What Do The Colors And Symbols Of The Flag Of NATO Mean?

The NATO flag features a white compass rose.

The flag of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is made up of a white compass rose symbol set in a dark blue field. The compass rose has four white lines emanating from the four cardinal points. This flag was adopted three years following the signing of the treaty and has remained an identifying symbol of the organization since 1953. The exact origins of the emblem are not clear although the basic design is attributed to a member of the International Staff. The symbols and colors of the flag carry political, regional, and cultural meanings.

History of the NATO Flag

After WWII, the Soviet Union posed a political threat to Western powers. These nations were forced to start the difficult task of overcoming the prevailing attitudes between countries that had different political structures, traditions, and cultures. They wanted to create a defensive alliance in which the nations would maintain their sovereignty. The North Atlantic Treaty was then signed following extensive diplomatic deliberations and consultations. NATO was effectively formed in April 1949 by 12 nations. The search for a flag design and an emblem to be used in the headquarters started three years later.

The newly-formed Information Policy Working Group, following several deliberations, proposed to the North Atlantic Council that a flag for the organization was necessary. The council adopted the proposal and detailed out their desire to have a flag that was both simple and striking. The intention of adopting the flag was to highlight the peaceful purpose of the treaty. These criteria saw multiple proposals being rejected until October 14, 1953, when the current NATO emblem was finally adopted. The decision was announced on October 28 by Hastings Ismay the first NATO’S Secretary General. During the announcement, Ismay elaborated on the symbolism behind the selected design. The flag was hoisted for the first time on November 9, 1953, in Paris at the opening ceremony of the Atlantic Exhibition.

Symbolic Meaning

The navy blue field represents the Atlantic Ocean which set the scene for the signing of the treaty. The compass rose with the four lines stemming from the cardinal points symbolize the direction towards the path of peace; a goal that the member states strive to achieve. The cultural meaning of the colors revolves around the shared desire to maintain peace even though the member states may have their distinctive cultural differences. Additionally, regardless of the varied political systems of the nations represented in the organization, NATO’s flag is a reminder of an organization created with a purpose of maintaining political stability.


The NATO flag attracted criticism upon its adoption. US Congressman John Travers Wood, for instance, was cited condemning it as a ‘strange and alien rag.’ Wood’s remarks were made about an alleged incident where the NATO flag was used to replace the US flag in Norfolk, Virginia. Even so, the NATO flag was generally well-received across various jurisdictions. The flag and the compass rose have remained central to NATO’s identity even as the organization celebrates its 69th anniversary in 2018.


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