NATO is an alliance of sovereign nations and its decision-making body is the North Atlantic Council. As such, the Council, which decides by consensus, establishes NATO’s political guidelines, provides political leadership of operations, adopts NATO’s budgets and, in general terms, makes all the decisions necessary for the smooth running of the Alliance. It meets at the level of Heads of State and Government (summits), Ministers (ministerial meetings), and - at least once a week - at the level of the Permanent Representatives (i.e. Ambassadors) of the nations.
The Council’s discussions are prepared by specialized committees (dealing with political issues and partnerships, defence planning, operations, etc) and are chaired by the NATO Secretary General (who is traditionally European). The Secretary General is responsible for organizing consultations and work among the nations, facilitating consensus, and ensuring that the Council’s decisions are implemented and followed up. Mr Anders Fogh Rasmussen has held this post since 2009; his term will expire on 31 July 2014. He is assisted in his duties by the Deputy Secretary General (since February 2012, Mr Alexander Vershbow), who, in particular, is authorized to chair the Council in his absence.
The Secretary General is assisted in his work by the International Staff, of which he is the head. The International Staff consists of about 1200 people and is divided into several divisions (Political Affairs and Security Policy, Defence Policy and Planning, Operations, Defence Investment, Emerging Security Challenges, Public Diplomacy and Executive Management), each of which is headed by an Assistant Secretary General (see the International Staff organizational chart). A reform of the International Staff, as part of the overall reform of NATO launched at the Lisbon Summit in 2010, is currently under discussion.
Under the political authority of the North Atlantic Council, the Military Committee represents the highest military authorities of the NATO nations (Chiefs of Defence Staff).
It submits to the Council the assessments and analyses it deems to be useful, as well as military options and plans as requested. The Military Committee supervises the military concepts and doctrines and gives instructions to the strategic commands, the Allied Command Operations (ACO) and the Allied Command Transformation (ACT). Its Chairman is the Alliance’s military spokesman. Traditionally a former chief of defence staff of one of the Allies, he is elected by the Allied chiefs of staff for a three-year term. General Knud Bartels (Denmark) has occupied this post since January 2nd 2012.
The Military Committee is supported by the International Military Staff (about 500 people) in the preparation of situation assessments as well as studies and analyses of any document which is to be discussed there.
The NATO command structure consists of two strategic commands, ACO and ACT, led respectively by the Supreme Allied Commander Europe (SACEUR, traditionally an American) and the Supreme Allied Commander Transformation (SACT).
SACEUR’s staff HQ is the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE) in Mons, Belgium. ACO is responsible for force preparation and for the planning and conduct of operations led or planned by NATO. In addition to a group responsible for information and communication systems, it includes two operational-level HQs (Joint Force Commands, in Brunssum and Naples), and a command for each of the three components - land, air and maritime. The SACEUR post is currently held by General Philip M. Breedlove.
For its part, SACT is responsible for the transformation of NATO’s military structures, forces, capabilities and doctrine, for adapting them to meet the security challenges facing the Alliance, and for the interoperability of the Allies’ armed forces. It is supported by an HQ staff in Norfolk, USA, and also by the Joint Analysis and Lessons Learned Centre (JALLC) in Portugal, the Joint Force Training Centre (JFTC) in Poland, and the Joint Warfare Centre (JWC) in Norway. Since France’s decision, in 2009, to fully inegrate NATO’s military structure, the post of SACT has been assigned to a French General (currently : General Denis Mercier).