NATO’s new headquarters here is more than just a building; it’s also a statement about the alliance’s future and philosophy.
The building is hosting today’s Military Committee meeting, and for most attendees it will be the first chance to see the inside of the building they have watched being built since 2010.
NATO leaders approved the new headquarters in 1999 at that year’s Washington summit. The summit marked the 50th anniversary of the founding of the alliance and the leaders made the decision to build a new headquarters even as some critics questioned the need for NATO.
Leaders created the alliance in 1949 so like-minded nations could band together against the threat from the Soviet Union. In 1949, Josef Stalin still ruled the Soviet Union, the government of which pledged to expand communism throughout the world.
Twelve nations — Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the United Kingdom and the United States — banded together committed to the principle enumerated in Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty — that an attack on any one country is an attack on all. NATO is a political and military alliance and the leaders chose Paris as its headquarters. General of the Army Dwight D. Eisenhower was NATO’s first supreme allied commander and Hastings Ismay, the first alliance secretary general.
The Soviets countered NATO with the Warsaw Pact, and the nations occupied by the Soviet Union had to become members.
In 1952, Greece and Turkey joined the alliance followed by West Germany in 1955 and Spain in 1982.
In 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle pulled his nation out of the integrated military structure of the alliance and said NATO had to leave French territory by April 1, 1967. The NATO headquarters at that time was located in Rocquencourt, France.
Belgium volunteered to host the alliance and construction on the new headquarters in Brussels began in September 1967.
That headquarters served the alliance through this day. It hosted generations of military and political leaders. They discussed deterrence, intelligence, operations, modernization and more.
There were always discussions of burden-sharing. There were always discussions of nuclear planning and NATO expansion. There were always discussions of alliance interoperability, alliance reactions and alliance capabilities. There were discussions of troops levels, readiness and training. There were discussions about noncombatant evacuation exercises. There were discussions of countering Soviet submarines, maintaining the logistics channel from the United States and Canada and how to fight an air war in the crowded skies over Europe.
And there were always discussions of alliance unity.
Soviet Union’s Demise
NATO unity was key. And when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989 and the Soviet Union officially dissolved in December 1991, the main reason was because the alliance nations stood together.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the nations of the Warsaw Pact did not want to ally with Russia. Rather, they wanted to join NATO and the European Union.
The alliance continued after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, but there were influential voices in North America and Europe wondering, why? The Soviet threat was gone, ran the reasoning. A military alliance in Europe was not needed and NATO should be disbanded.
After all, Russia was now almost an ally joining the alliance Partnership for Peace program and going into the Balkans with NATO forces following the Dayton Peace Accords. The NATO-Russia Council, established in 1997, seemed to point to a peaceful and prosperous future.
NATO intervened in the Balkans, stopping ethnic cleansing in Bosnia.
The alliance also recognized that building security in neighboring countries built peace in the rest of the world. Thus, the alliance launched the Mediterranean Dialogue in 1994. The program now involves Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.
NATO continued to chart a way forward, developing a membership action plan for alliance aspirants. Under that, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were the first countries that had been members of the Warsaw Pact to join NATO in 1999. The next “class” of aspirants was even bigger.
9/11 Terrorist Attacks
Then, came the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and the alliance exercised Article 5 for the first time in history. All the allies came to the aid of the United States in its time of need, and NATO approved its first out-of-area mission in Afghanistan.
The alliance, which had begun to change with the new security environment, accelerated its transformation. NATO added Bulgaria, Estonia, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Lithuania and Latvia as members in 2004, and followed that with Albania and Croatia in 2009 and Montenegro last year.
In 2008, Russia invaded the Georgian provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Russian troops still occupy the area. In 2014, pro-Russian unrest broke out in Ukraine, and Russia used this as an excuse to illegally annex Crimea, a part of Ukraine. Russian troops entered Eastern Ukraine, and the Donbass area has been a conflict zone ever since.
Russian actions are aimed at splitting NATO. The NATO nations located near Russia grew understandably nervous and the NATO summits in Wales and Warsaw saw a change in the deterrence policy of the alliance.
NATO now was not only operating in Afghanistan and the Balkans, but it was also deterring Russia.
NATO Remains Relevant Today
When NATO headquarters moved to Brussels in 1967 there were 15 nations in the alliance. When the leaders made the decision to build the headquarters, there were 19. Today, there are 29 NATO member nations and many other partner nations that have delegations and staffs here.
Officials broke ground for the new headquarters at the former Belgian airbase in 2010. The design of the headquarters reinforces the idea of alliance unity — the building is in the shape of interlocking fingers. The main space inside is called the Agora — an ancient Greek word meaning gathering place and the place where issues of the day were discussed.
During excavation for the new headquarters, builders found four unexploded bombs from World War II that had to be disposed of safely.
In 2012, the building was topped out, and in 2014 the glass facade was in place and sealed. NATO personnel started moving into the building in March, and it will be the site of NATO’s Brussels summit for alliance leaders in July.
The huge metal NATO compass rose sculpture that sat in front of the old headquarters made the move and is at the ceremonial entrance of the new headquarters. Around 4,000 personnel from all counties of the alliance and many partner nations now call the new building home.
(Follow Jim Garamone on Twitter: @GaramoneDoDNews)