'Enhancing NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue'

NATO Review article by Alberto Bin, NATO's Political Affairs Division

  • 01 Jan. 2003
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  • Last updated: 11 Dec. 2009 14:38

Alberto Bin examines how the Alliance's Mediterranean Dialogue has been upgraded at the Prague Summit and considers its future evolution.

Since the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue has come under increased scrutiny both in the Mediterranean region and beyond. This has raised a number of questions about its future development, especially in connection with the much broader issue of the Alliance's role in the post-9/11 security environment.

At the Prague Summit, Alliance leaders agreed a package of measures to upgrade the Mediterranean Dialogue. This package has the potential fundamentally to change the nature of this important relationship between NATO members and Partners in the wider Mediterranean region to the benefit of both sides.

NATO's involvement in the Mediterranean goes back to the Cold War. At the time, the Alliance perceived security in the Mediterranean as little more than an extension of the East-West confrontation and viewed it in terms of the threat of Soviet intrusion in the region. As such, the Mediterranean was important to NATO primarily in military terms, a fact reflected in it being identified as the Alliance's "Southern Flank".

The profound changes to the European security environment that resulted from the end of the Cold War led NATO to recognise the interdependence of European and Mediterranean security and, therefore, to consider the latter on its own merit. The recognition that stability in Europe is closely linked to security and stability in the Mediterranean explains the Allies' decision, taken in December 1994, to establish contacts between NATO and a number of countries in the wider Mediterranean region. In February 1995, Egypt, Israel, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia were invited to participate in a dialogue with NATO. An invitation was extended to Jordan in November 1995, and to Algeria in February 2000.

Dialogue aims

The overall aim of NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue is to contribute to regional security and stability, and achieve better mutual understanding between NATO and its Mediterranean Partners. The Alliance also intends to correct any misperceptions that may have arisen with regard to NATO activities. In particular, it wants to dismantle the myth of an Alliance in search of new, artificial enemies. And it seeks to dissipate fears that the emerging European security architecture may exclude its Southern neighbours. In short, NATO wants to bring an end to the image of the Mediterranean as a new dividing line. At the same time, it seeks to improve its understanding of the security perceptions and concerns of its Mediterranean Partners.

From a conceptual standpoint, NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue may be defined as a key instrument in support of the Alliance's overall strategy of partnership, dialogue, and cooperation. This was clearly outlined in the 1999 Strategic Concept, the document describing the security environment and the ways in which NATO addresses threats faced by member states, which elevated partnership into a fundamental security task of the Alliance.

The tragic events of 9/11 did not change the conceptual framework established in the 1999 Strategic Concept. Nor did they fundamentally alter the aim of the Dialogue itself. They did, however, highlight the need for NATO and its Mediterranean Partners to move closer together and to forge a genuine partnership in the face of common challenges, such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

In fact, the interest of Alliance members and their Mediterranean Partners in upgrading cooperation after 9/11 was not expressed in a vacuum. The principles, instruments, programmes and mechanisms for further development of the initiative were already in place as a result of work done in previous years.

From the outset, the Mediterranean Dialogue was designed to evolve. Indeed, over the years it has both widened and deepened. The number of Dialogue countries has grown from five to seven. Political discussions have become more frequent and more intense both in the multilateral — NATO plus seven — and bilateral — NATO plus one — formats. The number of cooperative activities has grown from a handful to several hundred. These are laid out in an annual Work Programme which includes information; civil-emergency planning; science and environment; crisis management; defence policy and strategy; small arms and light weapons; global humanitarian mine action; proliferation; and a fully-fledged programme of military cooperation.

In spite of difficult regional circumstances, considerable progress has been made towards the overall aim of building confidence between NATO and its Mediterranean Partners. Moreover, the Dialogue's increasing focus on areas where NATO can add value, including in the military field, is perceived by Mediterranean Partners as an important contribution to regional cooperation.

Notwithstanding, the Dialogue has remained a big step behind NATO's other outreach efforts, notably the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC) and the Partnership for Peace. It is still an exercise in confidence-building rather than a true partnership.

There are several reasons why the Dialogue has yet to reach its full potential. One reason has been a lingering difference of views among Allies as to how best to develop it. Mediterranean Partners, too, differ over what they ultimately want from the Dialogue and how far they want cooperation with NATO to go.

Strengthening and deepening

Paradoxically, the tragic events of 9/11 may have helped give the Dialogue greater clarity of purpose. The strengthening and deepening of relations between NATO and the Mediterranean Dialogue countries is now considered among the highest priorities for the Alliance. In turn, NATO's Mediterranean Partners have demonstrated a strong interest in further developing their cooperation with the Alliance in a variety of fields, including by tabling a number of concrete proposals.

The outcome was the substantial package of measures aimed at upgrading the political and practical dimensions of the Mediterranean Dialogue, which was endorsed by NATO's leaders at the Prague Summit. Such measures include the possibility of further exploiting the opportunities offered by the existing multilateral/bilateral dialogue with a view to establishing a more regular and more effective consultation process; intensifying the political relationship through high-level contacts and the involvement of decision-makers; taking advantage of the EAPC framework, including by associating the Mediterranean Partners with selected EAPC activities; and further developing practical cooperation in security matters of common concern through more focused activities, a tailored approach to cooperation, and a continuous process of consultation at expert level.

The latter applies especially to areas where NATO has a recognised comparative advantage and can add value, and where Dialogue Partners have expressed interest. These could include military education, training and doctrine to address basic interoperability requirements, with a view to making Mediterranean Partners better prepared to participate in military exercises and related training activities; military medicine including nuclear, biological and chemical related preventive measures; defence reform and defence economics, including best practice in the economic and civilian management of defence forces; terrorism; proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; border security, especially in connection with terrorism, the smuggling of small arms and light weapons and other illegal activities; civil-emergency planning including disaster management; science and environment including activities in the fields of desertification, drought, management of water and other natural resources, and environmental pollution.

Under certain circumstances, such enhanced practical cooperation could be achieved by taking advantage of the Partnership for Peace framework, including by opening selected Partnership for Peace activities to Mediterranean Partners or adapting those activities to the Dialogue's specific requirements.

Further engagement

Observers have often pointed out that "NATO supply" has consistently been greater than "NATO demand" in most Mediterranean Dialogue countries. NATO has been offering more cooperation than Mediterranean Dialogue countries — with the exception of Israel and Jordan — have been demanding. In part, this is due to a lack of information about NATO and its policies. In order to achieve "equilibrium" between "demand" and "supply", NATO's information effort will have to be stepped-up by further engaging civil society in Dialogue countries, with the twofold objectives of providing a better understanding of NATO's policies including the Mediterranean Dialogue, and of stimulating the growth of a "security community" in these countries.

Parallel to that, the Dialogue's parliamentary dimension will have to be strengthened with a view to widening its scope and increasing its visibility, including by further involving public opinion in both NATO and Dialogue countries. In this regard, the NATO Parliamentary Assembly has an important role to play.

NATO's Mediterranean Partners should also increase their level of active participation in the Dialogue. This could be achieved by, among other things, emphasising prior consultation with them; by further involving them in the preparation of the annual Work Programme; and by establishing individual cooperation programmes to be jointly developed and agreed. While respecting the principle of non-discrimination embedded within the Mediterranean Dialogue and embodied in the common Work Programme, this would help promote greater flexibility, recognising that the needs of each Dialogue country vary and that it is for each one of them to identify the kind of cooperative activities most suited to those needs.

Regarding the relationship between NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue and other cooperation initiatives in the region, some observers have pointed to the potential for competition between organisations. However, huge differences in objectives, scope and resources between the various initiatives make it difficult to speak of simple comparison, let alone of competition. In fact, from the outset, NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue has complemented efforts by other international organisations to promote cooperation in the Mediterranean, such as the European Union's Barcelona Process (Euro-Mediterranean Partnership) and the OSCE Mediterranean Initiative. Such complementarity should be strengthened with a view to fostering fruitful synergies, and avoiding unnecessary duplication. For instance, it seems possible to envisage regular briefings and exchanges of information on each organisation's activities in the area of security and stability in the Mediterranean region and expert-level meetings between organisations on the complementary Mediterranean dialogues and partnerships.

Future of the Dialogue

In light of the above, the question of what could be the future for NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue is a legitimate one. Many observers have suggested turning the Dialogue into an extension of the EAPC and the Partnership for Peace. Indeed, any further development of the Mediterranean Dialogue will likely draw inspiration from what NATO has already achieved with the EAPC and the Partnership for Peace, including the efforts that the Alliance has been making with its Partners to ensure that these two key outreach programmes retain their dynamism, attractiveness, and effectiveness even after the latest wave of NATO enlargement.

To be sure, the overriding principle that underpins all NATO partnerships is similar, namely, building stability through cooperation. Yet the objectives that the Alliance has developed with its Partners in Europe and Central Asia differ in many respects from those which have been developed within the framework of the Mediterranean Dialogue.

The question, therefore, is not so much whether the Dialogue should eventually become a "Mediterranean Partnership for Peace", but rather how to bring it closer to the mainstream of NATO's outreach programmes. This should be done in a realistic and forward-looking manner, bearing in mind the specificity of NATO's relationship with the countries of the southern rim of the Mediterranean and the limited resources available.

The real challenge confronting NATO and its Mediterranean Partners today is that of making the Mediterranean Dialogue ever more relevant to both. The aim should be to establish an effective, long-term relationship based on mutual security interests. In this way, the Alliance would enhance its contribution to the promotion of dialogue and cooperation within the Mediterranean region, and make a real contribution to Mediterranean security.

Alberto Bin works on the Mediterranean Dialogue in NATO's Political Affairs Division.