One of the most overlooked success stories in NATO’s post-Cold War history is its ability to build partnerships with countries and organizations inside and outside Europe. These partnerships, initially designed as consolation for countries not admitted to NATO, have since evolved into a vital network of cooperation, ranging from collectively tackling new challenges to common military action. Few NATO initiatives have proven so effective in achieving political and military goals and improving NATO’s image across the world.
This is true even in the context of the ongoing developments in the Arab world. It is not by chance that the political changes in partner countries like Egypt or Tunisia have been much less violent than those in Libya or Syria, both of which have eschewed NATO partnership in the past. Apparently, exposure to a democratic institution like NATO has yielded fruit, particularly in the Arab military establishment.
But even flourishing projects require occasional reform, to avoid becoming victims of their own success. This holds particularly true for NATO’s partnerships in the Southern Mediterranean and Persian Gulf regions, subsumed under the acronym MENA (Middle East and Northern Africa).
NATO has been a player in the region for a long time. Through the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), the Alliance has provided military advice, training and a consolidated approach to new security challenges.
But the “Arabellion,” which came as a complete surprise not only for NATO, has revealed two weaknesses in the Alliance’s approach: first, all NATO members for a long time sacrificed their own values on the altar of realpolitik, which favored stability over democracy. Second, NATO never developed a vision for MENA’s long-term future.
This is no fingerpointing. For decades, the pragmatism of realpolitik was the only possible approach in such a politically sensitive region. The Arab Spring, however, requires new solutions. This does not mean that existing diplomatic structures need to be changed. The MD and the ICI are functioning, time-tested frameworks. But NATO’s mindset has to evolve with the times, in at least the following four respects:
- Get realistic. In the past, NATO had the ambitious goal of common crisis management between itself, the Arab League and the African Union. The Libya case, however, shows that the African Union and the Arab League are much less integrated than NATO and lack the will and capacity to maintain security in their own region.
- Don’t hope for more. The ongoing mission in Libya is not a model but a special case that evolved under unusual circumstances and pressure from several NATO members. Moreover, it has shown the limits of European military action without the full support of the United States. It is highly unlikely that NATO will rush to another stabilization mission, particularly since nation building in Libya will require the long term engagement of most NATO member states.
- Do what you do best. NATO can offer a host of expertise to make armed forces more effective and able to function in a democratic environment. Human rights training, international law, defense planning and border security are all areas of strength for NATO, and the Alliance must provide MENA with feedback on the best practices for the future.
- Be clear on your goals. All 28 NATO members should share a vision for the long term development of the region. This should include awareness that NATO is a democratic and value-based alliance. Yet the Alliance must also realize that the democratic process will not always have the result preferred by the outside world. NATO must understand that the people fighting in the streets stand not necessarily for its version of democracy, but for justice and prosperity on their own terms.
Most importantly, NATO is not the key player in the Arab Spring but those institutions like the EU which can provide an economic perspective. They must realize that the “Arabellion” is first and foremost an incredible chance for all of us and not a threat.
Karl-Heinz Kamp is the Research Director of the NATO Defense College in Rome. The author expresses his personal views.
For more about NATO partnerships, please see the following related articles:
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