This week’s North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit, convening in Brussels on July 11-12, will be the alliance’s 29th meeting. As with previous editions, the meetings are held during “key moments” in time, when major decisions must be made by the organization in order to introduce new policy, invite new members into the Alliance, launch major initiatives and reinforce partnerships.
Over the past 69 years since NATO was formed, the organization and the decisions made during these summits have played a considerable role in how the western world navigated major historical events, from the Cold War to 9/11. After World War II, the Allied forces created NATO to strengthen their alliance, offer political and military security protections against Soviet attacks, and formalize the decision-making process between nations. Article 5 of the Washington Treaty defined much about the military defensive purposes of the organization and outlined their policy of collective defense. Throughout the Cold War, collective military plans were made through NATO and helped defined the West’s attitude towards the use of nuclear weapons. In 1955, NATO saw a Soviet response to West Germany joining NATO with the Warsaw Pact. Although NATO was able to centralize a lot of power in Europe and offer protection to smaller nations, the organization contributed to the polarization of power between the western world and other developing nations.
Since the fall of the Soviet Union, NATO’s purpose continued in support of multinational cooperation but restructured and downsized its military purposes. Although NATO was formed as both a political and military alliance, the organization has historically prioritized diplomacy over military force. The first military intervention was not until 1992, in Bosnia, and the first time NATO acted under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty was after 9/11. Although these actions were employed primarily under peacekeeping efforts, they helped solidify the strength and capability of NATO’s military defense. NATO had set a precedence of mostly defensive measures, but in 1999 agreed to the use of offensive airstrikes without the approval of the UN. In more recent years, especially since the collapse of the Soviet Union, NATO has sought to develop better relations with past soviet nations and foster less hostility between western and eastern regions. The NATO nations have increasingly centered their focus on counter terrorism measures, but priorities of peacekeeping and protection remain the same.
Today, the organization’s working structures consist of member and partner nations that form different committees. Each member nation has a delegation that serves on the North Atlantic Council, described as the principal political decision-making body at NATO, and headed by the Secretary General. NATO summit meetings are effectively meetings of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) at its highest level. The NATO Secretary General is the “top international civil servant” and is also the chair of each summit “responsible for steering the process of consultation and decision-making in the Alliance and ensuring that decisions are implemented.” Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s current Secretary General, acts as both NATO’s chief spokesperson and the head of their International Staff.
Each delegation is comprised of different experts and representatives that also serve on smaller sub-committees that deal with more specific issues. When military decisions are made, the process primarily involves the Military Committee, the International Military Staff, and the military command structure. The military command structure is composed of Allied Command Operations and Allied Command Transformation, and fully relies on the forces of each member nation to carry out any military actions on a volunteer basis. The NATO Strategic Commands are responsible for the development of defense plans for their respective areas, for the determination of force requirements and for the deployment and exercise of the forces under their command control.
Aside from member nations, partner nations and their representatives attend NATO meetings and participate in either the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC), the NATO-Russia Council, or NATO-Ukraine Commission and contribute to efforts to include more nations in decision making in the years since the end of the Cold War. At the summit level, these countries are “represented by their Foreign or Defense Ministers or by their Head of State or Government.” Although these countries add to the dialogue, the decisions are ultimately up to the cooperation of the member nations alone.
The NATO alliance is no longer unique to the Western experience of military and security cooperation. The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), created in 2001, deals with Eurasian political, economic, and security issues on an international level and functions in many of the same ways as NATO. SCO was formed to counter western interests, with an agenda focused on military cooperation. SCO’s main goals are strengthening trust and cooperation in politics, trade, research, education, and security while “moving towards the establishment of a democratic, fair and rational new international political and economic order.” The organization consists of China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, Tajikistan, India, Pakistan, and Uzbekistan. But the alliance is increasingly inviting new partners to join.
The alliance represents a united, non-western force, self-described as “a permanent intergovernmental international organization.” The SCO serves as a continuation of some of the opposing and anti-U.S. sentiments seen in the Warsaw Pact through the involvement of the leading nations of Russia and China. Although still relatively young, the SCO represents over half the population of the world. The SCO’s June meeting this year, served a similar purpose to the NATO summit, as the highest level of the organization’s decisions making.
As the SCO grows and develops over time, NATO’s legacy of united western power will continue to be tested. The upcoming summit will help determine how NATO will continue its legacy in the current political climate and on what terms.