The main entrance of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters in Brussels is easily noticeable from the highway by its signature 30 flags and large steel NATO Star sculpture. Photo courtesy of USNATO
By Tammy Nguyen
In a brand-new, gleaming all-glass building in northeast Brussels lies the new North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) headquarters. Home to more than 4,000 diplomats from 30 different countries, as well as the International Staff, some have called NATO headquarters an “embassy of many embassies.”
It is here that more than 200 personnel from the Departments of State, Defense, and Homeland Security work to advance NATO’s aim to guarantee the freedom and security of all Allies. Founded in 1949, NATO was created on the heels of 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 an attack on any ally would be considered an attack on all allies. Originally the Alliance comprised 10 European countries alongside the United States and Canada. Now 30 members strong, NATO ensures peace and prosperity for nearly a billion people across North America and Europe.
The U.S. Mission to NATO (USNATO) is unique among diplomatic posts in its composition, with more than two-thirds of Mission staff drawn from the Department of Defense, including uniformed personnel and civilians in the Office of the Defense Advisor—which liaises with 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 one-of-a-kind staffing gives USNATO a distinctive role and perspective on national security policymaking and implementation. Unlike most embassies, there is no consular section or economic section, and the management section is mostly staffed by the Department of Defense. The Office of the Public Affairs Advisor provides support to the entire Mission.
From the end of the Cold War to 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 heart of some of the most significant foreign policy issues in recent decades.
“No institution has played a bigger role in the history of the Transatlantic relationship than the NATO Alliance,” said USNATO Ambassador Julianne Smith. “Since its creation in 1949, it has served as the bedrock of Transatlantic security, protecting our shared values, and safeguarding each of its members against outside aggression. NATO’s story is a remarkable one of solidarity and unity.”
Originally headquartered in London and then in 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. In 2018, Allies finally moved across the road from its old headquarters 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 Alliance’s unity. NATO headquarters can accommodate approximately 4,000 people in its almost 63 acre space. Employees at NATO enjoy use of a large sports facility, dedicated family spaces and programs, commercial and medical facilities, and even weekly food trucks.
Brussels is home to three U. S. diplomatic missions. In addition to USNATO, the U.S. Mission to the European Union as well as the U.S. Embassy to the Kingdom of Belgium are based in Belgium’s capital city. Brussels’ origins date back more than a thousand years, as a tiny rural settlement on the Senne river, but the city has witnessed many revolutions and renaissances and now hosts many of the world’s multilateral organizations. The city is composed of a diverse community of people representing nearly every nationality on earth. When away from work, USNATO employees and their families can enjoy the city’s array of museums, historical 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 giant atom-like structure originally created for the 1958 World Expo. Brussels’ eclectic museum collection includes the Musical Instrument Museum, BOZAR Centre for Fine Arts, Belgian Comic Strip Center, and Autoworld (where the Tri-Missions hosted 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 caters to a variety of hobbies, interests, and tastes: especially those who enjoy world-renowned chocolate, waffles, fries, and Belgian beer.
Working at a multilateral organization like NATO is a unique diplomatic experience. All decisions at NATO are taken by consensus, meaning all members must agree for a proposal to advance. Two to four times a week, ambassadors—also called permanent representatives—meet in the North Atlantic Council (NAC), which is the principal decision-making body within NATO and can be convened at the ministerial or heads of state and government level as well. The NAC oversees the political and military process relating to security issues affecting the Alliance. USNATO staff manage issue portfolios, cover regional areas, track events, and report their analyses to the ambassador and to Washington.
While the hours can be long, the payoff is clear.
“Not a single day goes by that I don’t feel like I am contributing to something important and that my contributions are appreciated,” said Clint Carroll, who has worked for the past five years at the Mission in the public affairs section as the military liaison. “The work matters not just for me but for anyone who upholds western democratic values, and it is interesting to witness that.”
At the June 2022 Summit in Madrid, at which Allies took the historic decision to invite Finland and Sweden to join NATO, the Alliance also updated its Strategic Concept, a blueprint of how NATO will address threats and challenges in its evolving security environment over the coming years. This new Strategic Concept lays out how the Alliance will respond to Russia’s aggressive actions, the systemic challenges posed by the People’s Republic of China, as well as transnational threats such as cyber threats and terrorism, and global issues like climate change.
In addition to the daily work of ensuring Transatlantic security and responding to international crises, USNATO hosts many VIPs, including nearly annual visits from POTUS, quarterly visits from the secretary of state and secretary of defense, numerous congressional delegations, and other cabinet-level and White House officials who often brief Allies in special sessions of the NAC.
As the global security environment goes through a profound shift, USNATO is an unparalleled post to serve in and work on a variety of pressing issues affecting the transatlantic community.
“We work on some of the most high-profile international security issues, helping to formulate our own interagency policies and then negotiating our positions with 29 Allies,” said Political Officer Michael Stieg while reflecting on his three-year tour. Multilateral diplomacy can be challenging, but it is an amazing (and humbling) feeling when you push that red button on the microphone during a committee meeting to speak on behalf of the United States.”
Tammy Nguyen is a Rangel fellow at the U.S. Mission to NATO.