purpose is to safeguard the freedom and security of all its members by political and military means.”


At its core, NATO is a transatlantic political and military alliance, allowing countries from either side of the Atlantic to cooperate and consult on defence and security. Their first interest is in preserving democratic values and preventing conflict, but if diplomacy fails, they will resort to military intervention. 

Who’s part of it?

There are now 30 member-states – some who signed the original treaty in 1949, and others who have joined in the decades since then. A comprehensive list can be found here, but some of the original members include: the US, the UK, Belgium, Canada, France, Italy and Portugal. More recent members include Germany (1955), Spain (1982), Albania (2009), Montenegro (2017), with the most recent addition being North Macedonia in 2020.  

Although there are 30 member-states, NATO works with over 40 other non-member countries and international organisations on a range of political and security-related issues. These partnerships are now considered to be a fundamental pillar of NATO’s purpose in the world. Partnering countries lack the same decision-making abilities that member states have, but often contribute to NATO-led operations or objectives. 

What are the criticisms of NATO?


Some believe that NATO’s continual expansion towards the east in the last two decades has unnecessarily provoked Russian aggression towards Ukraine. “It would be extraordinarily difficult to expand Nato eastward without those actions being viewed by Russia as unfriendly,” wrote Ted Galen Carpenter in his book Beyond Nato: Staying Out of Europe’s Wars – as long ago as 1994. 
Despite criticism and many analysts warning against it, NATO continued to expand towards Russia, adding countries that were once part of the Soviet Union and setting up strategic bases near to Russia’s borders. “Perceptive analysts warned of the likely consequences, but those warnings went unheeded,” says Galen Carpenter in 2022 of Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine.

Different visions

Some are also concerned that there is a lack of cohesion over the direction of the alliance in the future and what role it will play in the geopolitical sphere. Different versions of the role NATO can play in terms of European defence in the future have cropped up: one that relies more on the EU; one that remains rooted in the original set up of NATO; one that would see ad hoc alliances form in Europe. 

France’s Emmanuel Macron has even alluded to collective defence guarantees within European alliances, something that Fabrice Pothier says would “strike at the heart of NATO’s mission and call for a more fundamental re-adjustment of its tasks.”

What has NATO got to do with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine? 

Ukraine represents an important strategic stronghold for Russia. It is caught in between two opposing spheres of influence: on one side, the West and the NATO alliance represent a democratic future within the EU for Ukraine, while on the other side, Russia refuses to recognise Ukraine’s independence and wants Ukraine to become Russian territory.  

The tension between Russia and Ukraine has been increasing for many years. In the last decade, it has become clear that Russian influence on Ukraine is being replaced by an increasing interest in the West. In 2014, Putin-backed Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych fled the country after mass protests and the threat of a possible civil war, resulting in Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Putin views the presence of a Slavic state like Ukraine within the Western alliance of NATO as an affront, and Ukraine has increasingly expressed interest in doing so in recent years. In 2017, the Ukrainian government outlined NATO membership as a strategic foreign and security policy objective, and in 2020 President Volodymyr Zelenskyy reiterated the aim of joining NATO. 

“NATO stands with the people of Ukraine and its legitimate, democratically elected president, parliament and government.”

Although not included in the collective defence principle of NATO, cooperation between the country and NATO dates back to the early 1990s and NATO has severely criticised Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine: “NATO condemns in the strongest possible terms Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine starting in February 2022, which is entirely unjustified and unprovoked. This is a grave violation of international law and a serious threat to Euro-Atlantic security.”

NATO members including the UK have already sent weapons to Ukraine to aid them in their defence against Russia: 2000 tanks from Britain, the US has sent £149M worth of weapons and Germany has sent 1500 weapons. 

Alongside the global community, NATO continues to express the same outrage and condemnation of Russia’s attack, and “stands with the people of Ukraine and its legitimate, democratically elected president, parliament and government.” But it is keenly aware that a military response to Russia’s invasion could well result in a world war three scale of conflict. 

While NATO is unlikely to respond with military force, its partnership with Ukraine and diplomatic endeavours to end the conflict endure.

Further reading: