Cooperative Security as NATO’s Core Task

Building security through military cooperation across the globe

  • Last updated: 07 Sep. 2011 13:31


Given its ultimate goal of safeguarding the freedom and security of all its members, the NATO is facing constant transformation to reflect the new reality of increased dynamism and interdependence.  Economic, political, and security interests and needs are interlinked on national, regional and international levels.

The new Strategic Concept, adopted at the Lisbon Summit in November 2010, gives a new flavour to the role of the Alliance, introducing Cooperative Security (CS) as a new core task in addition to the existing collective defence and crisis management. This new task would bring a proactive stand towards achieving increased international harmony and cooperation, synchronizing efforts to deal with the new multidimensional threats and providing a better understanding of common problems. The uncertainty of geopolitical events and their possible multifaceted effects, reduced resources, shorter time frames, and ambiguous targets put pressure on NATO to balance soft and hard power and political and military leverage. To this end the Alliance advocates and coordinates a wide network of partner relationships with non-NATO countries and other international organizations around the globe in order to achieve CS and ensure Euro-Atlantic security.

Cooperative security – a network of “security partnership”

Generally speaking, CS consists of three components, including strengthening partnerships, contributing to arms control, non-proliferation and disarmament, and assisting potential new countries to prepare for NATO membership. In order to operationalize this new core task, the Alliance acts as a coordinator, involving groups of states or other international organizations with common interests who cooperate on a wide range of security issues. This provides frameworks for political dialogue and regional cooperation, increases military interoperability and can be essential to the success of many operations and missions. In this way, CS could be seen as an approach to engagement which provides increased collaboration between different actors resulting in information sharing and the harmonization of resources and capabilities.

From a military perspective, the International Military Staff (IMS) at NATO Headquarters in Brussels translates the concept of CS into operational language, demonstrating military cooperation. The military side of partnership is very important, considering that around eighty percent of cooperation activities and events are of a military nature. The IMS supports the Alliance’s practical involvement through special partnerships with Russia, Ukraine and Georgia and other partners across the globe as well as through Mediterranean Dialogue (MD), Partnership for Peace (PfP), and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI). In addition, NATO’s military staff cooperate with other international organizations such as the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). All these partnerships with non-NATO countries and international organizations are based on long-term efforts to build and maintain a network of “security partnership” through exercises and military activities.

To fully understand the complexity of CS, it also needs to be linked to crisis management operations and collective defence, other core tasks of the Alliance. CS facilitates the transition from a purely military to a politico-military phase of the relations between a country where crisis operations have taken place and NATO, such as is currently happening in Afghanistan.  The NATO Training Mission in Iraq is another example of a structured cooperation framework for a long-term relationship. These CS activities support countries in sustaining the level of achievement, contribute to the further strengthening of their capabilities and build mutually beneficial cooperation,.

Cooperative security as a double-edged sword - opportunities and limitations

In this age of globalization and increased interdependence as well as resource constraints, cooperation seems to be the most appropriate approach to providing security. But in reality, it may be a double-edged sword. The opportunities and pitfalls of the CS approach on politico-military tactical, operational, and strategic levels can be seen from different perspectives. Complex issues such as coherence in needs, perspectives and expectations, operational engagement, intelligence sharing or formats for cooperation are difficult to accommodate.

Outlining where the common interests lie is key to efficient cooperation and practical engagement. In order to clarify the expectations of both sides the common threats or risks must be clearly identified.   In our increasingly complex security environment, threats come from non-state entities, making it very hard to define an enemy and develop a clear action plan to counter it. NATO is approaching this issue by offering certain areas for cooperation and proposing activities which respond to mutually agreed objectives. For example, through political consultations, partners can be involved in air defence, energy security, response to terrorism, etc.:  they can also take part in NATO-led operations and missions, or collaborate on increased interoperability, counter-terrorism or defence reform and capacity building, as well as on education and training. However, this could lead to the involvement of too many partners in certain areas only, while some other areas would be neglected. For instance, armaments cooperation, deployability and mobility or public diplomacy attract more attention from partners, in contrast to air defence or chemical, biological, radiological & nuclear defence. It may also be difficult to find common ground as the proposed areas for cooperation are those perceived by the Alliance and may not necessarily overlap with those of partner countries.

Another pitfall can come from the frameworks of partner countries who are relatively close to one another but who do not necessarily have the same interests and needs. The Mediterranean Dialogue, Partnership for Peace and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative provide formulas for dialogue.  Although NATO meets all the countries within each framework this does not allow a focused debate with a limited number of partners within these frameworks. After the Lisbon Summit, NATO set up flexible formats for meetings, allowing the 28 Allies to also meet with certain partner countries according to the needs. Despite the flexibility that this brings to NATO and its partners to debate substantial topics of common interest, meetings are still held in framework formats, mainly for political reasons. As a result, the added value of flexible formats has not yet been fully tested.

The concept of CS implies some degree of equality and mutual benefit but the expected line for compromise is sometimes differently perceived by Allies and partners. An important limitation for CS may be NATO’s attention to partners who are involved in operations and a potential relative neglect of those who are not contributing. When viewed from a military perspective, this tendency is reasonable since NATO’s main objective when it begins an operation is to succeed and in many cases partners play an important role in these operations. At the same time, cooperation with those operational partner countries has to be more intense due to the need for higher interoperability and capacity. But this different attitude may hamper the overall concept of partnerships as a means to achieving CS and could have a negative effect on the implementation of the new partnership policy calling for harmonization of procedures. In addition, it may put restraints on the attention and resources for non-operational partners. Focused interest on operational partners in a context of a wider dialogue with partners across the globe, as advocated by the Lisbon Summit decisions, seems odd.

CS is interrelated with a certain degree of information sharing so for NATO it is very important to distinguish to what extent it can share its own assessment and intelligence with the other parties. This is a sensitive area especially from a military point of view, where the exchange of intelligence with operational partners is a necessity. It brings two potential problematic areas, including the degree of know-how shared at the end of the operation and how partners can utilize it when they cease to be involved with NATO operations. This issue is particularly strong in the domain of emerging challenges such as cyber security, where some Allies feel that NATO should first have its own strategy before working together with partners, even if their early contribution would seem to be appropriate.

CS is linked with the notion of anticipation and having the information superiority to foresee the upcoming threats to the Euro-Atlantic security. Collaboration with partners has the potential to help the Alliance to acquire better knowledge of its surrounding world. However an event like the “Arab Spring” demonstrates that anticipation is not guaranteed by structured dialogue. Despite the fact that the Mediterranean Dialogue cooperation framework has existed since 1994 and is considered a success story, it seems that it did not play a role in predicting the emergence of this crisis. A limitation to cooperation is also the exchange with partners who have different cultural views, such as the Arab partners and Israel or Russia and Ukraine.

All of these opportunities and limitations raise the never ending question of what NATO’s next step should be in order to efficiently and effectively apply the idea of CS, indispensable for handling the current security situation.

Cooperative Security in the future

NATO has agreed a new Partnership Policy, streamlining existing partnership tools and harmonizing the work programme for all partners.  Within this new policy, three areas can be outlined: the adoption of more flexible formats for cooperation, aiming to supplement the existing frameworks; widening the partnerships, which would enlarge the scope of outreach; and deepening the existing partnerships, to strengthen capacity-building among partners. Given all the previously mentioned limitations, the question remains as to whether it is possible for NATO to simultaneously deepen the existing partnership dialogue, while widening partnership with countries across the whole world. The context of limited resources adds to the challenge.

The Alliance would like to maintain and increase the level of confidence, transparency and common interpretation of the security challenges, either through higher engagement of partner states and international organizations in the political dialogue or in shaping the strategy and decisions on NATO-led operations to which they contribute. Some degree of cooperation with other organizations, despite the differences in nature, can be beneficial for playing complementary, mutually reinforcing roles, while sharing knowledge and resources to conduct collaborative analysis and planning of activities. The global stand of the adopted approach would not only result in a wide range of partners but also in increased coordination and interoperability on political, civilian and military levels, which is the ultimate requirement for addressing the new security environment.


An even more uncertain environment with transnational, asymmetric and unpredictable challenges, means there is a need to find a new way to combine all efforts and react to the new global issues with a global approach. The newly-adopted third core task of NATO reflects this need to provoke a deeper and wider cooperation, but there are many limitations and questions to be answered when it comes to its practical or operational application. CS can only succeed if all partners speak the same language and the right balance between investment and benefit is found. CS as a double-edged sword requires NATO and its partners to find this balance and use the sharpness of this weapon to diminish the security challenges.