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NATO: An Overview of the Intergovernmental Organization – Rofiat Popoola


NATO: An Overview of the Intergovernmental Organization


In the ever-changing topography of international politics and security, one organization (NATO) rouses as a citadel of political cooperation and democratic partnership. Its tentacles have transcended the troubled shores of the North Atlantic region leaving in its wake a dignified cornerstone for the study of international security architecture.

An encapsulation of collective defense, freedom, solidarity and military cooperation is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, NATO. Primarily, NATO evolved as a military response to deterring Soviet Union expansionism, forbidding the revival of nationalist militarism in Europe and encouraging European political integration.

As Jane Smith rightly surmised, “NATO serves as a political alliance as much as a military one, fostering a community of like-minded nations dedicated to preserving peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic region.” The organizational and operational structure of NATO has been praised as unparalleled assets in deferring aggressors and relatively responding to emerging threats.

In light of this, this article seeks to explore the organizational structure and significance of the reputable intergovernmental organization with a view to underscoring its relevance in global peace, security and cooperation.

Overview of NATO

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization, otherwise known as NATO, started out as a military alliance in 1949 to create a counterweight to the predominance of the Soviet Union in the Central and Eastern region of Europe following the aftermath of World War II.

The threat of the Soviet Union expansion into the frontiers of Europe as well as the urgent need for collective security from external potential aggressors propelled the twelve founding member-states of NATO to pledge their allegiance to its formation. This crystalized into a formidable military defense strategy which was institutional all through the Cold war.

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Furthermore, these founding countries include the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Canada, Iceland, Denmark, Norway, Portugal, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Italy.

This military alliance, which later transcended into an intergovernmental organization, was established on April 4, 1949 with the ratification of the North Atlantic Treaty in Washington D.C.

Fundamentally, its objective lies on the need to safeguard the Allies’ freedom through political and military methods. It is the practical means through which the security of Europe and North America are permanently tied together. This has remained the principal security instrument of the transatlantic community and the expression of its democratic values as an intergovernmental organization.

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Sequentially, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact on December 25th, 1991 has been instrumental in its involvement in various military operations in the Balkans, Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. With its adaptable characteristics, it has extended its membership status to former Warsaw Pact countries in order to foster stability in the post-communist regions of Europe and North America.

As it stands, NATO is a democratic intergovernmental organization with over thirty-two sovereign member states. The 32 current member states of NATO include Albania, Belgium, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Montenegro, the Netherlands, North Macedonia, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Structure of NATO

It is a well-known fact that all agencies and organizations of NATO are integrated into either the civilian or command structure. For the most part, they perform roles and functions that directly or indirectly support the security role of the alliance as a whole. The civilian structure consists of the North Atlantic Council, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly and the NATO Headquarters.

The North Atlantic Council (NAC);

It is the body which has effective governance authority and powers of decision in NATO, consisting of member states’ permanent representatives or representatives at higher level (ministers of foreign affairs or defense, or heads of state or government). It is composed of ambassadors or representatives from member states who convene at least once a week to take major decisions regarding NATO’s administrative policies. It also meets at the level of Foreign Ministers, Defence Ministers and Heads of State and Government.

The meetings of the North Atlantic Council are chaired by a Secretary-General. That is, the NAC is headed by a Secretary-General who is appointed from Europe. When decisions have to be made, action is agreed upon by consensus of the representatives of each member-states. The work of the Council is prepared by dozens of subordinate committees that are responsible for specific areas of policy. The NAC is regarded as the highest decision-making body of NATO.

The NATO Parliamentary Assembly;

Also known as the NATO PA is regarded as a body that sets broad strategic goals for NATO. It meets at two sessions per year. The NATO Parliamentary Assembly interacts directly with the parliamentary structures of the national governments of the member states which appoint Permanent Members, or ambassadors to the North Atlantic Council (NAC).

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The NATO Parliamentary Assembly is made up of legislators from the member countries of the North Atlantic Alliance as well as thirteen associate members. It is however crucially a structure different from NATO, and aims to join deputies of NATO countries in order to discuss security policies on the NATO Council.

NATO Headquarters;

It is located on Boulevard Léopold III, Brussels. The staff at the Headquarters is composed of national delegations of member countries and includes civilian and military liaison offices and officers or diplomatic missions and diplomats of partner countries, as well as the International Staff and International Military Staff filled from serving members of the armed forces of member states.

NATO Command Structure (NCS);

There are three tiers of command: strategic, operational, and tactical. The Command Structure is based on functionality rather than geography. The NATO Command Structure is responsible for the operational command and control of NATO military forces.

This command structure consists of representatives of the military chiefs of staff of the member states and it subsumes two strategic commands: Allied Command Operations (ACO) and Allied Command Transformation (ACT). It is divided into strategic and operational commands with the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) located in Mons, Belgium, which is responsible for operations in the European theater.

SHAPE, home to ACO, is a strategic headquarters. Its role is to prepare, plan, conduct and execute NATO military operations, missions and tasks in order to achieve the strategic objectives of the Alliance.

The Allied Command Operations (ACO), headed by the SACEUR and located at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Casteau, Belgium, is responsible for NATO’s military operations worldwide. However, note that the position of SACEUR has always been held by an American. The ACO advises and assists the NAC on military matters. Also, it oversees the conduct of NATO’s military operations, including crisis response, collective defense, and partnership activities. It coordinates with partner countries and international organizations to enhance security cooperation and interoperability.

The Allied Command Transformation (ACT) is responsible for developing and delivering the capabilities and expertise required by NATO. This helps provide NATO with critical insights and maintain decisive advantage over its adversaries. It is located in Norfolk, Virginia, United States. In addition, it focuses on developing innovative concepts, doctrines, and technologies to address emerging security challenges and enhance NATO’s military effectiveness.

In utmost totality, the NCS oversees planning, conduct, and execution of NATO missions, exercises, and operations.

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Benefits of Joining NATO to Member States

The foregoing are the beneficial advantages a state will enjoy as a member of NATO. These include and not exclude;

  • Stability and economic growth;

Becoming a member of NATO enables a country to be financially stable and upright thereby facilitating economic growth within the country and its territorial borders. NATO amplifies a country relationship with other states as it creates an avenue for the growth and development of member-states

  • Economic Benefits;

NATO membership attracts foreign investment and enhances economic development by providing a stable and secure environment for businesses to operate.

  • Participation in decision making;

One of the unique features that characterize NATO is its decision making process. NATO offers members the democratic freedom to partake in its decisions through collaboration, discourse, dialogue, consensus and due consultation. This ensures unanimity of every decision taken within NATO.

  • International visibility;

Being a member of NATO gives a country the privilege of making impressions within the organization thereby boosting the visibility of the nation among other nations.

  • Collective defense;

The security of one country is the foundation for democratic and prosperous society. Without the security of a country, economic stability and growth seems far-fetched. One of the benefits of a country joining NATO is the fact that it protects the territorial integrity and sovereignty of member states.


As an intergovernmental organization, NATO has served as a bulwark against aggression, safeguarding the freedom and security of its member states.

Although it was created as a military comeback against the aggressive tendencies of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, it has transformed into a diplomatic institution facilitating the peace and security of member-states within Europe and North America.

It is an integral institution in that it portrays and is still portraying monumental achievements through its collective defense principle and commitment to democratic values.


Image Credit: IGES

About Author

Rofiat Popoola is a law student at the prestigious University of Ilorin, Nigeria. She is a passionate writer, researcher and volunteer who prides in writing on contemporary issues affecting her country as a whole. She joined LawGlobal Hub in January, 2023.

Rofiat Popoola

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