What does NATO do? Foreign Affairs in plain language

The war in Ukraine ended a long period of peace in Europe. NATO is more important than ever. But what is NATO’s role in the world? And why is NATO important for the Netherlands? We’ll explain all of this below.

Safety and security in the Netherlands

A safer world also means a safer Netherlands. Why? Take for instance terrorism, nuclear weapons or cyberattacks. These threats have one thing in common: they don’t stop at borders.

So our own safety and security often starts abroad. That’s why it’s important to have good relations with other countries. And to protect stability in the world together. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs works hard to do this. NATO also plays an important role. But what exactly is NATO?

What is NATO?

NATO stands for ‘North Atlantic Treaty Organization’. It is a military alliance of 30 countries in Europe and North America. Its headquarters is in Brussels. The Netherlands is a member of NATO. NATO was set up in 1949, not long after the end of the Second World War. Its aim: to protect the security and freedom of all the countries that are members (the Allies). And right now, that Alliance is perhaps more important than ever.

Worldwide security challenges

The world is a less safe place than before. Even in areas near the Netherlands. Take for instance the war in Ukraine started by President Putin. Or China: a growing global economic and military power that is flexing its muscles more and more often. Technological developments also lead to new threats, like cyberattacks. Or the use of modern weapons, like drones, that can attack targets without humans having to risk their lives.

And climate change can also lead to more conflicts, or make conflicts worse. Countries need each other so they can prevent and combat these global threats.

NATO and diplomacy

NATO is a defensive military alliance. You might think NATO is all about military action. But there is another very important step that comes first. NATO’s main priority is diplomacy. By talking to each other and with other countries, we try to solve conflicts without using force.

Within NATO, the Allies work together and make agreements. For instance on protecting democratic values. Examples are: being able to hold free and fair elections, equal rights for everyone, and freedom of expression.

Within NATO, military and non-military experts meet to exchange information about what is happening in the world. In this way, NATO prepares itself for the challenges and threats of today and of the future. With military and diplomatic action.

NATO in the world

NATO also helps other countries – that aren’t members of NATO – with their security. For instance by helping them train their soldiers. NATO soldiers can also be sent to deal with a crisis. This is important for the Netherlands too. Because the world is becoming more and more closely connected. And our safety and security is also connected to that of other countries.

Article 5: what happens if a NATO country is attacked?

An attack one of NATO’s member countries is an attack on all of them. Article 5 is the most important part of the North Atlantic Treaty, the treaty on which NATO is based. If one NATO member country is attacked, all members will provide it with military support. This way, the country that has been attacked doesn't stand alone. The attack doesn't have to be with tanks and guns; it could also be a cyberattack, for instance.

So basically, NATO make us safer together. But how does a country become a member of NATO?

When can a country join NATO?

A country can’t just simply join NATO. There are certain requirements and steps that the country has to take.

  • Step 1: the country must meet NATO’s three basic requirements. Only European countries and countries in North America can join NATO. That was decided when NATO was first set up. The country must be democratic. And the country must contribute to security in the European-Atlantic region.
  • Step 2: the country must take part in the Membership Action Plan. This means the country is assessed and given help with meeting NATO’s other requirements. Those requirements have to do with freedom, human rights, democracy and the legal system. Sometimes it means that reforms are needed in the country that wants to be a member.
  • Step 3: the country must agree to NATO’s aims, rights and obligations. The country makes these agreements in talks with NATO members.
  • Step 4: all NATO member countries must agree to the country’s membership. All NATO members sign a document called the accession protocol.
  • Step 5: the country’s own people must agree to NATO membership. This can be decided by parliament, or by holding a referendum.

Every country is different. So some countries may take longer to become a member than others.

NATO and the Netherlands

To protect our way of life, the Netherlands works to build a strong Europe and a strong NATO. By working together with other countries and making agreements with them, we stand stronger in the world.

This is why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs works to make sure there is close cooperation in NATO. And also in the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN). The Netherlands also believes it’s important for NATO and the EU to work together closely. So that we can spot any risks to our security as soon as possible. Together we can find solutions to global challenges. That is the best way to defend the Netherlands’ freedom and security.

Visit the Ministry of Defence’s website for more information about the Netherlands’ contributions to NATO missions (in Dutch) and NATO’s missions in Eastern Europe (in Dutch).