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NATO summit meetings

NATO summit meetings provide periodic opportunities for Heads of State and Government of member countries to evaluate and provide strategic direction for Alliance activities.

These are not regular meetings, but rather important junctures in the Alliance’s decision-making process. Summits have been used to introduce new policy, invite new members into the Alliance, launch major new initiatives and build partnerships with non-NATO countries.

From the founding of NATO in 1949 until today there have been twenty-two NATO summits. The last summit meeting to date was held in Bucharest, Romania, in April 2008. The next one will take place on 3-4 April in Strasbourg-Kehl and will also mark the Alliance’s 60th anniversary.

Summit meeting agendas

NATO summit meetings are effectively meetings of the North Atlantic Council (NAC) - the Alliance’s principal political decision-making body - at its highest level, that of Heads of State and Government.

Due to the political significance of summit meetings, agenda items typically address issues of overarching political or strategic importance. Items can relate to the internal functioning of the Alliance as well as NATO’s relations with external partners.

Major decisions

Many of NATO’s summit meetings can be considered as milestones in the evolution of the Alliance. For instance, the first post-Cold War summit was held in London, 1990, and outlined proposals for developing relations with Central and Eastern European countries. A year later, in Rome, NATO Heads of State and Government published a new Strategic Concept that reflected the new security environment. This document was issued as a public document for the first time ever. At the same summit, NATO established the North Atlantic Cooperation Council – a forum that officially brought together NATO and partner countries from Europe, Central Asia, and the Caucasus. 

The 1997 Madrid and Paris Summits invited the first countries of the former Warsaw Pact – Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland – to join NATO, and established partnerships between NATO and Russia and Ukraine, while the 2002 Prague Summit saw major commitments to improving NATO’s capabilities and transformed the military command structure.

These are just a few of the many decisions that have been taken over the decades (a full summary of all NATO summit meetings can be found under “Previous summit meetings”).

Implementation of summit decisions

Typically, the decisions taken at a summit meeting are issued in declarations and communiqués. These are public documents that explain the Alliance's decisions and reaffirm Allies’ support for aspects of NATO policies.

The decisions are then translated into action by the relevant actors, according to the area of competency and responsibility: the NAC’s subordinate committees and NATO’s command structure, which cover the whole range of NATO functions and activities.

Timing and location


Summits are convened upon approval by the NAC at the level of Permanent Representatives (or Ambassadors) or foreign and defense ministers. They are usually called on an ad hoc basis, as required by the evolving political and security situation.

From the founding of NATO until the end of the Cold War – over forty years – there were ten summit meetings. From 1990, their frequency increased considerably in order to address the changes brought on by the new security challenges. In total, twenty-two summit meetings have taken place between 1949 and 2008.


NATO summit meetings are held in one of the member countries, including Belgium, at NATO HQ. Members will volunteer to host a summit meeting and, after evaluating all offers, the NAC makes the final decision concerning the location.

In recent years, summit locations have held some thematic significance. For example, the Washington Summit of 1999 commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the signing of the North Atlantic Treaty in that city. Istanbul – which hosted a summit meeting in 2004 – connects Europe and Asia and is where the Alliance launched the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative. This initiative is intended to foster linkages between NATO and the broader Middle East.  

Previous summit meetings

The first time that Heads of State and Government from NATO countries met was at the actual signing ceremony of the North Atlantic Treaty on 4 April 1949, but this was not a summit meeting. The first summit meeting was held six years later, in Paris in 1957, and subsequent summits occurred at key junctures in the history of the Alliance.

Paris, 16-19 December 1957

Reaffirmation of the principle purposes and unity of the Atlantic Alliance; Improvements in the coordination and organization of NATO forces and in political consultation arrangements; Recognition of the need for closer economic ties and for cooperation in the spirit of Article 2 of the Treaty, designed to eliminate conflict in international policies and encourage economic collaboration (Report of the Committee of the Three on Non-Military Cooperation in NATO, the so-called report of the Three Wise Men).

Brussels, 26 June 1974

Signature of the Declaration on Atlantic Relations adopted by NATO foreign ministers in Ottawa on 19 June, confirming the dedication of member countries of the Alliance to the aims and ideals of the Treaty in the 25th anniversary of its signature; Consultations on East-West relations in preparation for US-USSR summit talks on strategic nuclear arms limitations.

Brussels, 29-30 May 1975

Affirmation of the fundamental importance of the Alliance and of Allied cohesion in the face of international economic pressures following the 1974 oil crisis; Support for successful conclusion of negotiations in the framework of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) (to result in 1975, in the signing of the Helsinki Final Act).

London, 10-11 May 1977

Initiation of study on long-term trends in East-West relations and of a long-term defence programme (LTDP) aimed at improving the defensive capability of NATO member countries.

Washington D.C., 30-31 May 1978

Review of interim results of long-term initiatives taken at the 1977 London Summit; Confirmation of the validity of the Alliance’s complementary aims of maintaining security while pursuing East-West détente; Adoption of 3% target for growth in defence expenditures.

Bonn, 10 June 1982

Accession of Spain; Adoption of the Bonn Declaration setting out a six-point Programme for Peace in Freedom; Publication of a statement of Alliance’s goals and policies on Arms Control and Disarmament and a statement on Integrated NATO Defence.

Brussels, 21 November 1985

Special meeting of the North Atlantic Council for consultations with President Reagan on the positive outcome of the US-USSR Geneva Summit on arms control and other areas of cooperation.

Brussels, 2-3 March 1988

Reaffirmation of the purpose and principles of the Alliance (reference to the Harmel Report on the Future Tasks of the Alliance published in 1967) and of its objectives for East-West relations; Adoption of a blue print for strengthening stability in the whole of Europe through conventional arms control negotiations.

Brussels, 29-30 May 1989

Declaration commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Alliance setting out Alliance policies and security objectives for the 1990s aimed at maintaining Alliance defence, introducing new arms control initiatives, strengthening political consultation, improving East-West cooperation and meeting global challenges; Adoption of a comprehensive Concept of Arms Control and Disarmament.

Brussels, 4 December 1989

Against the background of fundamental changes in Central and Eastern Europe and the prospect of the end of the division of Europe, US President Bush consults with Alliance leaders following his summit meeting with President Gorbachev in Malta. While the NATO summit meeting is taking place, Warsaw Pact leaders denounce the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia and repudiate the Brejhnev Doctrine of limited sovereignty.

London, 5-6 July 1990

Publication of the London Declaration on a Transformed North Atlantic Alliance, outlining proposals for developing cooperation with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe across a wide spectrum of political and military activities including the establishment of regular diplomatic liaison with NATO.

Rome, 7-8 November 1991

Publication of several key documents: the Alliance’s new Strategic Concept, of the Rome Declaration on Peace and Cooperation and of statements on developments in the Soviet Union and the situation in Yugoslavia.

Brussels, 10-11 January 1994

Launching of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) initiative; All North Atlantic Cooperation Council partner countries and members of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) are invited to participate; Publication of the Partnership for Peace Framework Document; Endorsement of the concept of Combined Joint Task Forces (CJTFs) and other measures to develop the European Security and Defence Identity; Reaffirmation of Alliance readiness to carry out air strikes in support of UN objectives in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Paris, 27 May 1997

Signing of the Founding Act on Mutual Relations, Cooperation and Security between the Russian Federation and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. The Founding Act states that NATO and Russia are no longer adversaries and establishes the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council.

Madrid, 8-9 July 1997

Invitations to the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to begin accession talks; Reaffirmation of NATO’s Open Door Policy; Recognition of achievement and commitments represented by the NATO Russia-Founding Act; Signature of the Charter on a Distinctive Partnership between NATO and Ukraine; First meeting of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council at summit level that replaces the North Atlantic Cooperation Council; An enhanced Partnership for Peace; Updating of the 1991 Strategic Concept and adoption of a new defence posture; Reform of the NATO military command structure; Special  Declaration on Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Washington D.C., 23-24 April 1999

Commemoration of NATO's 50th Anniversary; Allies reiterate their determination to put an end to the repressive actions by President Milosevic against the local ethnic Albanian population in Kosovo; The Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland participate in their first summit meeting; Adoption of the Membership Action Plan; Publication of a revised Strategic Concept; Enhancement of the European Security and Defence Identity within NATO; Launch of the Defence Capabilities Initiative; Strengthening of Partnership for Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, as well as the Mediterranean Dialogue; Launch of the Weapons of Mass Destruction Initiative.

Rome, 28 May 2002

NATO Allies and the Russian Federation create the NATO-Russia Council, where they meet as equal partners, bringing a new quality to NATO-Russia relations. The NATO-Russia Council replaces the NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council.

Prague, 21-22 November 2002

Invitation of Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia to begin accession talks; Reaffirmation of NATO’s Open Door Policy; Adoption of a series of measures to improve military capabilities (The Prague Capabilities Commitment, the NATO Response Force and the streamlining of the military command structure); Adoption of a Military Concept for Defence against Terrorism; Decision to support NATO member countries in Afghanistan; Endorsement of a package of initiatives to forge new relationships with partners.

Istanbul, 28-29 June 2004

Participation of seven new members to the event (Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia); Expansion of NATO’s operation in Afghanistan by continuing the establishment of Provincial Reconstruction Teams throughout the country; Agreement to assist the Iraqi Interim Government with the training of its security forces; Maintaining support for stability in the Balkans; Decision to change NATO’s defence-planning and force-generation processes, while strengthening contributions to the fight against terrorism, including WMD aspects; Strengthening cooperation with partners and launch of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative with countries from the broader Middle East region.

Brussels, 22 February 2005

Leaders reaffirm their support for building stability in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq, and commit to strengthening the partnership between NATO and the European Union.

Riga, 28-29 November 2006

Review of progress in Afghanistan in light of the expansion of ISAF to the entire country and call for broader international engagement; Confirmation that the Alliance is prepared to play its part in implementing the security provisions of a settlement on the status of Kosovo; Measures adopted to further improve NATO’s military capabilities; NATO Response Force declared operational; Comprehensive Political Guidance published. Initiatives adopted to deepen and extend relations with partners; Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia invited to join Partnership for Peace.

Bucharest, 2-4 April 2008

At Bucharest, Allied leaders review the evolution of NATO’s main commitments: operations (Afghanistan and Kosovo); enlargement and the invitation of Albania and Croatia to start the accession process (the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia* will also be invited as soon as ongoing negotiations over its name have led to an agreement); the continued development of military capabilities to meet.  

Organizing and holding these events

NATO summit meetings are centred on the activities of the NAC. As with all meetings of the NAC, the Secretary General chairs the meetings and plays an important role in coordination and deliberations, as well as acting as the principal spokesman of the Alliance.

As with meetings at the levels of Permanent Representatives and ministers, the work of the NAC is prepared by subordinate committees with responsibility for specific areas of policy. Much of this work involves the Senior Political Committee (SPC), consisting of Deputy Permanent Representatives, sometimes "reinforced" by national experts. In such cases it is known as the SPC(R). This committee has particular responsibility for issuing declarations and communiqués, including those published after a summit.

Other aspects of political work may be handled by the regular Political Committee, which is composed of Political Counsellors or Advisers from national delegations. Depending on the topic under discussion, the respective senior committee with responsibility for the subject assumes the leading role in preparing Council meetings and following up Council decisions.

Support to the Council is provided by the Secretary of the Council, who is also Director of the ministerial and summit meeting Task Forces. The Secretary of the Council ensures that NAC mandates are executed and its decisions recorded and circulated. A small Council Secretariat ensures the bureaucratic and logistical aspects of the Council’s work, while committee secretaries within the Divisions of the International Staff support the work of committees reporting to the NAC. 


NATO summit meetings normally involve member countries only. However, on occasion, and provided Allies agree, meetings can be convened in other formats although there is no formal obligation to hold such assemblies.

They include, for instance, meetings of Allied defence or foreign ministers, Heads of State and Government of countries belonging to the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, or conventions of the NATO-Russia Council or the NATO-Ukraine Commission. They can also include leaders from ISAF troop-contributing countries, as was the case at the Bucharest Summit. External stakeholders can also be involved. For instance President Karzai, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, EU Commission President Barroso, EU High Representative Solana, World Bank Managing Director Ms Okonjo-Iweala, and Japan’s Deputy Foreign Minister Sasae were also invited to attend the meeting in Bucharest.