NATO has always had an image problem. It has been seen as the arm of Western and in particular US imperialism. NATO's support for the Arab Spring, and a different posture toward the West by the new generations who led to the revolution could give NATO a new, more positive image. NATO has to capitalize on this in order to improve cooperation that can be useful to both parties.
Learning the Differences to Find Out the Similarities
So how should NATO work in these changed environments? The first step must be to change NATO's attitude toward those countries with which it cooperates. The attitude "I'm better than you and I'll help you ‘cause I'm good" clearly isn't the right way in dealing with people who are suspicious of NATO's motives, like most in the MENA countries. And because the Organization acts through people, this change must pass through a cultural education of NATO's personnel. From high officials to simple soldiers, everyone must learn about the culture, traditions and the mental posture of the country he is going to.
This has to be done because events like the U.S. soldiers who burned the Koran in Afghanistan, just to cite an example, must not be repeated. In different ways, this can happen at any level and can bring to mutual distrust. A month of daily classes, ending with a final exam, could be enough for a first understanding of the "Other" mentality. Of course the higher person's role, the more complex the training should be. To use more European personnel, instead of American, could also be useful both for the larger cultural proximity between Europe and MENA countries and for separate the image of NATO from the US one.
The aim of the training is to learn the differences between the cultures to find out the similarities, to feel, and interact on equal footing, without superiority or inferiority complex.
On Equal Footing
If people's relation must be set on an equal footing, the same has to be done about the relation between the Organization and each country. Dealing with MENA countries in this way means that NATO can ask for something in return to continue the cooperation. This can mean burden-sharing but also, and this is what I want to focus on here, is defining the many parameters that must be respected: namely that NATO must include in any agreement the respect of human rights as a fundamental requirement, with particular reference to those rights that are connected with the still evolving context of the region (i.e. habeas corpus, the right to protest, the right to associate, etc.), and suspend the cooperation when they are not respected. This criterion, if actually implemented, will maintain cooperation in the context of those values that NATO wants to promote, preventing at the same time the Organization from supporting, and strengthening indeed, those regimes that prove to be contrary to them.
A Military Organization
Finally, how should NATO support the long-term transition process? Not interfering with this process. NATO adds values through its military and strategic expertise since it can provide a multilateral forum where very different countries, like Israel and the Arab States, could sit together, and in its Western identity, so that through NATO's partnerships the West can enter into dialogue with the Middle East and North Africa.
But the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is mainly a military organization, despite its evolution, so it must avoid any democratic rhetoric and confines its cooperation to the military and strategic field. The democratic process, which is taking place in MENA, is not going to finish and stabilize in a few weeks; its evolution is going to take time and may pass through, or even arrive to a form that is not ideal for Western countries. However, every attempt to address this will be, or at least will be seen, as an attempt to export Western democracy. "Our" democracy should not be the best option for the region and an inappropriate interference will probably reduce the scope of dialogue rather than broaden it.
NATO has nothing to teach about the idea of democracy to a people who fought for it. By paying more attention to not hurting and interfering in these countries susceptibility and remaining in his own field, NATO has the chance to develop cooperation fruitful for both parties.
Giulia Clericetti is studying International Relations at Roma Tre University and has graduated in Political Sciences at the same University, with a thesis on History of International Relations.