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Against All Odds: Relations between NATO and the MENA Region

Against All Odds: Relations between NATO and the MENA Region - Cover

Authored by Dr. Florence Gaub.

August 2012

51 Pages

Brief Synopsis

While NATO was created with a primary outlook to the East, its Southern rim was neglected strategically until the end of the Cold War. Since then, the Alliance has undertaken a number of efforts to build strategic relationships with the Middle East and North Africa, recognizing the region’s importance for Allied security. However, looming obstacles may well interfer with NATO's efforts to enhance relations with the region. Geostrategic realities are not in NATO’s favor: it is a region of crisis; suspicious of the West in general; riddled with internal instability; and is a difficult to build ties with. This monograph examines the existing relationships as well as the remaining obstacles, and proposes solutions to the latter.


While the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded in 1949 first and foremost to strengthen the transatlantic link in the wake of the Soviet threat, one of the immediate neighboring regions was left largely unnoticed for the Alliance’s first 4 decades. Although some of the Allies had recognized the importance of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, it was dealt with largely on a bilateral basis. Events such as the Suez crisis of 1956 and the wars of 1967 and 1973 did have an impact on NATO and its cohesion, overall its focus remained on the Central Front in Germany. This was where a Soviet attack would have likely occurred, and led to an Allied bias in geographic terms.

Although the southern allies recognized the importance of the region for NATO’s security, they failed to set the agenda within the Alliance to a significant extent. This was not helped by the fact that some of the southern allies (such as Greece and Turkey) had their own conflicts to deal with, or were not part of NATO’s integrated command structure (such as Spain and France). The Alliance blindness to the strategic relevance of the Middle East and North Africa is thus an outcome of not only a strategic bias in favor of the Central Front, but also of issues internal to the Alliance.

These situations changed with the end of the Cold War. The invasion of Kuwait and subsequent war against Iraq, promising developments in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and the establishment of the Partnership for Peace (PfP) program designed for European states all created circumstances conducive for the launch of a similar network with the Alliance’s southern neighbors.

As the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) was born in 1994, it counted initially five member states (Mauritania, Morocco, Tunisia, Egypt, and Israel) and had no political ambitions beyond the exchange of views and information. Yet, as the MD grew with the inclusion first of Jordan and later Algeria, it served as an important platform for the Alliance’s other outreach efforts, which received further input in 2004. Following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the invasion of Iraq, and the discovery of a potential nuclear program in Iran, the region received renewed attention from the Allies. While the MD was elevated to the status of partnership, a separate program was developed for the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The invitation to the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) has been accepted by Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), but has received no official response from Saudi Arabia and Oman. Both frameworks are decidedly more ambitious than the original dialogue and aim not only for political but also military cooperation and interoperability. In addition, the Alliance initiated its first training mission in Iraq. A small endeavor of 150 people, it contributed particularly to the formation of the new Iraqi security forces’ officer corps. Initial contact was also established with the League of Arab States. By the time the Arab Spring began, NATO had established relations with half of the League’s member states.

Yet a few states remain outside of NATO’s network with the MENA region; this fact alone reflects accurately the binary relations most Allies, particularly the United States, have with the region’s governments. The fact that Libya, Lebanon, and Syria (and originally Algeria) were excluded from the MD although they are Mediterranean states is a clear indication of political relationships in disarray. While the absence of Lebanon and Syria is clearly connected to the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Libyan case is a result of decades of support to international terrorism.

As a result of these difficulties, NATO has attempted to work around existing conflicts within and without the region, be it the Western Sahara issue between Algeria and Morocco or the Palestinian conflict. In spite of these attempts, the Alliance’s relationships are affected by low levels of political and economic integration in the region proper as a result of high- and low-intensity conflicts. In addition, the existing partnerships are hampered by NATO’s rather negative image on the public level. This is in part due to a lack of distinction between the Alliance as a collective and its individual member states. A history of colonization (France, Spain, Italy, and the United Kingdom) and bilateral interventionism has created with the wider public an ambiance of distrust, which affects NATO as well, although the Alliance itself intervened in the region only in 2011, and then with a mandate from the League of Arab States. Nevertheless, NATO is frequently seen as an expansionist tool and not to be trusted. This image is particularly fueled by the Alliance’s mission in Afghanistan, which is seen as an anti-Muslim operation, as well as by the lack of support for the Palestinian cause. In addition, NATO itself has struggled to adjust to the region in partnership terms: translations into Arabic as well as Arabic-speaking personnel are scarce, and within the Alliance there are divergent views of the region’s relevance to Allied security.

Yet, in times of transnational challenges, such as terrorism, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, migration, climate change, and energy security, NATO has no other choice but to extend its understanding of security beyond traditional lines. Defense and security cannot be understood in territorial terms any longer; only in a comprehensive manner can both NATO and its partners confront the challenges of the 21st century. It is precisely for this reason that the Alliance will continue to improve the existing relationships and overcome the remaining challenges—conflict, war, and security are not matters of choice, but of necessity.

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