NATO has come a long way from its original 12, mostly European, members huddled around the USA.
They were the self-styled defenders of the free world, ensuring their borders would never be overrun.
Some 60 years later there are 28 members, and the North Atlantic Alliance’s focus has broadened and changed to match the new threats facing it. The world has changed, and so has NATO.
Its first ever military intervention was 15 years ago in Bosnia. It was a turning point for the alliance, the first deployment of peacekeeping troops leading a multinational force, IFOR, of 60,000 men.
This first large-scale military deployment helped shape the post-cold war remodelling of NATO. Since then, there have been multiple missions around the world, mirroring the enlargement of the alliance, and in step with EU enlargement.
In 2004 the Baltic states, former Soviet republics, joined NATO, along with three satellite states, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Slovenia. They were joined last year by Albania and Croatia. Now 28 strong, NATO has grown eastwards towards the Russian border.
Following the 2001 al-Qaeda attacks on America another turning point was reached. The world order was turned upside-down and the new threat was from Islamic terrorism. Afghanistan became the priority.
Today NATO is spread far and wide in the world, with 135,000 deployed troops, 126,000 of which are in Afghanistan under the ISAF banner.
7,000 soldiers remain in Kosovo, where NATO has been involved since 1999, and a much smaller force remains in Iraq, engaged in training the new Iraqi army and police force.
Since 2001 Naval units have patrolled the Mediterranean in Operation Active Endeavour, and Ocean Shield is NATO’s anti-piracy fleet off the Horn of Africa. Logistics units are also assisting African Union peacekeepers in various African hotspots.
NATO has found itself having to take on a variety of new roles as the security challenges for the 21st century pile up. An originally defensive alliance has had to adapt to survive. In many places it is an essential support to UN missions, but NATO’s mandate is constantly questioned, and its freedom to act is often hampered, like for example in its ongoing attempts to capture fugitive Bosnian war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic.