With bands playing and onlookers cheering, the NATO Parade of Nations steps off each spring through the streets not of Brussels — NATO’s headquarters — but Norfolk, Virginia, a historic naval town that takes pride in its role in keeping the trans-Atlantic alliance strong.
NATO first established a strategic command center in Norfolk, home to the world’s largest naval base, in 1953. At an April 28 flag-raising ceremony, French Air Force General Denis Mercier, NATO’s supreme allied commander transformation, said NATO “has proven to be a bedrock of security, both for Europe and for the United States.”
Local citizens, businesses and Virginia’s economic-development arm spend nearly $250,000 each year on the festival and other activities celebrating NATO and what the alliance has done for nearly seven decades to make the world a safer place.
Originally focused on maritime security in the Atlantic, the command center in Norfolk saw its mission change after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States. Allied Command Transformation, as it’s called, was tasked with rethinking NATO’s military structure, testing concepts and conducting training. It is one of only two NATO strategic centers. Allied Command Operations in Mons, Belgium, plans and executes all military operations.
Among its staff are military officers from almost every NATO nation. Each spring, many spend weekends sprucing up colorful parade floats that showcase their homelands’ history and cultures, such as replicas of the Eiffel Tower, a castle and a Viking boat.
“It’s the only such festival in the world,” said Jeff Maisey, who publishes an arts, food and culture magazine and chairs the festival’s volunteer board. “There’s no other event whose mission is to highlight and celebrate the trans-Atlantic alliance.”
Alex Pincus, an attorney for the city and a festival organizer, said the celebration brings out local families like his with European ancestry. His mother is from Norway.
The festival “is a labor of love,” Pincus said. “It’s important for Americans to know these countries in NATO have the United States’ back, just as we … have theirs.”
General Mercier shares that sentiment.
“In a world increasingly dangerous and unpredictable, having friends and allies is critical,” Mercier said.