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How does NATO Function

Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe is marking its 70th anniversary this year and we are celebrating with an in-depth look into the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO).  We will journey back in time to the very beginning of the Alliance and week-by-week give you a new window into this Transatlantic-multinational organisation.

How does NATO function?

In previous episodes of ‘Knowing NATO,’ we covered NATO’s division into political and military components to find the best solutions for our core tasks. The military division is responsible for missions and operations, plans and future needs are handled by two military strategic Commands: Allied Command Operations (ACO) and Allied Command Transformation (ACT).

The 30 members of NATO participate, in a multitude of ways, in the functioning of the Alliance. Within NATO Headquarters (NATO HQ) each Ally has diplomatic representation and military representation. Both are responsible, at their respective levels of competence, to participate in collective decisions while protecting national positions and interests.

On the other hand, the member states participate with their own staffs in the activities of the International Staff and the International Military Staff, at the North Atlantic Council and the Military Committee, whose methods of allocating the positions are proportional to the financial contributions and operational structures in theatres. Ultimately, the presence in the staff reflects the specific weight of the members.

The North Atlantic Council (NAC) is the highest political decision-making body within NATO. The NAC supervises the political and military processes concerning security issues affecting the whole Alliance. It is composed of permanent representatives from each member state of the branch or field under consideration, usually Ambassadors. They discuss political or operational issues that require collective decision making. The NAC generally meets at least weekly at the level of permanent representatives or ambassadors who are on duty in Brussels at the various delegations. The body also meets at the ministerial level twice per year at the level of Foreign Ministers and three times per year at the level of Defence Ministers. Occasionally, at the highest level, summit meetings play a key role in the Alliance’s evolution; they are not regular meetings, nations are represented by the heads of state and government. These summits are used to introduce new policy, invite prospective new members into the Alliance, launch major initiatives and reinforce partnerships. One notable component is the national representatives sit around the table according to the English alphabetical order. The same order is followed in all NATO committees.

In summary, the NAC provides a forum for broad consultation among members on all matters affecting their peace and security in which decisions are made on the basis of unanimity and mutual agreement. There are no majority votes or decisions. This means that policies decided by the NAC are the expression of the collective will of NATO as a whole.

As mentioned, the NAC has effective political authority and decision-making powers; it is the only body established by the North Atlantic Treaty pursuant to Article 9: << The Parties hereby establish a council, on which each of them shall be represented, to consider matters concerning the implementation of this Treaty. The council shall be so organised as to be able to meet promptly at any time. The council shall set up such subsidiary bodies as may be necessary, in particular it shall establish immediately a defence committee which shall recommend measures for the implementation of Article 3 and 5>>.

Another important aspect to understand about NATO’s function is the issue of finance. The operating expenses of the Alliance are divided on the basis of the member countries Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Although many expenses are created by the member states according to the so-called <<costs lie where they fall>>, this means that the Allies pay their own part.

After the NAC, the oldest permanent body in NATO is the Military Committee (MC) which is the primary source of military advice to the NAC and the Nuclear Planning Group. It gives direction to the two Strategic Commanders: Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR) and Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT), positions discussed in episode two of our series.

The Military Committee, headed by British Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach since June 2018, meets frequently at the level of permanent Military Representatives and three times a year at the level of Chiefs of Defence.

The Military Committee is in charge of translating political decisions and guidance into military direction, recommending necessary defence measures for NATO areas and the implementation of decisions for military operations. It is an essential link between the political decision-making process and the military structure of NATO. The MC also develops strategic policies and concepts, prepares long-term planning of strength and capabilities of countries and areas posing a risk to NATO’s interests.

This is episode three of the SHAPE Public Affairs’ series, ‘Knowing NATO,’ introducing NATO functions. Following highlights will include NATO power, assets and readiness.

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