Geo-Economics and Politics

75 years of NATO: The North Atlantic Treaty Organization explained

Official photo of the NATO Secretary General and Heads of State and Government at the Vilnius Summit.

"NATO is stronger, more energized and, yes, more united than ever in its history," said US President Joe Biden. Image: NATO

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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This article was first published in July 2022 and most recently updated on 4 April, 2024.

  • 2024 marks 75 years since the conception of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which was signed on 4 April, 1949.
  • Sweden is the latest country to join NATO, after Russia's invasion of Ukraine prompted it to leave 200 years of neutrality behind.
  • Interstate armed conflict is recognized as one of the biggest risks facing the world, according to the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report 2024.
  • This is what you need to know about NATO’s history and its recent expansion on its 75th birthday.

Today (4 April) marks 75 years since the conception of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

Foreign ministers from member countries met in Brussels to mark the moment the alliance’s founding treaty was signed on 4 April, 1949 in Washington.

NATO leaders are also set to meet in Washington on 9-11 July, for a bigger celebration.

Reflecting on the impact of NATO, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg remarked: "Never has a single document with so few words meant so much to so many people. So much security. So much prosperity, and so much peace.”

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Last month, Sweden officially joined NATO as the 32nd Ally, in what Stoltenberg described as a "historic day".

"Sweden will now take its rightful place at NATO’s table, with an equal say in shaping NATO policies and decisions," he said on 7 March.

"Sweden’s accession makes NATO stronger, Sweden safer and the whole Alliance more secure. Today’s accession demonstrates that NATO’s door remains open and that every nation has the right to choose its own path.”

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Two days after the second anniversary of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the final hurdle in Sweden's path to joining the world's most powerful military bloc was cleared, as Hungary approved its accession.

"Sweden is leaving 200 years of neutrality and military non-alignment behind," Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson told a press conference.

"We are joining NATO in order to defend what we are and everything we believe in even better. We are defending our freedom, our democracy and our values, together with others."

It comes less than a year after Sweden's neighbour, Finland, joined in April 2023, marking the biggest expansion of NATO since members joined from eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991.

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Why are more countries joining NATO?

Russia's invasion of Ukraine in 2022 prompted Sweden to abandon its non-alignment policy and seek greater security within NATO.

Ukraine itself formally submitted an application to join the bloc in September 2022 and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy received assurances at the Vilnius Summit in the Lithuanian capital in July 2023, where Allies reconfirmed their commitment to make Ukraine a member.

Risks officers surveyed for the World Economic Forum's Global Risks Report 2024 said "interstate armed conflict" was one of the top five most severe risks facing the world in the short term.

The Vilnius Summit also included the inaugural session of the NATO-Ukraine Council on 12 July, where Zelenskiy was welcomed by Stoltenberg.

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He said: ''We stand with you in your courageous struggle for freedom and sovereignty ... We need to keep up and further expand our support to help Ukraine liberate its land and deter future Russian aggression.

"At this Summit, we have reaffirmed that Ukraine will become a member of the Alliance and we have made decisions to bring Ukraine closer to NATO.

"Today we meet as equals. And I look forward to the day we meet as Allies."

US President Joe Biden said: "NATO is stronger, more energized and, yes, more united than ever in its history. Indeed, more vital to our shared future."

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How NATO is expanding and changing

Sweden's road to membership of NATO has been a long one. In July 2023, the country's bid to join NATO was finally approved by Türkiye, which had been blocking its application pending Sweden recognizing rebel groups as terrorist organizations.

On 10 July, NATO said: "Sweden has amended its constitution, changed its laws, significantly expanded its counter-terrorism cooperation against the PKK, and resumed arms exports to Türkiye, all steps set out in the Trilateral Memorandum agreed in 2022."

Both Sweden, and Finland, which has a 1,340km border with Russia, dropped their traditional stance of neutrality and applied to join NATO after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Sweden to join NATO after approval from Hungary
How NATO membership has expanded. Image: Statista

In June 2022, a declaration from the 30 members of NATO, formally invited the two countries to join, while also naming the Russian Federation as “the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area” – and reiterating “unwavering support” for Ukraine.

Finland officially became the 31st Ally of NATO on 4 April, 2023, after NATO Allies signed its Accession Protocol on 5 July, 2022. All 30 national parliaments had voted to ratify the country’s membership.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto attends a meeting to sign Finland's national NATO legislation in Helsinki, Finland, March 23, 2023. Fanni Uusitalo/Finnish government/Handout via REUTERS    THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY
Finnish President Sauli Niinisto attends a meeting to sign Finland's national NATO legislation in Helsinki, Finland on March 23, 2023. Image: Fanni Uusitalo/Finnish government/Handout via REUTERS

What is the history of NATO?

NATO’s history is tied to Russian expansionism. It was created in 1949, in response to then premier of the USSR Joseph Stalin’s attempts to bring other states under communist rule.

The US, Canada, the UK, Belgium, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, Norway and Portugal signed a treaty stating that “an armed attack against one or more … shall be considered an attack against them all”.

It has since gone through nine rounds of enlargement: by the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989, there were 16 countries and in the 1990s, after the collapse of the USSR, former Soviet countries began joining, taking the total up to 30. Now that Sweden has officially joined, the number of Allies totals 32.

The Madrid Summit Declaration in June 2022, reaffirmed NATO’s open-door policy, which allows any European country to apply to join, but they must commit to defence spending of 2% of GDP.

In March 2020, the previous round of enlargement saw the Republic of North Macedonia join, while Georgia, Bosnia and Herzegovina are in the application process, now alongside Ukraine.

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