EPISODE II - The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation

Today, with more than 24 million recorded cases of Coronavirus in the world, let’s continue our journey in analysing the behaviour of Regional International Organisations in the fight against Covid-19.

The North Atlantic Treaty

On April 4, 1949, the Atlantic Treaty was signed in Washington, giving the birth to the first political-military organisation with collective defence purposes for the benefit of all Member States. The historical moment should not be overlooked: NATO was born as a counterpart to a possible threat by the Soviet Union towards the Western States, a situation that would have been deeply rooted in the years of the Cold War. Today, NATO counts 30 member States belonging to Europe and North America.

Since the Preamble, the Treaty affirms its faith in the principles of the United Nations Charter, engaging itself in the peaceful resolution of international disputes involving a member of the organisation, compatibly with the provisions of the Charter (Article 1) and recognising the UN Security Council’s primary role in maintaining international peace and security (Article 7). The real fulcrum of the Atlantic Alliance, however, is to be found in Article 5 of the Treaty: an armed attack against one or more of the Member States is considered an attack against them all, causing the mobilisation of the entire organisation which will act individually or in concert with others, also by resorting to the use of force, in exercise of the right of individual or collective self-defence, in compliance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

In practice, Article 5 has only been recalled once during the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. As a political and military organisation, NATO has a dual structure. Political bodies are, respectively, the Atlantic Council, a decision-making body assisted by the Heads of State and Government, the defence and foreign ministers of the States Parties, the Parliamentary Assembly, which brings together the members of the legislative bodies of the States Parties, and the Secretary General, an individual body with the nationality of one of the Member States, which represents the organisation externally and is supported by a Deputy Secretary-General.

The main military bodies are the Military Committee which, composed of representatives of the Member States, decides the military strategy and guides the operations of the organisation, the Allied Command Transformation (ACT), which deals with doctrine and training of the NATO personnel, and the Allied Command Operations (ACO) which represents the command of operations in its various branches.

NATO today

After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, there was much discussion about the reason for the Organisation, originally born in the aftermath of the Second World War, with strong doubts about its relevance in the contemporary world, about its original political-military structure and on the content of the Treaty as stipulated in 1949.

In this regard, it must be said that NATO has never ceased to be an active organisation. From the 1990s onwards it has reaffirmed - in the words of the SG and in its actions - the aims of collective defence but also of cooperative security, crisis management, developing collaborative partnerships with other regional organisations and civil society actors. With the strong will to distance itself from serious operational errors committed in recent history - of which the mention of the air strike in Kosovo carried out in the absence of an explicit authorisation by the UN Security Council, in violation of the jus cogens rules and the ban on the use of force pursuant to art. 2, par. 4 of the UN Charter, cannot be missing - NATO aims to give itself a new face, preferring dialogue and cooperation. On the other hand, the same Article 1 of the Treaty reaffirms the commitment to settle any international disputes by peaceful means, explicitly referring to Article 52 of the UN Charter.

In this way, by re-organising and re-planning its activities in conjunction with the evolution of times and the onset of new crises or threats to the security of its Member States, NATO has been equipping with documents in which the strategic objectives of the organisation are outlined, to be read in a complementary way to the founding treaty. The current Strategic Concept was approved by the Heads of State and Government during the Lisbon Summit in November 2010. In addition to renewing the commitment to mutual defence among member States, the document highlights the Alliance's commitment to crisis prevention and management, as well as in the post-conflict phase, and recognises the importance of collaboration with other partners such as the European Union, the United Nations or Russia. Cooperation with external actors is publicised as a necessary way to implement a global approach to crises: in addition to the aforementioned, the EU, the UN and its agencies, the OSCE, the World Bank and the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Organisation for Migration, the African Union, Interpol and the League of Arab States are included in the political dialogue. This list should be sufficient to indicate how NATO's action has been expanded to multiple sectors.

NATO response to Covid-19

On 2 April 2020, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg, in the press conference following the virtual meeting held with the NATO foreign ministers, released a joint statement in response to the crisis caused by the coronavirus epidemic. With this declaration, NATO makes itself officially available to support the emergency management by operating on a strictly civilian level, albeit certainly using military means. In particular, the SG instructed General Wolters to coordinate NATO's action in the delivery of medical supplies and in responding to help requests received from member States. In doing this, the Atlantic Organisation has been acted through a basic mechanism set up to deal with civil emergencies in the Euro-Atlantic area: the "Euro-Atlantic Disaster Response Coordination Centre", otherwise known by the acronym EADRCC. The Centre coordinates the supply and aid demand following natural or man-made disasters, working with NATO Allies, partner countries and other organisations, such as the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs OCHA, which always maintains a primary role in responding to humanitarian emergencies. The EADRCC also makes use of the advice of civilian experts in matters relating to the ongoing crisis. From 23 March, international assistance was requested in the management of the pandemic (between allied and non-allied countries) by Ukraine, Spain, Italy, Montenegro, Albania, North Macedonia, the Republic of Moldova, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Colombia, Slovenia, Afghanistan, Bulgaria, Tunisia, and Iraq. It is also possible to look at the reports and overviews of humanitarian assistance by individual countries through the EADRCC, with in detail the quantity and types of medical material delivered. An appeal was launched by NATO Chief Scientist Dr Bryan Wells in April for the proposal of solutions and ideas to be put into practice in a context of absolute collaboration, in order to face Covid-19 in the best possible way. The scientific and technological collaboration program includes: providing correct information, supervising the safety of personnel involved in rescue operations, enhancing technological means, sharing scientific knowledge, all without neglecting ethics in any military relief operations.

The other area in which NATO took a stand during the pandemic is the fight against disinformation. The organisation had been embarked on this campaign against Russia's propaganda since the "illegal annexation of Crimea" in 2014. It then had been continuing to engage in this cause at the 2018 Brussels Summit and the London meeting of Heads of State and of government in 2019. Certainly, on the occasion of the pandemic, the battle waged in defence of correct information took on a leading role, given the seriousness of the consequences on the state of public health. NATO has been undertaken a real study campaign on the modus operandi of subjects who spread fake-news, shedding light on the involvement of state actors in conveying information, or identifying the same techniques common to different case studies, ranging from the creation of a fake account from which to publish false posts and interviews to use a simple and often low quality communication language, that often triggers an emotional reaction in the user. The Atlantic Organisation also makes known suggestions for identifying and countering disinformation, such as the recommendation to always check the sources, the truthfulness of the facts through a more scrupulous research before sharing the post and, possibly, to use the procedures indicated by the social platforms to combat disinformation.

On 8 July NATO Policy Directors for Civil Preparedness held a video conference meeting welcoming what was agreed by the defence ministers of NATO countries in the meeting on 18 June, on the implementation of the NATO system in the energy, telecommunications and chain security sectors supply in order to be able to systematically deal with a second pandemic wave.


NATO has a unique political-military legal structure. The challenges of the contemporary world are varied and very different from those faced at the time of its establishment in the post-World War II environment. Its first objective remains the security of its member States, and this led NATO to continuously evolve in the means and in the way it operates. The intrinsic political nature of the organisation may be its strengths and weaknesses, since the history of its actions also includes mistakes paid in terms of human lives.

However, we must recognise the tireless activity of the organisation in the protection of the members States, as well as the renewed spirit of collaboration with various external partners for the settlement of cross-border situations in order to avoid the outbreaks of new crisis.

It can be said that NATO is doing its part in the fight against Covid-19: all that remains is to watch.

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