edited by Raffaele Crocco and Alice Pistolesi

As NATO celebrates its 75th anniversary, there is one date worth remembering. Not 4 April, the day the Atlantic Alliance was formally born in 1949. It is 24 March 1999, 25 years ago. That was the day Operation Allied Force was launched. Without a mandate from the United Nations, only a formal order from the then NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, the first NATO fighter-bombers took off from the Aviano base in north-eastern Italy and began bombing Belgrade and Serbia in the name of freedom and independence for Kosovo. The UN had neither asked for nor envisaged intervention. It was a war that the Alliance wanted and decided to wage. It lasted until 10 June, when the Serbian General Staff signed an agreement with NATO in Kumanovo. It was 78 days of war and bombing. 2,500 people died and at least 12,000 more were wounded.

I am taking this war as a starting point to recount the 75 years of contradictions of an Alliance that was born and has been talked about as a defensive Alliance, but which in fact has been and continues to be an instrument of control and military intervention by one part of the world to the detriment of the other. This is a contradictory reality that few have been willing or able to confront and discuss calmly, using the normal democratic instruments that all, I repeat all, the countries of the Alliance theoretically claim to have at their disposal. It has always been said that NATO is a defensive alliance. When the 12 founding members – the United States, Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France (in 1966 President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO’s integrated military command structure, refusing to allow any foreign army on French territory; the decision was reversed by President Nicolas Sarcozy in 2009), Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, Norway, the Netherlands, Portugal and the United Kingdom – signed the treaty of unification in Washington on 4 April 1949, they were performing the final act of a slow political-military rapprochement based on the assumption that European countries would be unable to defend themselves against Soviet military superiority if they remained divided.

That’s the point. The Alliance has built armies and policies around the idea that if one country is attacked, all the others will rush to its defence. There is no provision for the Alliance to support or endorse any offensive action, any attack, by any member. This was the basic assumption during the long period up to 1991, when the Alliance was confronted with the Soviet bloc in what was called the “Cold War”. Only defence, and it was around this idea that other states joined the Alliance over the decades: Greece, Turkey, West Germany, Spain when it became democratic again in the 1970s. A strict rule of the Alliance is that its members must defend liberal democratic values. There are no dictatorships in NATO, although the reality of the colonels’ Greece of the 1960s and the generals’ Turkey of subsequent decades is a little disconcerting. But democracy is still a fundamental ideal “pillar”, useful above all for the explanation and justification of the fight against communism, and thus against the Soviet system.

This theoretical dress has not stood the test of time. The question now is: given these premises, why did NATO not disband or transform itself into a different alliance with different rules when the enemy – that is, the reason for its existence – vanished in 1991? With the fall of the Soviet Union, the Alliance had to become something else, or it would have had to disappear. Instead it grew, feeding on the ashes of the defunct Soviet system. It expanded by leaps and bounds in the 1990s, taking in the countries of Eastern Europe. Then it created a new common enemy. Look around and you will see that there is almost no trace of it: Islamic fundamentalism. Most importantly, it began to lose its “defensive soul”, becoming a military tool to defend and promote the specific interests of the countries which make it up.

The use in the war against Serbia over Kosovo, mentioned in the introduction, was only the first example of this political and systemic transformation. On 12 September 2001, it was indeed NATO that invoked Article 5 of the Statute to defend the United States. The day before, there had been an attack on the Twin Towers in New York. The Alliance classified it as an “attack on a member country” and therefore called on all other countries to act. It is the decision that will, in a confused way, justify the attack and the occupation of Afghanistan for 21 years, with the formalisation of the command of the occupation troops taken over by NATO in 2003.

By contrast, there was no such justification for the Alliance’s decision to intervene militarily in the first Libyan civil war in 2011 in support of the rebels trying to overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. These were decisions and choices that have shown an increasingly aggressive face over the decades. Above all, they turned NATO into a political instrument, a guarantor of a system of interests. The Alliance felt that it had “won” the confrontation with the Soviet Union and was therefore entitled to transform itself into an instrument for controlling world balances on behalf of the United States and Europe. A choice that took concrete form in direct military action and in the continuous enlargement to countries that were geographically closer to Russia. All of this, it should be remembered, was done without ever changing the formal rules of the game.

Today there are 32 countries in the alliance, with Finland and Sweden joining on the wave of anxiety triggered by the ongoing war between Ukraine and Russia. A growth, that of the Alliance, planned while hypocritically maintaining a formal “defensive” structure.

Increasing investment

In February, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg announced that 18 member states would spend 2 per cent of their GDP on defence this year. This is an indirect response to years of calls from the United States (and in particular from former president and current Republican candidate Donald Trump) for European allies to contribute more.

According to Stoltenberg, European states will for the first time invest $380 billion, or 2% of their combined gross domestic product. This increase is part of an already growing trend. Military spending in Europe and Canada is set to rise by 11% by 2023. This is a sixfold increase compared to 2014 when only three Allies met the 2% guideline. Over the past decade, NATO Allies in Europe have steadily increased their collective defence investment, from 1.47% of their combined GDP in 2014 to 2% in 2024, when they will invest a total of $380 billion.

The 2% defence investment guideline was adopted by NATO defence ministers in 2006. The impact of the 2007-2008 financial crisis and the decline in the share of defence spending in many Allies by 2014 had highlighted the imbalance between US and European Allies’ investments.

An important milestone was the 2014 Wales Summit, called in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. There, NATO leaders agreed on a defence investment commitment, stating that allies already meeting the 2% guideline should continue to do so, while those with lower levels of investment should strive to meet the threshold to “fill NATO’s capability gaps”. A commitment to be met by 2024, along with the achievement of 20 per cent of annual defence spending on major new equipment.

But it is since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 that most Allies have begun to invest more and faster in defence. At the Vilnius Summit in 2023, NATO leaders agreed to a new defence investment pledge, stating that in many cases spending more than 2 per cent of GDP will be required. The defence investment pledge goes back to the call for Allies to spend 20 per cent of annual defence spending guidelines on new equipment, including research and development.

According to NATO, in 2014 only Greece, the UK and the US (3 out of 31 countries) had reached or exceeded 2 per cent of GDP. By 2022, the number had risen to 7, while by 2023 we had reached 11 countries (Greece, the UK and the US, Poland, Estonia, Lithuania, Finland, Romania, Hungary, Latvia and Slovakia). France spent 1.9%, Germany 1.57% and Italy 1.46%.

Germany, however, reported defence spending of 2% of its GDP in February 2024 for the first time in three decades, according to the German news agency DPA. According to the report, the German government presented a figure for the current year equivalent to $73.41bn – a record for Europe’s largest economy. Germany last reached the spending threshold in 1992, while during the Cold War years, the ratio was usually above 3%.

Where NATO soldiers are

Today, NATO is active in several international contexts. In Kosovo, some 4,500 NATO troops are part of NATO’s Kosovo Force (Kfor). The mission was launched in June 1999 “to put an end to the widespread violence and to stop the humanitarian disaster that was unfolding”. Following Kosovo’s declaration of independence in February 2008, NATO decided to continue its presence under UN Security Council Resolution 1244.

NATO is now conducting operations in the maritime domain: the Alliance’s Standing Naval Forces, Operation Sea Guardian and the Aegean operation. The Standing Naval Forces (SNFs) are NATO’s only standing naval forces and can deploy rapidly in times of crisis or tension. They conduct planned exercises, manoeuvres and port visits to strengthen the Alliance’s maritime posture. The SNFs are organised into four groups and operate in the Atlantic, Baltic, North Sea, Mediterranean and Black Seas.

Operation Sea Guardian, on the other hand, has been running since November 2016 and is the successor to Active Endeavour. It conducts five or six targeted operations each year in specific areas of interest in the Mediterranean. The operations also include visits to ports in non-NATO countries “to contribute to the development of maritime security capabilities in the region”.

Since February 2006, NATO maritime forces have also been conducting reconnaissance, monitoring and surveillance operations in the Aegean Sea, in cooperation with the Greek and Turkish coastguards and through the establishment of direct links with Frontex (the EU’s border management agency).

NATO’s mission in Iraq was launched at the Brussels Summit in 2018. It is a “non-war advisory and capacity-building mission aimed at strengthening Iraqi institutions and security forces to prevent the return of ISIS, fight terrorism and stabilise their country”. NATO is working with Iraqi security forces and institutions. In February 2021, at the request of the Iraqi government, NATO defence ministers decided to extend the mission to the wider Iraqi security sector.

NATO has been working with and supporting the African Union since 2005. After providing strategic airlift to the AU mission in Sudan in 2005, the Alliance went on to support the AU mission in Somalia (Amisom) with air and sealift. In 2023, it was decided to continue with the next operation, the Atmis mission. NATO then maintains a liaison office at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

Finally, there is Nato Air Policing, a mission that aims to “maintain the security of the Alliance’s airspace continuingly”. Since the annexation of Crimea and the invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, NATO has indeed stepped up its air policing missions. NATO’s air policing is part of the integrated air and missile defence system.

The most recent mission was in February 2023, following the earthquakes in Turkey. NATO provided hundreds of temporary shelters and coordinated flights for the delivery of humanitarian aid. The Alliance built and continues to maintain three temporary shelters for thousands of people in Antakya, Iskenderun and Defne, as well as several supplied medical facilities set up near damaged hospitals in the area.

It is no longer a defensive alliance

The reality of NATO today is simple: it is no longer a defensive alliance. It has become an instrument of planetary “pressure control” in the hands of the United States and Europe. Certainly, no one is talking about reforming the organisation, as would be logical and appropriate, and even less about disbanding it after the return of “dear enemy” Russia. But there are many stumbling blocks. The first and most urgent is the appointment of a new Secretary General. Jens Stoltenberg has been in office since 2014, and his term has already been extended due to the inability to find a replacement. The candidates for the post must be solid. Above all, they must be able to convince Washington that they belong to countries that are considered ‘virtuous’ in terms of their military commitment – read percentage of GDP spent – to the Alliance. On the table are the names of Mark Rutte, the former Dutch prime minister, Ursula von der Leyen, the outgoing president of the EU Commission, Estonian prime minister Kaja Kallas and Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen. The other big issue is Donald Trump’s possible return to the White House. The Republican candidate does not know what to do with NATO and has always said – including during the previous presidency – that Europe must defend itself. A choice in line with the old and ever-present US isolationism, and that would be the death knell for NATO as we know it.

The Sweden-Turkey case. How to become a NATO member

After twenty months of negotiations between Ankara and Stockholm, the Turkish parliament ratified Sweden’s NATO membership on 24 January 2024. Sweden’s application now only needs the green light from Hungary.
With Sweden’s green light, Ankara is now preparing to collect its “prize”. On 29 March, a delegation from the US Armed Forces arrived in Turkey to discuss the purchase of 40 new F-16 and F-79 fighter jets to modernise the Turkish air force. This purchase is part of a deal struck with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to lift his veto on Finland and Sweden joining NATO. The veto was issued for many reasons, including the demand for the extradition of members of the Kurdish political-military movement, the PKK.
Former US President Donald Trump excluded Turkey from the F-35 military cooperation programme in 2019 after Ankara bought Russia’s S-400 missile defence system. So when Sweden and Finland applied to join NATO in 2022, Ankara made a deal with Washington.

How a Country joins NATO
The process of becoming a NATO member involves submitting a formal application, which must be approved by the country’s parliament. This is followed by two stages of discussion with the Alliance: Intensified Dialogue, which examines the applicant’s motives, and the Membership Action Plan (introduced in 1999 following the accession of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic), which prepares the applicant to meet political, economic, military and legal requirements. These include, for example, a democratic system, market economy, respect for the rule of law and fundamental rights, standards of intelligence and contribution to military operations, and capacity for peaceful conflict resolution. These dialogues are followed by accession talks (aimed at confirming the candidate’s willingness and ability to assume the obligations of membership) and the sending of a letter of intent by the candidate’s foreign minister to the Alliance’s Secretary General. The process culminates in the Accession Protocol, which must be ratified by all members.

The first and last invocation of Article 5

Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty is the most famous and debated because it states: “The Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered a direct attack against all the Parties”. A provision that may seem simple and interventionist.
But it is not so simple. In fact, the article lays down a whole series of conditions and warnings, some of which are specified and described in the next provision. Indeed, the Treaty requires member states to assess the nature of the ‘armed attack’ in order to decide what ‘measures’ should be taken in response. A response that may not be military.
Article 5 also allows states to act “individually” in defence of an attacked ally. But any NATO response must be decided by the Council.
The article has only been invoked once, by the United States after 9/11, in response to the invasion of Afghanistan.
In that case, the Allies invoked Article 5 less than 24 hours after the terrorist attack, but it was not until 4 October that NATO launched Operation Eagle Assist at the request of the United States. It was the first and last time that NATO decided to launch a military operation based on Article 5 of the Treaty.


Grave breaches of international humanitarian law are considered war crimes. These include torture and inhuman treatment of prisoners, rape, attacks on civilians, unlawful deportation of civilians, hostage-taking and the use of child soldiers. In the case of serious violations of the Geneva Conventions, each state is obliged to prosecute the alleged perpetrators, extradite them to another state or refer them to the International Criminal Court for prosecution.