The foundations of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) were officially laid down on 4 April 1949 with the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty, more popularly known as the Washington Treaty.
- The Washington Treaty – or North Atlantic Treaty – forms the basis of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – or NATO.
- The Treaty was signed in Washington D.C. on 4 April 1949 by 12 founding members.
- The Treaty derives its authority from Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which reaffirms the inherent right of independent states to individual or collective defence.
- Collective defence is at the heart of the Treaty and is enshrined in Article 5. It commits members to protect each other and sets a spirit of solidarity within the Alliance.
- The Treaty is short – containing only 14 articles – and provides for in-built flexibility on all fronts.
- Despite the changing security environment, the original Treaty has never had to be modified and each Ally has the possibility to implement the text in accordance with its capabilities and circumstances.
The Treaty and its fundamental values and principles
Only 14 articles long, the Treaty is one of the shortest documents of its kind. The carefully crafted articles were the subject of several months of discussion and negotiations before the Treaty was actually signed. However, once Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States had discussed these issues, they agreed on a document that would establish the North Atlantic Alliance.
On 4 April 1949, the 12 countries signed the North Atlantic Treaty at the Departmental Auditorium in Washington D.C., the city which lends its name to the Treaty.
The Treaty committed each member to share the risk, responsibilities and benefits of collective defence – a concept at the very heart of the Alliance. In 1949, the primary aim of the Treaty was to create a pact of mutual assistance to counter the risk that the Soviet Union would seek to extend its control of Eastern Europe to other parts of the continent. The Treaty also required members not to enter into any international commitments that conflicted with the Treaty and committed them to the purposes and principles of the Charter of the United Nations (UN). Moreover, it stated that NATO members formed a unique community of values committed to the principles of individual liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law.
In addition to collective defence and key values, the principle of consensus decision-making and the importance of consultation define the spirit of the Organization, together with its defensive nature and its flexibility.
The signing of the Treaty led to the creation of the Alliance and, only later, did a fully-fledged organisation develop. In effect, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) provides the structure which enables the goals of the Alliance to be implemented. To date, those goals have not fundamentally changed nor the Treaty been rewritten. The only so-called “amendments” made so far stem from the series of accession protocols which have been added as new members join, illustrating the foresight of its drafters and their ability to marry international concerns and objectives with national interests.
Political context of the Alliance’s birth
The hostilities that had characterised relations between Soviet and Western powers since 1917 gradually re-emerged at the end of the Second World War. This “East-West” divide was fuelled by conflicting interests and political ideologies. There were clashes over peace agreements and reparations, and tensions were exacerbated by events such as the Berlin blockade in April 1948, the June 1948 coup in Czechoslovakia and direct threats to the sovereignty of Norway, Greece and Türkiye.
As the power of the Soviet Union spread to several Eastern European countries, there was concern among Western European countries that Moscow would impose its ideology and authority across Europe. From the end of the Second World War in 1945, Western governments started reducing their defence establishments and demobilising their forces. In January 1948, however, British Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin spoke of the need for a “treaty of alliance and mutual assistance”, a defensive alliance and a regional grouping within the framework of the UN Charter.
The United States would only agree to provide military support for Europe if it were united. In response, Belgium, France, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom signed the Brussels Treaty in March 1948, creating the Western Union. Designed to strengthen ties between the signatories while providing for a common defence system, the Brussels Treaty ultimately became the basis for the Washington Treaty.
In the meantime, the US Senate adopted the Vandenberg Resolution – a resolution that would change the course of American foreign policy since it allowed the United States to constitutionally participate in a mutual defence system in times of peace.
The ground was set for negotiations to start on a transatlantic treaty.
Negotiating and drafting the Treaty
The talks on what would become the Washington Treaty took place between the powers of the Brussels Treaty (except Luxembourg, which was represented by Belgium) plus the United States and Canada. Representatives from Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States constituted the core drafting team, but participants from other countries also contributed to the initial discussions, with the assistance of a working group. What has been coined as the “six-power talks” gave birth to the Washington Paper, issued on 9 September 1948, which contained an outline of possible future articles for the Treaty.
Formal public treaty negotiations began on 10 December 1948 with the Ambassadors Committee in Washington, D.C. For these talks, Luxembourg sent its own representative. Denmark, Iceland, Italy, Norway and Portugal were later invited to the final sessions of negotiations, which began on 8 March 1949. Although the participating countries agreed that collective defence would be at the heart of the new Alliance, several other issues were still not resolved and needed to be worked out before the formation of the Alliance could become a reality.
Views on the implementation of Article 5 differed. The United States had previously taken a stance of officially avoiding foreign entanglements. It was concerned that Article 5 would draw the country into a conflict through treaty obligations. Something had to be put in place to allow for the United States to send aid to attacked countries without having to declare war.
The European countries, on the other hand, wanted to ensure that the United States would come to their aid if one of the signatories came under attack. The United States would not make this pledge and did not believe US public opinion would follow so they proposed an option that would allow each country to assist other signatories “as it deems necessary”. In other words, there would be no automatic declaration of war or obligation to commit militarily on the part of member countries; the action to be taken would be up to each individual member country. Ultimately, the American viewpoint on collective defence won out.
Political and military cooperation
Some drafters wanted more than just military cooperation between signatories. They wanted to expand cooperation to social and economic cooperation, but there were differing views on how to treat non-military issues. Ultimately, Article 2 went through, and now forms the basis of the Alliance’s political and non-military work.
Article 2 is reinforced by Article 4, which encourages the Allies to “consult together” whenever they consider it necessary, therefore facilitating consensus-building. The practice of regularly exchanging information and consulting together strengthens the links between governments and knowledge of their respective preoccupations so that they can agree on common policies or take action more easily.
Geographical scope of the Alliance
The geographical scope of the Alliance in terms of area of responsibility was yet another topic on which the negotiators had a difference of opinion. The United States and the United Kingdom saw NATO as a regional organisation while other countries, such as France, felt it should take on a more global role.
Article 6 of the Washington Treaty details what is understood by the Alliance’s geographical scope:
“Article 6 1
For the purpose of Article 5, an armed attack on one or more of the Parties is deemed to include an armed attack:
- on the territory of any of the Parties in Europe or North America, on the Algerian Departments of France2, on the territory of Turkey or on the Islands under the jurisdiction of any of the Parties in the North Atlantic area north of the Tropic of Cancer;
- on the forces, vessels, or aircraft of any of the Parties, 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.
- The definition of the territories to which Article 5 applies was revised by Article 2 of the Protocol to the North Atlantic Treaty on the accession of Greece and Turkey signed on 22 October 1951.
- On January 16, 1963, the North Atlantic Council noted that insofar as the former Algerian Departments of France were concerned, the relevant clauses of this Treaty had become inapplicable as from July 3, 1962.”
Membership of the Alliance
In terms of whom to invite to join the Alliance, again the drafters held diverging views. The United Kingdom wanted to keep the Alliance small and strong, avoiding commitments to peripheral countries, while the United States advocated inviting countries that were more likely to fall to Soviet aggression. France, on the other hand, was mainly concerned with protecting its colonial territories. Of concern to all three countries was Germany, whose membership was not immediately considered due to the complexity of its situation.
The drafters also discussed inviting Italy, Greece, Türkiye, Portugal, Iceland and the Scandinavian countries, essentially for their strategic value. Italy, Portugal and Iceland were among the founding members and ultimately Greece and Türkiye joined the Alliance in 1952. Iceland linked its membership to that of Denmark and Norway, which were also among the founding members in 1949; Sweden, on the other hand, refused to have any links with NATO because of its strong commitment to neutrality.
Consideration was also given to offering membership to Ireland, Iran, Austria and Spain, but the idea was dropped largely due to internal conditions in each country.
The status of colonial territories was one of the biggest bones of contention in the drafting of the Washington Treaty. France insisted on including Algeria, while Belgium requested the Congo’s inclusion. However, the United States and Canada wanted to exclude all colonial territory, the main concern being that NATO would end up having to resolve problems stemming from the native population of overseas territories.
Ultimately, the drafters granted France’s request to include Algeria2, which had been fully integrated into the French political and administrative organisation as a French department, but rejected Belgium’s request regarding the Congo.
Duration of the Treaty
The negotiating countries disagreed on how long the Treaty should last. Some countries favoured a long-term agreement that would set the initial duration at 20 years, while others feared that anything beyond 10 years would be seen as an unnecessary extension of the war effort. Finally, at the insistence of Portugal, the Treaty was made valid for a 10-year period, after which the Treaty could be reviewed (Article 12); and only after the Treaty had been in force for 20 years could a member withdraw from the Organization (Article 13). To date, these two provisions have never been used, i.e., the Treaty has never been reviewed nor a member withdrawn from the Organization.