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NATO vs UN: What Are The Differences?

If you follow international events and politics at all, you’ve probably heard NATO and the UN mentioned. Because they’re both talked about in contexts like war, national security, natural disasters, global politics, and human rights, it can be tricky to know how they’re different. In this article, we’ll cover what NATO and the UN are and their five major differences.

NATO and the UN both care about achieving world peace, but the organizations differ significantly in their history, purpose, membership, structure, and funding.

What are NATO and the UN?

NATO, which is an abbreviation of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, is an intergovernmental military alliance between 28 European members and two North American members. The UN, which stands for United Nations, is also an intergovernmental organization. It consists of 193 Member States. The two organizations share the common goal of international peace and security. Since the early 1990s, they’ve cooperated in many areas, including peace operations, counter-terrorism, protecting children in armed conflict, disaster relief, and more. Because of how complex international politics and security issues are today, NATO and the UN must collaborate when they can.

What are the differences between NATO and the UN?

Despite sharing the goal of international peace and security, there are major differences between NATO and the UN. Understanding the differences can help explain why the two organizations do what they do and what should be expected of them.

NATO vs. UN: their history

WWII weakened Western’s Europe military and economy. The Soviet Union, however, had gained control of Central and Eastern European states. While the western Allies and the Soviet Union had cooperated during the war, this relationship broke down. The world watched with growing concern as communism threatened elected governments. The United States, which had become increasingly involved in global politics, provided aid to Europe through the Marshall Plan. This helped stabilize the economy, but Europe needed military cooperation and security. In 1949, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed. Article 5 read: “an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America…shall be considered an attack against them all.” In the event of an attack, Allies could respond with armed force. Following fears about nuclear war, the alliance now known as NATO established a military structure. Since its founding, NATO has served as a defense and political organization in increasingly complex times.

Like NATO, the UN was founded in response to WWII, but it was founded earlier in 1945. The process began in 1942 when representatives from 26 Allied nations signed the “Declaration by United Nations.” This was the first official use of the term. In 1945, 50 countries met in San Francisco for the United Nations Conference on International Organization. They referred to proposals brought up in the Atlantic Charter, the Yalta Agreement, and so on. International organizations had existed before, but had limited power. The goal of this new international organization was to prevent something as awful as WWII from ever happening again. The delegates drafted the 111-article Charter of the United Nations (along with the Statute of the International Court of Justice) in June 1945. In October, the UN officially became a reality. In 1948, the UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which recognized inherent human rights and paved the way for how we understand human rights today.

NATO vs. UN: their purposes

While both NATO and the UN want global peace, the organizations use different methods. NATO focuses on the freedom and security of members. This is accomplished through political and military means. On the political side, NATO promotes democratic values, but it also offers consultation and cooperation on defense and other security issues. The goal is to prevent conflict, but if diplomacy fails, NATO has the military power to engage in “crisis-management” operations. Crisis management is a fundamental security activity for NATO that involves both military and non-military measures before, after, and during conflicts. NATO doesn’t have its own armed forces, but instead depends on its members for its permanent, integrated command structure. Because of this, NATO is considered a political and military organization.

While UN Security Council resolutions can authorize the deployment of military personnel, the UN is not a military organization. It has no permanent military. Since 1948, the Security Council has deployed military personnel for activities such as protecting civilians, monitoring disputed borders, providing election security, providing security across conflict zones, and assisting with training and support. The UN’s main purposes, however, are “maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations and promoting social progress, better living standards, and human rights.” Compared to NATO’s focus on member security, the UN has a much broader mandate that strives to be as independent and impartial as possible.

NATO vs. UN: their membership

NATO has fewer members than the UN. When NATO was founded in 1949, there were just 12 members: France, Belgium, Denmark, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Iceland, Portugal, Italy, the UK, Canada, and the United States. Today, there are 30 members. Not just anyone can join NATO. Membership is open to any European state that can help keep the North Atlantic secure and advance the Treaty’s principles. The North Atlantic Council, which is NATO’s main political decision-making body, decides what countries are invited to join. There’s no voting, so all Allies have to reach a consensus. NATO also has partnerships with non-members in the Euro-Atlantic area and beyond. These non-member states work with NATO on security and political issues, but they don’t have decision-making power. At the time of writing, five partner countries (including Ukraine and Georgia) are hoping for NATO membership.

The UN doesn’t have geographical restrictions on membership. Membership is, according to the Charter, “open to all peace-loving States that accept the obligations contained in the United Nations Charter and, in the judgment of the Organization, are able to carry out these obligations.” If a State wants to join, it must first submit an application to the Secretary-General along with a letter saying it accepts the Charter’s obligation. The Security Council looks at the application and if 9 out of 15 agree, the Council will recommend admission. However, if any of the Council’s five permanent members – the UK, the US, China, France, or the Russian Federation – say no, the application won’t continue. If the Council does recommend a State, the General Assembly decides if they can join. There are currently 193 Member States.

NATO vs. UN: their structures

NATO has a civilian structure and a military structure. The civilian structure includes NATO headquarters, Permanent Representatives and National Delegations, and International Staff. The International Staff division has many divisions, including the Political Affairs and Security Policy Division, Operations Division, and the Emerging Security Challenges Division. The military structure consists of the Military Committee and International Military Staff, including Intelligence, Operations and Plans, and Cooperative Security. NATO also has organizations and agencies like Support, Programme Offices, Education and Training, and Science and Technology. About 4,000 people work full-time at NATO Headquarters.

Like all intergovernmental organizations, the UN has a complex structure. It’s made of six main organs: the General Assembly, the Security Council, the Economic and Social Council, the Trustee Council, the Secretariat, and the International Court of Justice. All are based in New York except the ICJ, which is at The Hague in the Netherlands. The UN also has several “specialized agencies,” including the World Bank and the World Health Organization (WHO), as well as funds and programs like UNICEF and the World Food Programme. Together, all these parts form the UN system. The UN also has a huge staff of around 44,000 worldwide.

NATO vs. UN: their funding

The last main difference between NATO and the UN is how they’re funded. With NATO, Allies can make direct and indirect contributions. All Allies make contributions on an agreed cost-share formula, which is based on Gross National Income. This means that the US pays the largest share (around 22%) while Germany pays the next largest (around 15%). Direct contributions finance NATO budgets and programs that benefit all members. Indirect contributions are the largest. They’re spent when Allies participate in NATO-led operations and – by volunteering their forces – take on the costs. Because NATO depends on their members, the organization recommends that members spend at least 2% of their GDP on armed forces. There’s no penalty if they don’t meet the goal. The Resource Policy and Planning Board manages NATO’S funding process, while the Budget Committee and Investment Committee implement it. In 2022, the civil budget was EUR 289.1 million. The military budget was EUR 1.56 billion.

The UN also has two funding methods: mandatory payments and voluntary contributions. When a country joins the UN, they agree to pay a percentage of the UN’s operating budget and peacekeeping budget. The amount is determined by a formula that begins with a country’s share of global gross national income. Adjustments are made based on things like debt and where a country falls relative to the average global income per head. It’s a confusing formula that’s often controversial, especially since it means the United States covers 22% of the UN’s general budget and 28% of the peacekeeping budget. Nations can also choose to donate more funds. Programs like the World Food Programme actually depend entirely on voluntary contributions. The UN system also accepts donations from anyone. In June of 2022, the General Assembly approved a $6.45 billion budget for 2022/2023 for peacekeeping.

About the author

Emmaline Soken-Huberty

Emmaline Soken-Huberty is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. She started to become interested in human rights while attending college, eventually getting a concentration in human rights and humanitarianism. LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, and climate change are of special concern to her. In her spare time, she can be found reading or enjoying Oregon’s natural beauty with her husband and dog.