In a half-century of existence, the European-Atlantic organisation has transformed itself from being a passive defence group, into actively policing a continent. The recent campaign in Kosovo refocused attention on one of the world's most enduring security organisations.
What is Nato?
Nato currently consists of 19 countries (see box). Unthinkable 20 years ago, but Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary - all former Warsaw Pact countries - joined earlier this year.
Conceived in the post-WWll uncertainty, Nato was formally set up on 4 April 1949 at a ceremony in Washington. There were 12 founder member nations - 10 European and two North American: Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Iceland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, the UK and the USA. Greece and Turkey joined in 1952, the Federal Republic of Germany in 1955 and Spain in 1982.
Nato's main purpose was that "an armed attack against one or more of them. . . shall be considered an attack against them all". So the group aimed to provide common defence through a political and military alliance.
France's membership was strained from 1958 as President de Gaulle criticised the domination of the US. In 1966, France formally withdrew and required Nato forces and headquarters to leave. But France remained a political member in case of "unprovoked aggression", and military co-ordination has increased.
What has Nato done in 50 years?
Nato members aimed to provide mutual support through all world events, from the from the Suez crisis in 1955-56 to the Cuban missile crisis in 1962.
Nato has changed to become a pro-active force
During the Cold War, East versus West really meant Warsaw Pact countries versus Nato. But post-Cold War, Nato has transformed its role, aiming to promote peacekeeping and stability. In 1991 it issued a Declaration of Peace and Co-operation, aiming for less reliance on nuclear weapons, and greater involvement in international crisis management.
It has kept open the door to membership to other countries and in 1994, a Partnerships for Peace programme invited former Soviet and East European states to join.
Why did Nato bomb Kosovo?
As Western alarm over treatment of the Albanians in Kosovo grew, US envoy Richard Holbrooke was sent to try to negotiate peace. On March 23, US President Clinton ordered him to leave, after President Milosevic refused to accept an autonomy plan for Kosovo's Albanians secured by Nato troops. Nato Secretary-General Javier Solana ordered air strikes after the failure of the diplomatic efforts.
German soldiers have been in action for the first time since WWII
Nato's leaders said they saw air attacks as the only way of halting the repression, but the action in Kosovo did mark the first time the alliance had taken action in a sovereign state.
Under the terms of membership, each Nato country must encourage "peaceful and friendly international relations" in a number of ways, including "strengthening their free institutions" and "promoting conditions of stability and well-being".
Military action in the Balkans has marked a turning point in Nato's history. At the end of 1995, for the first time ever, Nato organised a multi-national Implementation Force (IFOR), under a United Nations mandate, to implement the military aspects of the Bosnian Peace Agreement.
This kind of action by the alliance would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.
Where might Nato expand next?
Nato says the entry of Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary is just a beginning and that it will welcome further expansion. Slovenia, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovakia, Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia all hope to join. But Russia is alarmed by the expansion of such a large Western-based alliance, and some observers believe it will cease to be militarily effective if it allows too many members.
Advocates of enlargement say Nato is spreading stability throughout Europe; critics complain it is simply drawing new lines of confrontation, and creating new instability.