The Arab uprisings have highlighted an important lesson: how little the EU and NATO have influenced the regional leadership and developments. It has prompted European countries and regional institutions to question their partnership programs and tackle a key issue: What can we do better now that we failed to achieve before?
The Alliance initiated the Mediterranean Dialogue in 1994 and promoted it to a genuine partnership in 2004. It has been slow to take up steam and NATO has been struggling to commit the MD countries to signing partnership agreements, due to their fear that they would be dragged onto the road to reforms. Some of the countries have shown interest in cooperating with NATO, such as Morocco and Jordan, while others such as Algeria and Egypt are reticent partners.
The Arab uprisings have not changed the situation: NATO will have a tough time convincing Mediterranean countries to engage in deeper cooperation. Countries in the region are wary of perceived foreign interference. In most countries, the leadership is still in power. Egypt and Tunisia are in transition periods with frequent turbulence. In all cases, cooperation with NATO will not climb to the top of the foreign policy agenda. NATO suffers from a bad image, especially among the population. It has never been deemed as a major player in the region. And its expertise lies in the defense sector reform, which is not a pressing issue for those countries.
NATO has taken steps to adapt its offer with the new Partnership policy last year following the Strategic Concept, which crowned partnerships as one of NATO's three core tasks. The new policy was brandished as "more efficient and flexible"; one of the main novelties was the establishment of flexible meeting formats among the different partnership frameworks. That hardly exhibits strategic imperatives.
The Alliance's contribution to the transition process can only be limited. Yet we can identify three streams of action NATO can explore.
First, the Alliance needs to better clarify what it can offer and what it wants to achieve. NATO has been failing to provide a comprehensive and regular assessment of partnerships. Despite numerous obstacles to its implementation, the more the Alliance grasps the outcome of its cooperation, the more it can single out priorities, and the resources and attention to devote. In return, the more it defines what it expects, the more partners know what to look ahead to. The situation has improved following the Strategic concept, but much more remains to be done, especially to better clarify priorities in partners' Action Plans.
Second, the Article 4 of the Washington Treaty states that "the Parties will consult together whenever, in the opinion of any of them, the territorial integrity, political independence or security of any of the Parties is threatened." Allowing partner countries to accede to this Article would express an opportune confidence-building measure and could incite them to enhance cooperation with NATO. Most security concerns that worry MD partners are shared among Allies. Moreover, the new scene in the region might encourage more regional cooperation. Security concerns have led to regional meetings in the past year that might encourage growing cooperation. There may be a small window of opportunity for NATO.
Third, NATO needs to join forces with other actors. Its expertise in defense education and training falls into a small niche whose importance in transition and reform processes is meaningful yet insufficient. European countries and the United States have been cautious on how to handle recent developments in the region and it makes little sense for all parties to work on disconnected tracks since objectives are mostly common. Both European and North American Allies, as member states of many similar organizations (EU, NATO, EBRD, etc.), should look into ways to offer a comprehensive package. Partner countries may welcome multifaceted technical assistance programs. It would be sound to develop inter-institutional tailored and coordinated cooperation with each partner. An optimistic view certainly, but the more all parties coordinate, the more the offer could be specific and appealing.
Moreover, were Allies committed to empowering NATO in the region, they would need to coordinate their bilateral defense cooperation through the Alliance and with NATO, which is rarely the case.
NATO cannot play a major role in the transition and reform processes. However, options exist: they require more ambition and more coordination. The more European countries, the U.S., the EU, and NATO, coordinate their agendas, the more partner states may see the interest to cooperate and the cost of non-cooperation. Let's remember that partnerships work both ways: if there is no interest and action on the receiving end, there is no need to overwhelm it with options. Let's incentivize, not push against all odds.
Vivien Pertusot is head of office in Brussels for the French Institute of International Relations (Ifri).