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NATO
"Keep the Americans in, the Soviets out and the Germans down."
General Hastings Lionel "Pug" Ismay, 1st Baron Ismay, first Secretary-General Of NATO, stating the basic objectivenote  of the organisation.

NATO stands for North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Set up to counter the threat of the USSR, it was the effective successor to the informal "Western Allies" of World War One and World War II, primarily centering upon those nations (United States, Britain, France, Canada, etc) with the addition of West Germany. With the end of the Cold War, a number of former Warsaw Pact countries joined the alliance, which made the Americans happy — they got MiGs, Sukhois and T-72s to play with.

NATO has only been involved as a collective in three foreign conflicts — Kosovo, Operation United Protector in Libya and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan.

The most notable day to day part of NATO is QRA (Quick Reaction Alert). The NATO Air Forces that have the ability to launch fighter aircraft keep some of them (it rotates) on c.10 minute alert, scrambling them if any unidentified aircraft enter NATO airspace or something goes off course. Those countries, such as Latvia and Iceland, who can't do it for their own airspace have their duties covered for by others on a rotating basis (in 2008, RAF Typhoons were due to do Iceland's QRA, but it was cancelled after a diplomatic row due to the Icelandic banking crisis).

NATO has a massive number of mutual standards in the the weaponry field (known as STANAGs, or Standardisation Agreements), with the two standard rifle calibres used by them actually being called 5.56x45mm NATO and 7.62x51mm NATO in other publications. Since 1980, NATO rifles also have standardised magazine dimensions, with the 20- and 30-round magazines of the American M16 family being used in nearly all other 5.56mm assault rifles in NATO.note  The idea was to share logistical support in times of war by having everyone's guns use the same ammo.

During the Cold War, the USSR liked to test NATO reaction time. A lot. They'd send Tu-95 bombers towards the UK and Norway, or even up towards Canada, keeping their tail guns pointed upwards to show they weren't actually hostile, then got escorted out by NATO fighters. They also did "Bear" runs to Cuba and back.note 

Compared to the Warsaw Pact, individual NATO member states during had more freedom and power in the running of things, which led to problems like the lack of unified troop control (all the NATO corps were subordinate to their countries, not NATO), members often having opposed interests, and other political squabbles that could've led to hesitancy and indecision in potential crises. The most prominent example is France, who under Charles De Gaulle actually withdrew the French military from NATO's integrated command structure in 1966 and asked non-French units (mostly American ones) to leave Francenote ; de Gaulle pursued this partly out of a desire to maintain French control over its own foreign policy (including the ability to pursue a separate peace with the Soviets in a prospective World War III) and partly because he bristled at what he saw as a close partnership between the United Kingdom and United States steering NATO's policies. France continued to be part of the alliance (it kept troops in West Germany during the Cold War to assist in its defense and made separate agreements with the US to have French units reintegrate back into NATO's command structure in case war broke out), but compared to the (enforced-by-backroom-strongarming) unity of the Warsaw Pact NATO didn't look as unified.

NATO's "official" plan in the event of a Warsaw Pact offensive was the strategy of Forward Defense, where NATO troops would defend as close to the Inner German Border [IGB] as possible. While the concept satisfied the West Germans in peacetime, the problem with Forward Defense was that it offered very little in the way of operational depth (Around 300 kilometers from the IGB to the Rhine and most NATO ground units were deployed in only a fraction of that) and NATO paid less attention to the operational level of war, which meant that it would not likely to stop a Soviet mechanized offensive and then the tactical nukes start flying... the problem is that NATO knew this and that it was highly unlikely to stop any dedicated Warsaw Pact push cold just past the IGB. So by and large they also intended to use the West Germans and any neutral nations the Soviets invaded as speed bumps while they would regroup in depth and fight-and win- the war further West with their backs to the wall. How well this would have turned out is a question...

Since NATO's raison d'Ítre was to contain the USSR, it was supposed to be disbanded after the fall of the latter, but it continued to exist, and expand. Currently the NATO members' military budget is more than double that of all non-NATO nations combined. Nowadays, no-one really knows what its purpose is, and for that reason it is very much criticized: many people and governments see it as a mere extension of the U.S. Army, that only serves American interests, while some American officials criticize NATO as the U.S. providing military welfare for European allies who don't or can't meaningfully contribute to their own defense; some European countries punching above their weight have historically had the same complaint (lately, Poland has been particularly vocal in complaining about other members' reliance on the American security teat). Although NATO played a key role in ending conflicts in hotspots like Bosnia, Kosovo, and Libya, there's always an Obligatory War Crime Scene in stuff like that, so it's a bit of a mixed bag.

Members

NATO has grown in steps since its initial founding in 1949, when the original 12 countries signed the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington:

The rest, by year of ascension:

Currently there are five countries that have indicated they wish to join NATO in the future: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro. Of these, Kosovo is unlikely to get anywhere in the near future due to its tenuous diplomatic situation (four NATO members don't even recognize it) and Georgia's 2008 South Ossetia conflict with Russia makes any move towards NATO integration frought with risk. The other three have "Membership Action Plans", though Macedonia's has been held up by Greece over the dispute regarding the former's name. Pretty much the entire rest of NATO sees this as a frivolous objection but accepting new members requires unanimous agreement of the current ones (the only reason it was possible to have both Greece and Turkey as members is that they were brought in simultaneously, and thus neither could block the other).

Five other countries (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Moldova, and Ukrainenote ) have rather extensive cooperation arrangements with NATO but don't wish to actually join for various reasons.

NATO in fiction

Manga

Literature

LiveActionTV
  • JAG: In "Washington Holiday", the Romanian king lives under assassination threat from hardliners, if he were to announce an application for NATO membership.

Tabletop Games
  • Twilight Struggle: As a card that prohibits the Soviet player from coups or realignments against any US-controlled country in Europe, as well as innoculates them from "Brush War". Much less useful for the US than it would seem, however, since the Soviet player will almost never do any of those things because the whole region is almost always locked via DEFCON level from allowing that anyway.

Video Games
Iron CurtainCold WarA Nuclear Error
Group Of EightBig International ClubsShanghai Cooperation Organisation
Napoleonic WarsUsefulNotes/EuropeOrthodox Christianity
National Film RegistryAdministrivia/Useful Notes Pages in MainNaval Gazing

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