As NATO marks its 74th anniversary on April 4, the alliance can claim a record of remarkable achievements since its founding in 1949.
Retired U.S. Admiral James Stavridis, a former supreme allied commander for Europe (2009–2013), cites NATO’s “unblemished record of deterring attack against its members” as among the alliance’s greatest accomplishments.
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in the aftermath of World War II largely in response to the threat to peace in Europe posed by the Soviet Union.
NATO’s founding document, the Washington Treaty, includes the alliance’s Article 5 commitment to collective defense. Article 5 states that an attack on one ally is considered an attack against all, a group now comprising 30 countries. The United States’ commitment to Article 5 is ironclad, as President Biden has emphasized.
Ending centuries of hostilities
Prior to the two world wars, Europe had suffered near-continuous hostilities continentwide, including the Hundred Years’ War (1337–1453), a struggle between England and France over succession to the French throne; the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), a religious conflict fought primarily in Central Europe; the Seven Years’ War (1756–1763) between Great Britain and France; the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815) between France and a shifting group of other European powers; and the Franco-Prussian War (1870–1871). The two world wars (1914–1918 and 1939–1945) brought unparalleled destruction to the continent.
During the Cold War (1945–1991), NATO remained vigilant, deterring the terrible destruction that a third world war would have brought. NATO helped preserve and advance peace and democracy in much of the continent and promoted both European and trans-Atlantic cooperation.
Europe faced new security challenges after the Cold War as the 20th century came to a close. The NATO alliance conducted its first major response operation in Bosnia and Herzegovina, paving the way for the end of the 1992–1995 war in the country, and again responded to war in Kosovo in the late 1990s.
Stavridis says that NATO members, in addition to collaborating on all elements of the alliance and allied security, “by and large share fundamental values — democracy, liberty, freedom of speech, freedom of expression, gender equality and racial equality.”
‘A uniquely adaptive alliance’
Discussing Finland’s and Sweden’s ongoing NATO accession process, James Goldgeier, a NATO expert and professor at American University, said “these two countries will help ensure security and stability in Northern Europe.” Their status as “established democracies,” he says, ensures contributions to NATO as a military alliance and as a values-based institution.
New crises have emerged in the 21st century. Russia has invaded non-NATO states in Europe: Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine, initially in 2014 followed by a full-scale invasion in 2022.
“The Russian invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated beyond any doubt just how important NATO will continue to be,” said Kimberly Marten, a political scientist at Barnard College and Columbia University. “Putin has helped instill NATO with a new sense of purpose and a renewed degree of unity.”
“Putin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine can be seen in part as an attempt to test NATO’s strength.” So far, the alliance has passed the test, Marten said, “with the U.S. leading the way in building quick, creative and collaborative responses that rely on Washington’s long and enduring relationships with its NATO partners.”
“NATO has always been a uniquely adaptive alliance, and remains so today, serving as a beacon for democracies in other geographic areas to join in security cooperation, as we saw recently when [nonmembers] Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea attended the 2022 NATO summit,” she said. “No group of authoritarian nations — not during the Cold War, and not now — can come close to matching the shared sense of purpose that NATO members have.”