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VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nick Roffey
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization has endured for the better part of a century. For this list, we're looking at fascinating facts about this military alliance. Our countdown includes details about NATO's founding, expansion, and activities during both wartime and peacetime. Is anything here news to you? Tell us in the comments.
Top 10 Facts About NATO You Should Know About Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Things You Should Know About NATO. For this list, we’re looking at fascinating facts about the North Atlantic Alliance. Is anything here news to you? Tell us in the comments.

#10: What Is NATO?

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Let’s get this one out of the way! NATO, or the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is a military alliance between 30 member countries - 28 in Europe, plus Canada and the United States. Its headquarters are in Brussels, Belgium. NATO’s stated purpose is to “promote democratic values”, “prevent conflict”, and when necessary, defend member countries through military means. Established in 1949, it’s endured for seven decades! The current Secretary General is Norwegian politician Jens Stoltenberg, while the ​​Chair of the NATO Military Committee is lieutenant admiral Rob Bauer, the former Chief of Defense of the Netherlands. A step below him is the US Air Force’s General Tod D. Wolters, who serves as Supreme Allied Commander Europe.

#9: NATO’s Formation & Purpose

The reason for NATO’s existence harks back to the aftermath of World War II. Although the Soviet Union had fought with the Allies, once the Nazis were defeated, European democracies found themselves again at odds with Stalin’s socialist state. Fearing Soviet expansion and a return to war, the United Kingdom and France signed the Treaty of Dunkirk in 1947. This was expanded the following year into an alliance called the Western Union. As Cold War tensions grew, the United States wanted in too. The US had tried isolationism, and still been dragged into the Second World War. So in 1949, 12 countries, including the US and Canada, signed the North Atlantic Treaty. Thus, NATO was born.

#8: Decisions Are Based on Consensus

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Decisions at NATO are made by the North Atlantic Council. Chaired by the Secretary General, the council consists of Permanent Representatives from all member countries. It meets twice a week, once for an informal discussion and once to make decisions. But these decisions aren’t reached through voting. Instead, they’re based on consensus and must be unanimous. This means a lot of discussion and consultation, where members exchange information and opinions. Members can bring any issue of concern to the table. The hope is that these diplomatic discussions help head off potential conflicts.

#7: Defense Spending

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The North Atlantic Treaty represents a commitment to collective defense. So it’s important that all countries chip in. Members contribute to NATO’s annual budget of $2.6 billion based on their gross national income. However, they’re also expected to spend at least 2% of their gross domestic product on defense. This was established as a guideline in 2006, and formalized in 2014 after Russia annexed Crimea. The US easily surpasses this target, spending 3.7% of its GDP - the most in the world. Few other NATO members actually hit 2%. However, since 2014 the number of those who do has risen from three to eleven, and most plan to follow suit by 2024.

#6: Security Partners

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While NATO has 30 current members, it also has partnerships with countries outside the alliance. These include 20 nations in Europe and Central and Western Asia through NATO’s Partnership for Peace program, established in 1994. Russia is actually one such partner. So are all the European Union nations that aren’t part of NATO, with the exception of Cyprus. Other global partners include Australia, Japan, South Korea, Iraq, Pakistan, and Colombia, among others. NATO members and partners consult through the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. Activities with partners include disaster planning, cooperation on scientific and environmental issues, and defense training.

#5: Air Policing

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Even during peacetime, NATO planes patrol the skies, defending the airspace of member countries. Established in 1961, the alliance’s Air Policing mission is overseen by the commander of Allied Air Command, currently US Air Force General Jeffrey L. Harrigian. Member nations without the means to defend their own airspace are assisted by other members. For example, NATO forces protect Iceland and the Baltic and Adriatic states, and augment Bulgarian and Romanian forces. In the past, NATO has also enforced no-fly zones over non-members during conflicts: over Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993 and Libya in 2011. In March 2022, Ukrainian President Zelensky called for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a non-NATO country, which Russia invaded in February. However, NATO refused, unwilling to risk war with a nuclear power.

#4: Military Action

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NATO’s principal goal is to prevent conflict. Article 1 of its founding document commits members to settling international disputes through peaceful means. However, the alliance is also a military one based on deterrence and defense. Its most notable military operation to date began in 1992 during the Bosnian War, when Serbian forces embarked on a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing. NATO enforced the United Nations’ arms embargo and no-fly zone, bombed military targets, and eventually deployed a peacekeeping force. They intervened again during the Kosovo War in 1999, although their bombing campaign was controversial, as it lacked UN approval and resulted in high civilian casualties.

#3: Expansion

As we mentioned, NATO began with just 12 members, building on an alliance between the UK and France. However, it’s expanded considerably since 1949. At first, this was a trickle. The alliance added just three members in the 1950s and one in the 1980s. But after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, new democracies emerging from communist control in Central and Eastern Europe sought protection. Three countries joined in the 90s, and nine in the 2000s! Subsequent years have seen the additions of another two. NATO has also recognized the aspirations of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, and Ukraine to join.

#2: Criticism & Controversy

NATO members credit the alliance with preserving the postwar international order. However, the organization isn’t without critics. Chief among them is of course Russian President Vladimir Putin, who’s objected fiercely to NATO’s expansion eastward. In 2022, he used this to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Another vocal critic has been former American President Donald Trump, who called NATO “obsolete” and threatened to leave the alliance. Trump and others have criticized NATO members for not meeting their defense spending targets. This is a real problem, although in recent years, NATO members have made progress, having increased their defense budgets.

#1: Attack One, Attack All

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Like the Three Musketeers, NATO is all for one, and one for all. Article 5 of NATO’s founding document states that an attack on one member is an attack on all members. This is the core principle that allows NATO’s to function as a deterrent. Aggression towards one member will bring down the united might of the entire alliance. Importantly, this is a defensive agreement: members would not be obliged to support another member in starting a war. So far, Article 5 has only been invoked once - after the September 11 attacks. In response, NATO patrolled US airspace in Operation Eagle Assist, monitored ships for terrorist activity in the Mediterranean, and in 2003 took command of the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan.