Purpose of NATO Explained: Roles, Responsibilities, and Missions

Purpose of NATO Explained: Roles, Responsibilities, and Missions

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization of NATO has been at the forefront of some of the major geopolitical and international relation issues. Also referred to as the North Atlantic Alliance, it is a political and military alliance between several countries in Europe, North America, and Eurasia. The general purpose of NATO is to implement the North Atlantic Treaty or the Washington Treat, which was signed on 4 April 1949 in Washington, D.C.

What is NATO: Understanding the Purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Background on the North Atlantic Treaty

At the end of the Second World War, the United States desired to avoid overextension and pursue multilateralism in Europe. Furthermore, even after the war ended, threats were still looming and several nations remained on guard.

France and the United Kingdom signed the Treaty of Alliance and Mutual Assistance or the Treaty of Dunkirk on 4 March 1947 to establish a military alliance in the event of a possible attack by Germany and the emerging Soviet Union.

The Treaty of Dunkirk was expanded in 1948 through the Treaty of Brussels when Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg or the so-called Benelux countries entered an agreement for mutual defense that would last for 50 years.

It is important to note that the threat against the Soviet Union was looming after the Second World War and at the start of the Cold War. The Treaty of Brussels was essentially a mutual defense agreement devised to contain the Soviet threat.

A multinational defense organization called the Western Union Defence Organization was created in September 1948 as a response to the Berlin Blockade in which the Soviets blocked access to sectors of Berlin under Western control.

European leaders were also negotiating with the United States in 1948 to develop a framework for a new defense-centric intergovernmental organization. The result was the North Atlantic Treaty and the creation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Addressing Threat from the Soviet Union

Based on its initial history, the initial purpose of NATO was to create a military alliance among Western countries to address the emerging threat from the Soviet Union, as well as the possible spread of socialism and communism in critical regions.

Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization agreed that an armed attack against any one of them would be considered as an attack against all of them. Hence, if such an attack occurred, members would provide relevant military assistance.

The alliance became important when the Soviet Union and seven other European countries signed the Warsaw Pact in 1955 that created the Warsaw Treaty Organization or WTO. The pact was a response to the integration of Western Germany into NATO in 1954.

WTO was the Soviet equivalent of NATO. Members agreed for collective defense and the sharing of resources needed to expand the individual military capabilities. It also complemented the mutual economic assistance of socialist states in Europe.

It is also worth mentioning that NATO was dormant until the Korean War that started in 1950 prompted the creation of an integrated military structure, which included Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe or SHAPE in 1951.

But the threat from the Soviet Union was eventually dispelled following the end of the Cold War and the eventual dissolution of the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics on 26 December 1991. However, NATO remained and its purpose was redirected.

Specific Roles and Responsibilities of NATO

To understand better the purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, it is important to take note of the 6 of the 14 articles contained and detailed in the North Atlantic Treaty. Take note of the following concise details of each:

• Article 1: Parties or members are required to “settle any international disputes in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered, and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.” Note that they are specifically required to settle these disputes in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations.”

• Article 2: Furthermore, these members must “contribute toward the further development of peaceful and friendly international relations by strengthening their free institutions, by bringing about a better understanding of the principles upon which these institutions are founded, and by promoting conditions of stability and well-being.” Furthermore, they must “seek to eliminate conflict in their international economic policies and will encourage economic collaboration between any or all of them.”

• Article 3: The members “separately and jointly, by means of continuous and effective self-help and mutual aid, will maintain and develop their individual and collective capacity to resist armed attack.”

• Article 4: It is also worth mentioning that members are also required to “consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”

• Article 5: Members also agree that “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them all and consequently they agree that, if such an armed attack occurs, each of them in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defense recognized by Article 51 of the Charter of the United Nations, will assist the Party or Parties so attacked by taking forthwith, individually and in concert with the other Parties.”

• Article 6: An armed attack on one or more of the members is deemed as an armed attack “on the territories” of any of the members or parties; and the same is true during an armed attack on the “the forces, vessels, or aircraft” of any of the members “when in or over these territories or any other area in Europe in which occupation forces of any of the Parties were stationed on the date when the Treaty entered into force or the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer.”

Based on the aforementioned articles, the purpose of NATO is to serve as a political and military alliance among member countries or parties. These two elements are critical to understanding the political and military agenda of the organization.

Politically, the organization states that it aims to promote democratic values and enables members to consult and cooperate on defense and security-related issues to solve problems, build trust and, in the long run, prevent conflict.”

On the other hand, from a military standpoint, it commits itself to the peaceful resolution of disputes. However, if diplomatic efforts fail, the organization uses its military power to undertake crisis-management operations.

Central to the objective of NATO is to enforce Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, which is to uphold the principle of collective defense, which states further that “an attack against one or several of its members is considered as an attack against all.”

Further Look: Post-Soviet Modern Purpose of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization

Remember that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was conceived in 1948 to prevent the remaining and looming threats after the Second World War. The rise of the Soviet Union and the spread of socialism and communism in Europe and other countries became a pressing concern for several countries in the West, including countries in Europe such as the United Kingdom, France, and the so-called Benelux countries, as well as the United States.

However, even after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the purpose of NATO remains the same: to serve as an instrument for upholding the principle of collective defense that is needed to maintain peace and security among its member countries. An attack on one member is considered an attack on the entire organization. The organization fundamentally enacts a mutual defense agreement between these member countries.

It is worth mentioning that Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty was invoked for the first time in response to the 9/11 Terrorist Attack in the United States. For the organization to take collective defense measures, a consensus must reach. What this means is that all members must agree before taking action. The consensus is called a “NATO decision,” and it represents the expression of the collective will or desire of all of its member countries.

Beyond the collective defense agreement, which involves mounting a concerted defense, another purpose of NATO is to enable its member countries to consult and cooperate in the field of defense and security, and conduct multinational crisis-management operations together. Each member has a responsibility to share vital resources, as well as information needed to maintain their military advantage. These members are also required to appropriate a portion of their respective military budget to fund the operation of the organization.

But the roles and responsibilities of NATO transcend beyond its members. The organization has formed partnerships with non-member countries it calls as partners. It works with these parties to address a range of political and security-related issues. The organization also takes an active role in different events that require crisis-management operations and missions, including civil emergency operations due to calamities and non-military causes.

The 2010 Strategic Concept also described three of the core tasks of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. These are collective defense, as mentioned in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treat, crisis management, which involves the use of political and military capabilities of the members to address the full spectrum of crises, and cooperative security. Among these three, cooperative security centers on involvement in the greater international landscape.

Accordingly, the organization recognizes that it can be affected by political and security developments beyond its borders or outside the jurisdictions of its members. Hence, in consideration of this, another specific purpose of NATO is to partner with other countries and other international organizations to contribute actively to arms control and non-proliferation and disarmament, as well as to open its doors to all European democracies.


  • North Atlantic Treaty Organization. n.d. “What is NATO?” North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Available online
  • North Atlantic Treaty Organization. 2010. Active Engagement, Modern Defense: Strategic Concept for the Defense and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Available via PDF
  • North Atlantic Treaty Organization. 1949. “The North Atlantic Treaty.” North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Available online