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NATO 101: The history of the North Atlantic Trade Organization

By Haley BeMiller
On April 2, 2012

For Chicago residents, NATO has become a household name as the city prepares to host its summit in May. However, what they do and why they're relevant to international diplomacy is unknown to some.

According to its website, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in April 1949. It has 28 member countries in total, including the United States and other European countries like Spain, France and Greece. Twelve of those countries founded the treaty, and members have accumulated ever since.

A key part of NATO is the strength of its alliance. The website noted that according to the original treaty, an attack on one NATO country is an attack on everyone. Members of the alliance swear to come to the aid of their fellow members when necessary.

"You buy yourself security if you're a small state," said Dr. Clement Adibe, a political science professor at DePaul.

In its youth, NATO had three primary goals: combat the Soviet Union, prevent militaristic nationalism in Europe and promote assimilation in European politics.

However, after the Soviet Union fell at the end of the Cold War, NATO had to reinvent its mission. Now, they focus strongly on peacekeeping and security. But as the website noted, NATO is not the solution to every international struggle. They're merely a piece of the larger puzzle in conflict resolution.

Adibe commended NATO for looking beyond the Soviet fight. He claimed this reflects "the resilience of bureaucracies."

"They found a way to expand their agenda and make themselves relevant," he said.

Adibe said that NATO members tend to be government officials specialized in dealing with the organization, similar to the system for the United Nations. These specialized individuals develop a coordinated, working relationship with their governments.

"For the United States, it's an instrument of diplomacy," he added. "NATO adds some legitimacy to American actions."

The summit that will occur in May is a key part to what modern-day NATO does for the world.

"NATO summits are also held annually to provide leaders with a platform for strategic diplomatic and military planning," said Jen Martinez, press secretary for the Chicago NATO Host Committee. "This will be the first time an American city other than Washington D.C. has hosted the NATO summit."

Martinez said this could generate many benefits for Chicago, whether it is in tourism or the job market. Most importantly, she added, it'll put Chicago on an even larger map.

"These summits will help solidify Chicago as a player in the global economy, which will ensure continued growth and business development," she said.

Adibe believes that NATO is personally motivated to move the location of their meetings in hopes of educating people about what they do. The organization is based in Brussels, but they've had meetings in other places around the world.

"They have no reason to meet elsewhere," Adibe said. "It's a way of democratizing the institution."

For the upcoming summit, Adibe said they will probably discuss the war in Afghanistan, particularly because some members are anxious to withdraw their troops. The website also suggested conversations regarding defense capabilities and allies outside of NATO.

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