What Is NATO, And Why Is Everyone Saying We're About To Enter WWIII?

NATO was born out of the ashes of WW2. Is it about to start WW3?


Dr. Katie Spalding

Katie has a PhD in maths, specializing in the intersection of dynamical systems and number theory.

Freelance Writer

Two figurines of battle combatants. In the background you can see the flags of Russia and NATO, both out of focus
Is NATO to go toe-to-toe with an old foe? Image: Sunshine Seeds/Shutterstock

Whew, that was a lovely refreshing holiday. Time to take a great big sip of water and see what people have been googling latel–


Oh. Oh. Well, it seems everyone is convinced we’re about to hurtle into World War 3 any day now, and it’s all thanks to something called “NATO Article 5”. So, a few questions: what’s that? What’s going on? And most of all, huh?

What is NATO?

NATO (OTAN if you’re French or looking in a mirror) stands for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and that’s a pretty perfect description of what it is. It’s a group of countries spanning the North Atlantic – that is, the USA and Canada to the West of the ocean, and 28 European nations to its East – all of whom have signed a treaty promising to provide military and political aid to each other in the case of an attack.

The Organization, in its own words, “promotes 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.” 

However, unlike other international groups dedicated to “problem solving” and “cooperation”, NATO has an ace up its sleeve. “NATO is committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes,” the organization explains – but “if diplomatic efforts fail, it has the military power to undertake crisis-management operations.”


Strip away the slightly euphemistic language, and it boils down to this: NATO can, and does, deploy troops and weapons in times of international conflict. In fact, it has ongoing missions in Kosovo, Europe, Iraq, the African Union, and of course Ukraine. Key to this is the obligation agreed on by all member states to fund NATO: both directly through direct contributions as a share of GDP, and indirectly by pooling military resources and capabilities.

Where did NATO come from?

To understand why NATO exists, we have to take a trip back in time. It was the late 1940s, and the planet had just emerged from quite the kerfuffle. It was the second of such international scraps in about 30 years– by this point, everyone was pretty keen to avoid a third.

The trouble was, World War Three seemed pretty likely at the time. Britain was being led by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, a man so hungry for conflict that he had already been maneuvering for a joint-US and British Empire invasion of the USSR for months by the time peace was declared across Europe. The USSR itself, meanwhile, was busy expanding its reach throughout Europe – it had even got as far west as Berlin, over halfway across the continent, and Stalin was eyeing up free nations from Poland to Korea that he thought would make handsome additions to his Soviet Empire. 

Then there was the USA, a nation previously best known for staying out of international conflicts (yes, seriously), but which was about to do a complete heel-turn in the name of the almighty dollar and begin a long tradition of stationing troops around Europe and interfering in foreign elections to further long-term American and corporate interests. 


Add to that one global superpower that had very recently shown itself to be terrifyingly blasé about raining nuclear Armageddon down upon its enemies, plus another global superpower that had seen said hellfire and thought “nice, let’s get some of that for ourselves, except bigger,” and it’s clear why people in the late 1940s were, perhaps, a little worried.

In response, a wave of international treaties and political unions started being established across Western Europe – many of which set the stage for the world as it is to this very day. The Benelux Union came into effect, for example, providing the blueprint for what would eventually become the European Union; the Organization for European Economic Co-operation – the forerunner of today’s OECD – was established; the Western Union (not that one) and the Council of Europe were formally created.

Among all these fraternal feelings, Europe had a problem. The reason they were so eager for this new era of cooperation and peace was the very same thing stopping them from achieving it: the near-total destruction of the entire continent in World War Two.

Much of Europe had been "devastated in a way that is now difficult to envision,” explains an entry in NATO Declassified, a historical exploration of NATO published by the organization itself. 


“Approximately 36.5 million Europeans had died in the conflict, 19 million of them civilians,” it continues. “Refugee camps and rationing dominated daily life. In some areas, infant mortality rates were one in four. Millions of orphans wandered the burnt-out shells of former metropolises. In the German city of Hamburg alone, half a million people were homeless.”

However, there was one belligerent in the War that had not fared anywhere near as badly: the US. Partly because of the gigantic oceans separating all 48 states of the Union from the fighting on the ground; partly because of the massive surge in domestic manufacturing and purchasing power seen in the US; and partly because they were four years late to the fray, the USA was ready and able to step in and fund massive rehabilitation and diplomatic projects across Europe.

One of those projects – perhaps one of the most influential of all, in fact – was NATO.

Who is in NATO?

At first, NATO was a relatively small affair, consisting only of the USA, Canada, and ten European states: Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, and the UK. 


Since its founding in 1949, that number has more than doubled, and there are currently 30 NATO member states. Much of that increase has happened since the 1990s, with all but four of the newer cohort having joined NATO after becoming independent from the old USSR.

We may soon see that number increase even further – with Russia’s invasion of Ukraine this year, three more countries have submitted applications to join NATO: Sweden, Finland, and Ukraine itself.

For Sweden and Finland, those applications were swiftly accepted – though Ukraine’s current status (viz, literally being invaded and at war right now) makes their situation more complicated. While Russia has yet to part with its official stance of “nobody is to join NATO, or else we will be very mad to say the least”, the fact is that NATO has what’s known as an “open door policy” – meaning any nation who wants to apply, and is in a position to uphold NATO values and responsibilities, is welcome to do so.

What does NATO do?

Ever since the North Atlantic Treaty was first signed back on April 4, 1949, the alliance has officially had just one overarching goal: to prevent another World War. The idea was kind of like the Three Musketeers, or a scaled-up law of the playground – mess with one of us, the treaty said, and you mess with us all.


“The Parties 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-defence 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, such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area.”

So reads the famous Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty – the one currently seeing a surge in interest since Poland, a NATO member since 1999, reported a missile strike that killed two in the village of Przewodów, about 6 kilometers (4 miles) from the border with Ukraine. 

So far, Article 5 has only been invoked once throughout NATO’s entire 73-year history: in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks in 2001. Now that a NATO member has potentially been struck by an enemy missile, are we going to see it come into play again – this time against an enemy with a nuclear arsenal even bigger than NATO’s own?

Well, let’s not get carried away too quickly. Before you get to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, you have to get through Article 4: “The Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened.”


In other words, all-out war is not a given. Article 4 has actually been invoked seven times, with none of those resulting in World War 3. In fact, the most recent time Article 4 was invoked was just this year, when Russia first invaded Ukraine – as you may recall, the world has not been plunged into a nuclear apocalypse.

At least, you know. Not yet.


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