The main entrance of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels is easily recognizable from the motorway by its distinctive 30 flags and large steel NATO star sculpture. Photo courtesy of USNATO
By Tammy Nguyen
The new headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is housed in a brand new, gleaming all-glass building in north-east Brussels. Some have described NATO headquarters as home to more than 4,000 diplomats from 30 different countries, and the International Staff as an “embassy of many embassies”.
Here, more than 200 employees from the Departments of State, Defense and Homeland Security work to further NATO’s goal of ensuring the freedom and security of all allies. Founded in 1949, NATO was created after World War II to bring needed security to Europe. The idea was simple – members agreed to create an alliance centered on the concept of collective defense, meaning that an attack on one ally would be considered an attack on all allies. Originally, the alliance consisted of 10 European countries alongside the United States and Canada. Now with 30 members, NATO ensures peace and prosperity for almost a billion people in North America and Europe.
The United States Mission to NATO (USNATO) is unique in composition among diplomatic posts in that more than two-thirds of the mission personnel are from the Department of Defense, including uniformed personnel and civilians in the Office of the Defense Advisor, which is allied to the Office of the Secretary of Defense – and a separate military delegation led by a 3-star representative of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This unique staffing gives USNATO a distinctive role and perspective in shaping and implementing national security policy. Unlike most embassies, there is no consular section or economics section, and the administrative section is mainly staffed by the Ministry of Defence. The Office of the Public Affairs Advisor supports the entire Mission.
From the end of the Cold War, through 9/11 – when NATO invoked Article 5 for the first and only time – to Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, USNATO has been at the center of some of the world’s most significant foreign policy issues in recent decades .
“No institution has played a greater role in the history of the transatlantic relationship than the NATO alliance,” said USNATO Ambassador Julianne Smith. “Since its founding in 1949, it has served as the bedrock of transatlantic security, safeguarding our shared values and protecting each of its members from outside attack. The history of NATO is a remarkable story of solidarity and unity.”
Originally based in London and then Paris, NATO moved to Brussels in 1967. Over the next three decades, the alliance grew and required a new building to meet 21st-century standards and facilities. Finally, in 2018, Allies moved from its old headquarters across the street to a new and modern 101-acre campus. The current building visually represents fingers intertwined over a central rectangular space – called the Agora – to reflect the unity of the Alliance. The NATO headquarters offers space for around 4,000 people on an area of almost 63 hectares. NATO personnel enjoy the use of a large athletic facility, dedicated family rooms and programs, commercial and medical facilities, and even weekly food trucks.
There are three US diplomatic missions in Brussels. In addition to USNATO, the US Mission to the European Union and the US Embassy in the Kingdom of Belgium are based in the Belgian capital. Brussels’ origins date back more than a thousand years as a small rural settlement on the Senne, but the city has seen many revolutions and renaissances and is now home to many of the world’s multilateral organizations. The city is made up of a diverse community of people representing almost every nationality on earth. Outside of work, USNATO employees and their families can enjoy the city’s many museums, historic sites and modern attractions. Residents can visit the first covered shopping arcade in Europe, the palace of Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, stunning Art Nouveau houses and the Atomium, a huge atomic-like structure originally created for the 1958 World’s Fair. Brussels’ eclectic museum collection includes the Musical Instruments Museum, the BOZAR Center for Fine Arts, the Belgian Comics Center and Autoworld (where the Tri-Missions held this year’s 4th of July party). In the summer, many attend outdoor concerts, park hangouts, street markets, or stroll through the city’s many green spaces. Brussels offers a variety of hobbies, interests and tastes: especially those who enjoy world-famous chocolate, waffles, fries and Belgian beer.
Working in a multilateral organization like NATO is a unique diplomatic experience. All decisions in NATO are made by consensus, meaning all members must agree for a proposal to move forward. Ambassadors – also known as Permanent Representatives – meet two to four times a week in the North Atlantic Council (NAC), NATO’s most important decision-making body, which can also be convened at ministerial or Heads of State or Government level. The NAC oversees the political and military process related to security issues affecting the Alliance. USNATO personnel manage problem portfolios, cover regional areas, track events, and report their analysis to the Ambassador and Washington.
While the hours can be long, the payoff is clear.
“Not a day goes by that I don’t feel like I’m contributing to something important and that my contributions are appreciated,” said Clint Carroll, a staff member in the Mission’s public affairs department for the past five years military connection. “The work is important not just for me, but for anyone who upholds Western democratic values, and it’s interesting to witness.”
At the June 2022 Madrid Summit, where Allies made the historic decision to invite Finland and Sweden to join NATO, the Alliance also updated its Strategic Concept, a blueprint for how NATO is addressing threats and challenges in its evolving security environment in the coming time will encounter years. This new Strategic Concept sets out how the Alliance will respond to aggressive actions by Russia, systemic challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China, as well as transnational threats such as cyber threats and terrorism, and global issues such as climate change.
In addition to the day-to-day work of ensuring transatlantic security and responding to international crises, USNATO is home to many VIPs, including near-annual visits by POTUS, quarterly visits by the Secretary of State and Defense, numerous congressional delegations and other cabinet levels and White House officials representing the Allies frequently teach in special sessions of the NAC.
As the global security environment undergoes profound changes, USNATO is an unprecedented entity to serve on and work on a variety of pressing issues affecting the transatlantic community.
“We work on some of the highest-profile international security issues, help formulate our own interagency policy and then negotiate our positions with 29 allies,” political leader Michael Stieg said as he reflected on his three-year tour. Multilateral diplomacy can be challenging, but it is an amazing (and humbling) feeling to press the red button on the microphone to speak on behalf of the United States during a committee meeting.”
Tammy Nguyen is a Rangel Fellow with the US Mission to NATO.