• Contemporary Conflict
  • Age 13 to 14 (KS3)
  • Age 14-16 (KS4)

The North Atlantic Treaty was signed in 1949 and designed to provide greater collective defence and European military co-operation in the aftermath of the Second World War. The 12 countries that signed it created the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, or NATO, to discuss political and military decisions with the aim to make collective decisions by consensus. As of 2024, NATO has 32 members and more than 40 partnerships with other countries. While the organisation maintains its original purpose of European relations and co-operation, its purpose has shifted since its first inception and now focuses on a variety of global issues from terrorism to climate change. 

Contents

  1. NATO and the Modern World 1991-present day
  2. Student discussion points
  3. Classroom Activity: Mock NATO Summit
  4. Glossary of Key Terms
  5. Timeline of Key Events

What is the role of NATO after the Cold War and in the 21st century?

Accommodation for the principle staff at the International Security Force headquarters in Kabul, 2002.
IWM (LAND-02-012-1478)
Accommodation for the principle staff at the International Security Force headquarters in Kabul, 2002.
  • Explore current NATO membership and non-member partnerships.
  • Changes in strategy and focus through modern global issues. 
  • How does NATO function in today’s society?

NATO and the Modern World, 1991-present

A paratrooper passes a group of young children.
IWM (LAND_02_012_0865)
A paratrooper passes a group of young children in Kabul, Afghanistan during an ISAF patrol for Operation FINGAL. This operation was aimed to assist the interim administration of security and stability.

With the end of the Cold War, one of NATO’s original purposes had been consolidated into political integration and the end of the Eastern Bloc threat. However, with the end of the Soviet Union, NATO’s new mandate was to deter the rise of militant nationalism and continue to provide security and encourage democracy.  In 1991 the NATO allies established the North Atlantic Cooperation Council, renamed to the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997. This forum created an open dialogue between Central Europe, East Europe, and Central Asia for joint consultations. These countries later became full members of NATO, or remained as Partner nations, as countries around the world began to see NATO as an integral instrument in their own aspirations of stability. 

However, almost as soon as this new cooperation was formed, Yugoslavia collapsed into a series of internal wars and conflicts, as its different states turned on each other. Although hesitant at first to be involved in the affairs of a non-member, the aggressive nature of the conflict forced NATO to act and fully support the work of the UN. In 1995 the Alliance took part in an air raid campaign that brought about the end of the conflict, and later committed troops to help the UN implement the Dayton Peace Agreement for self-sustaining peace.

Considering this conflict, the Organisation evolved its cooperation policy to the Partnership for Peace Programme in 1994, allowing non-member nations to share information and choose their level of involvement in the Alliance. This process allowed for 3 former partner states, and former Warsaw Pact member states Czechia, Hungary, and Poland, to become full members of NATO in 1999. Towards the end of the 20th century, conflicts in countries such as Bosnia and Kosovo demonstrated the need for NATO allies to further cooperate with nations outside the Alliance and offer continued support to nations struggling with unrest and conflict in order to keep security for NATO members and partners. 

A section of the twisted and rusted steelwork from the World Trade Centre, New York
IWM (EPH_10364)
A section of the twisted and rusted steelwork from the World Trade Centre, New York. You can see a section of this on display at IWM North.

However, in 2001 the world changed with a direct attack on a NATO member. After the 9/11 attacks in New York City, Washington DC and elsewhere in the USA by the terrorist group Al-Qaeda, Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, the clause guaranteeing collective defence and retaliation, was invoked for the first time. The need to overthrow the Taliban Regime in Afghanistan, which had supported and sheltered Al-Qaeda terrorists, authorised the deployment of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF), which was then governed by NATO from 2003. Subsequent attacks in Istanbul in 2003, Madrid in 2004 and London transport bombings in 2005, led to over a decade of NATO ally involvement and direct military intervention in Afghanistan. 

Blue elephant soft toy from Afghanistan.
IWM (EPH_10045)
ISAF (International Security Assistance Force operated by NATO) Elephant toy from Afghanistan. The elephants were given to children in northern Afghanistan as part of the NATO ‘hearts and minds’ operation.

The lasting impact of terrorist attacks, and the destabilising political situation elsewhere in Europe, saw NATO grow further, with Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia joining in 2004, Albania and Croatia in 2009, Montenegro in 2017, North Macedonia in 2020, Finland in 2023 and Sweden in 2024. With the realisation that military power and intervention was not enough to deter conflict, a new Strategic Concept was agreed in 2010 and again in 2024, ensuring that NATO was committed to dealing with stages of crisis before, during and after the event. 

With the annexation of the Crimea by Russia in 2014 and the full invasion of Ukraine by Russia in 2022, NATO’s role in international security has once again been tested. However, NATO has not actively sent troops into the conflict, instead focusing on supporting a partner without escalating a conflict further. 

NATO’s role in the 21st century has had to change and adapt to new threats and conflict on which the original treaty was not based upon. Issues such as the movement of people and refugees, advances in technologies causing threat from cyber-attacks, the dangers of misinformation through social media, and climate change, have caused the need for flexibility and adaptation for NATO. 

Student Discussion Points (Warm up for Classroom Activity)

  1.  Research and discuss the induction of a partnership system within NATO and why this could be seen as an important step in international cooperation. 
  2. Where does NATO and how could NATO fit into modern society?
  3. With an ever-growing number of new threats, does NATO and the reasons in which the original treaty was founded still leave a need for such Alliances to exist?
  4. Think about how many countries have joined NATO in the 21st century and why they have decided to join during this time. 

Classroom Activity: MOCK NATO SUMMIT- Rewrite the Treaty, have a say in your future!

This classroom activity is designed to engage critical thinking and encourage confidence in debate and discussion among students. The activity can be adapted to choose an event from the timeline or to discuss the below discussion points. 

The future of NATO and the world is in your hands!

The history of NATO is complex. NATO’s role in key global events has shaped the past and continues to shape our present…but what about the future?

This activity will allow your students to look at the current NATO Treaty, almost totally unaltered since 1949, and think about how this could be adapted to fit the modern world and current events. Discussing how the world has changed since 1949, allow your students to explore how the decisions they make as a NATO ally could impact climate change, current events and maybe how the future could be changed as a result! 

NATO Official Text: The North Atlantic Treaty, 4 April 1949
For this activity you can access a copy of the NATO treaty on the NATO website.

Suggestions for Classroom Activity

Ask the students to set out the classroom in a ‘debate style’.

  1. Place your students into pairs and give them a NATO member/partner nation. (To make it easier they could choose one of the founding NATO states)
  2. You can also give 2 students the responsibility of chairing the meeting. These students can take notes from the meeting, draft the manifesto, and monitor the debate to ensure all members are heard.
  3.  Give each student a copy of the treaty and allow them 5-10 minutes to analyse the source and make notes in their pairs. This is a complex document, encourage the students to focus on key points, words, and phrases. 
    1. Ask the students to think about the country they have been given and how their country has been involved in NATO since treaty was written.
    2. Ask them to discuss if the treaty is still relevant, which parts remain relevant and which parts they would change. 
    3. Ask them to consider the language used, what does this say about the treaty and does this fit into modern society? 

       

  4. Allow the students to discuss and debate their findings and challenge their own and each other’s thinking. Is the treaty in its current state still relevant? Can they work together to improve it for their nations? 
    1. The sky is the limit! Remind the students that NATO is not only involved in conflict, encourage them to think how NATO can support the effects of climate change, misinformation and the power of social media when considering their terms. 

       

  5. Ask the students to think of a point they most wish to change and why. Ask the chair to record this information to use later in the session. 

Encourage debate among the students through challenging their thinking.

  1. Do you think X nation would approve of this? 
  2. Why should the other nations consider your idea?
  3. Which nations have more influence and why?

Ask the students to formally assess the treaty and begin to draft which point they would like to see changed or added from their discussion. Ask them to consider the idea of Political Consultation and the important of collaboration and dialogue when making these changes. 

  • The students can change individual words of phrases, sentences, entire articles or even add their own! If all nations are in agreement, the chairs of the meeting can ensure all points are written down. Discuss the importance of cooperation when making decisions that affect everyone. 
  • Once the treaty is complete, ask the students to sign the document. 
  • Encourage an open discussion and time to reflect on the impact of the decisions they have made. 

This activity can also be run using an event from the past, such as the fall of the Berlin wall or the Cuban Missile Crisis. Using the same format, ask students to choose a nation of NATO from during the event and explore how NATO responded at the time analysing the treaty in detail. 

  • Ask the students to respond in real time to the event. 
  • Which nations were more heavily involved than others? 
  • What steps did NATO take and how would they have responded as NATO members? 
  • How would the students themselves reacted differently with the knowledge they have now? 
  • What did the aftermath look like?
  • How did these events inform the NATO of the future? 

Explore further

Symbol of NATO which is comprised of a 4-pointed star representing a compass.
IWM GOV 6771
Classroom Resource

NATO: The Origins of a Political and Military Alliance

This resource is designed to provide students with an overview of the establishment of NATO and NATO’s role in key past and current global events such as the Cold War with various discussion points and prompts. The discussion points will allow for critical thinking and analysis, exploring the years following the Second World War and the future of an alliance that was formed in the aftermath of a conflict that affected millions of lives. 

Berlin Wall in 1989 before it is torn down, you can see the chips that have been taken away by the public.
IWM (CT 1491)
Classroom Resource

NATO and The Cold War

This resource explores a timeline of key events, decisions, and NATO involvements since 1949 to 1991. Focusing on the social, political, and economic impacts of NATO and how this organisation has shaped world events. Discussion points will allow for critical thinking and analysis, exploring the years following the Second World War.

Afghanistan

What Was the British Role in Afghanistan?

In 2014, British combat troops left Afghanistan. British forces had been in the country since 2001 when they were sent as part of a coalition tasked with intervening in Afghanistan to find the leaders of al-Qaeda after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Glossary of Key Terms

The formation of NATO and the wide history of the Cold War can be a difficult subject to untangle. The definitions provided here are not all encompassing but give an indication as to some of the key terminologies and phrases.

Alliances and Terms

Key TermMeaning
NATONorth Atlantic Treaty Organisation, formed in 1949. Initial states comprised of Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxemburg, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, United Kingdom, and United States. Concerned with the security of the member nations across both sides of the Atlantic. 
Warsaw PactIn opposition to the rearmament and induction of West Germany into NATO, the Warsaw Pact was a military alliance of communist countries, created by the Soviet Union and signed along with East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria.
United NationsAn intergovernmental organisation that was established in 1945 to promote peace and security and to cooperate on various global issues.
Member Nation/StateHas signed the treaty in question and agrees to the principles of the treaty. 
NATO PartnersNATO pursues dialogue and cooperation with partners on a wide range of political and security-related issues. 
Political ConsultationUnder Article 4 of NATO agreement, all NATO decisions that incur military or political action are made by consensus after discussion and consultation among member countries. 
Massive RetaliationAlso known as massive response or massive deterrence this is a military doctrine and nuclear strategy in which a state commits itself to retaliate in much greater force in the event of an attack. 
Flexible ResponseA military reaction that can be easily modified to respond to altered circumstances. 
DétenteAn easing of hostility or strained relations, especially between countries. 

Events, Conferences, and Political Actions

Key TermsMeaning
Potsdam ConferenceFormally divided Germany and Austria into 4 Zones of Occupation between Great Britian, France, United States and the Soviet Union. It was also agreed that the German capital Berlin would be divided into 4 similar zones.
Marshall PlanPresident Truman created the European Recovery Program aimed to provide foreign aid to Western Europe, promising to help any country facing Communist takeover.
CominformThe Soviet Union created the Communist Information Bureau which is responsible for the creation of the Eastern Bloc.
Berlin BlockadeThe first hostile act of the Cold War, the Soviet Union cut all road, rail and water transport links to West Berlin in 1948. The people living in this area had no access to food and faced starvation.
Berlin AirliftIn response to the Berlin Blockade, food and fuel was brought to the people of West Berlin by UK and USA aircraft, this exercise was known as the Berlin Airlift.
Cold WarAn ongoing political rivalry between the US and USSR and their respective allies that developed after the Second World War. 

Political Groups and Ideologies

Key TermMeaning
IdeologiesA system of ideas and ideals, especially one which forms the basis of economic or political theory or policy. 
RegimeAn authoritarian approach to governing a state. 
IsolationismA policy of remaining apart from the affairs or interests of other groups, especially the political affairs of other countries.  
DemocracyA system of government by the whole population or all eligible members of a state are typically through elected representatives. 
LiberalismThe holding of political views that are socially progressive and promote social welfare.
NationalismIdentification with one’s own nation and support for its interests, especially to the exclusion or detriment of the interests of other nations.  
CommunismA theory or system of social organisation in which all property is owned by the community and each person contributes and receives according to their ability and needs. 
AlliesA state formally cooperating with another for military or other purpose. 
Soviet/Soviet UnionThe elected governmental council concerning Communism, born in Russia.
USSRThe Union of Soviet Socialist Republics consisted of Russia and 14 surrounding countries from 1922- 1991. 
Eastern BlocAlso known as the Communist Bloc was the communist states of Central and Eastern Europe as well as satellite nations in support of the Soviet Union such as Asia, Africa, and South America during the Cold War, 1947-1991. 
Al-QaedaA militant Islamic fundamentalist group.
TalibanA militant organisation with an ideology comprising of Islamic fundamentalism. 

Timeline of key events (1991 - 2024)

Please be advised that this timeline is not intended to detail every event in the history of the formation of NATO and the Cold War. It provides context by highlighting some of the key events which led to its formation and subsequent events.

DateEvent
1 July 1991The Warsaw Pact ends.
25 December 1991Premier Gorbachev resigns. 
26 December 1991Russia formally recognises the end of the Soviet Union. 
1991NATO establishes the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council.
1991A series of ethnic wars and independence movements begin to take place in former Yugoslavia. 
1994The Partnership for Peace programme is brought into place, formalising the non-member partnership system within NATO.
1999Three former partner states, Czechia, Hungary, and Poland become members of NATO.
11 September 2001Attacks are carried out by terrorist group al-Qaeda though hijacked commercial airlines. The planes were crashed purposefully into the Twin Towers in NY, the Pentagon and into a field in Pennsylvania, bound for the capital Washington DC. This caused 2996 deaths. 
15 and 20 November 2003Separate bombing attacks are carried out across Istanbul targeting synagogues and industry. The attack was orchestrated by al-Qaeda. 
11 March 2004A series of coordinated near simultaneous attacks carried out by al-Qaeda take place across the Madrid train system.
2004Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia become NATO members. 
7 July 2005In a string of attacks, 4 devices were detonated across the London transport system targeting tubes and a bus.
2009France rejoins NATO’s military command structure. Albania and Croatia become NATO members. 
2014Russia invades and annexes Crimea. NATO responds through aid and sanctions.
2020Albania joins NATO
2022Russia invades Ukraine. NATO responds through sanctions, cyber defence, aid for the people and Ukrainian army but does not commit troops to the conflict. 
2023Finland joins NATO.
2024Sweden joins NATO.