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Rethinking NATO Partnerships for the 21st Century

Security threats today are globalised and non-traditional. It’s time for NATO’s partnerships to follow suit, says Ron Asmus.

In the 1990s, NATO’s new partnerships were a key component of the Alliance’s reinvention for the post-Cold War era. NATO enlargement and intervention in the Balkans were in many ways the biggest new strategic steps the Alliance took.

The development of new partnerships tools nonetheless helped prevent the emergence of new dividing lines in the wake of enlargement, allowed NATO to build relationship with countries that were strategically important but not candidates for membership, and facilitated the putting together of the NATO-led coalition that helped keep peace in the Balkans. Partnerships were therefore a critical part of NATO’s success in the 1990s and the grand strategy of projecting stability across the continent.

In hindsight, these new partnership tools may look like a common sense adjustment to a new strategic reality. At the time it was not easy, however, for the Alliance to open itself to and engage non-members.

Many of us remember only too well being looked at askance when we suggested such steps in the early 1990s. It simply couldn’t be done, I was repeatedly told on visits to NATO headquarters. A few years later, NATO developed the Partnership for Peace and subsequently the NATO-Russia Founding Act, the NATO-Ukraine Commission and the EAPC. I recall this story only to underscore the point that it is when – and only when – the strategic imperative and the political consensus to change became clear that the seemingly impossible melted away and the Alliance proved quite flexible and innovative.

Today we are in an analogous situation. Alliance members today are unsure and divided over a future common purpose and strategy for NATO. Many of the new strategic challenges we face lie beyond Europe and entail engagement in potentially unstable regions of the world where the Alliance has never trodden. But we won’t, in my view, solve the issue of what a new generation of partnerships should be about until we reach greater clarity on these broader strategic questions. There are three in particular we need to address.

Alliance members today are unsure and divided over a future common purpose and strategy for NATO

The first is the future role of NATO partnerships within the current Euro-Atlantic community. There is a growing sense that these partnership and structures are becoming obsolete. Many of the more committed EAPC members have either joined the Alliance or are focused on bilateral partnerships via MAP and similar instruments.

The result is that EAPC is being hollowed out from within. As Russia becomes more assertive and anti-Western, it may be less cooperative as well. Central Asia is becoming more important to the West statically but no one knows how to use NATO partnership tools as part of a broader engagement strategy. Again, the problem is the absence of an overall Western strategy of which a NATO partnership tool could be a critical part.

And the Middle East?

The second question is the future role of NATO in the wider Middle East. NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) are in a state of strategic limbo. The two initiatives are, of course, very different in their origins. The MD was developed in the mid-1990s as a complement and balance to NATO’s opening to the East. It has always been a kind of weaker sister to enlargement and partnership - with less strategic drive from the Alliance and less enthusiastic partners on the other side. The ICI, launched in Istanbul in the wake of September 11th and Iraq war, was a first step in NATO recognizing the West’s enormous stakes in the Persian Gulf.

Today, both initiatives suffer from the same lack of strategic clarity in NATO over our objectives in the wider Middle East. They are mechanisms bereft of an overall vision or strategy. There are countries in the wider Middle East seeking closer ties with NATO and where the Alliance is the brake. The list starts with Israel but includes other Mediterranean countries as well as members of the Gulf Cooperation Council. Here, too, NATO has not been able to capitalize on these strategic openings, given the absence of a broader and shared Western vision and strategy.

The third key strategic issue is possible future global partnerships. Here the Alliance’s official use of the term “contact countries” is already indicative of ambivalence. Operations like Afghanistan require NATO to attract non-European contributors for burden-sharing reasons. And when such countries contribute more than many NATO allies, they understandably want to be at the decision-making table. This requires opening up NATO decision-making in new ways.

Here, too, we find the unanswered issue of what NATO members really want. Are partnerships with Australia or Japan really just about squeezing more troops and money out of them for NATO-led missions? Or should they also be about building strategic relationships in new and important regions? Is it a one-way or two-way street? Simply put, is this a burden-sharing exercise or are we trying to shape new security dynamics in important regions? NATO can and should not go everywhere or try to solve all problems. But one trip to Japan or Australia rapidly reveals that these countries are reaching out to NATO for more interesting if complicated reasons often ignored in our current debate.

The Alliance is again at a strategic crossroads

What should one conclude from all of this? The Alliance is again at a strategic crossroads. Having reinvented itself in the 1990s to address the challenge of building a new post-Cold War order in Europe, it now faces the need to re-reinvent itself into a security actor capable of defending its members’ values and interests on a more global stage. NATO has taken that strategic leap in principle with Afghanistan, but whether it will succeed is not yet clear. ISAF’s success there would open the door to new and more ambitious thinking about partnerships and a possible broader role in South Asian security and beyond. Failure could call into question the future of the Alliance.

You don’t have to be Clausewitz to predict that crises like Afghanistan are not likely to be a one time event. It is also a reasonably safe bet that the next one will be in the wider Middle East. If the future of this region is truly the primary strategic issue of our time, then it is certainly an anomaly that the premier Western alliance is almost nowhere to be found when it comes to addressing it because of the lack of any common grand strategy that NATO could be part of. Closer to home the challenge of redefining or partnership for Eurasia may seem less daunting but here too there are real issues.

If one poses these questions today in Brussels, one is often met with an awkward silence – just like in the very early 1990s. Partnerships once again seem to belong to the ‘too hard to handle’ category. In reality, the requirement to creatively rethink partnership as a new tool for the world in which we live is greater than ever. The problem we need to resolve is finding the common purpose and political will to decide what we want to achieve strategically. Then there will be enough smart people at NATO that will help us modernize our arsenal of partnerships to help achieve those goals.

Getting on with the job: Australian soldiers seeking out weapons in Afghanistan

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