NATO has 31 members, but it also maintains relations with more than 40 non-member countries and international organisations, called NATO partners. This partnership network strengthens security outside NATO territory, which makes NATO itself safer. The Alliance pursues dialogue and practical cooperation with partners on a wide range of political and security-related issues, including global challenges like terrorism and climate change. NATO’s partnerships are beneficial to all involved and contribute to improved security for the broader international community.
An American Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) soldier trains together with his Moldovan counterpart in controlling a PackBot robot to pick up an object. Photo by US Army.
- Partners contribute to many of NATO's core activities, from shaping policy to building defence capacity, developing interoperability and managing crises.
- NATO's programmes also help partner countries to develop their own defence and security institutions and forces.
- NATO first established relations with countries from Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, after the end of the Cold War. Partnership has evolved over the years to encompass other regions, more flexible instruments and new forms of cooperation and consultation .
- NATO's partners
- Key objectives of NATO's partnerships
- Partnership in practice: how NATO works with partners
- Evolution in NATO's partnerships
NATO cooperates with different partners through a range of different structures, primarily based on their geographic region.
The Partnership for Peace (PfP) is a programme of practical bilateral cooperation between NATO and individual partner countries in the Euro-Atlantic area. It includes the following 19 partner countries:
- NATO's partnerships with Belarus and Russia are currently suspended following North Atlantic Council decisions related to the security environment.
- Sweden is a NATO Invitee. It will join the Alliance as a full member once all current member states have ratified its Accession Protocol according to their national procedures.
The Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) is a partnership forum that aims to contribute to security and stability in the wider Mediterranean region. The following seven non-NATO countries are currently involved in NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue:
The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) is a partnership forum that offers non-NATO countries in the broader Middle East region the opportunity to cooperate with NATO. To date, the following four countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council have joined NATO's Istanbul Cooperation Initiative:
United Arab Emirates
Outside of its formal partnership structures, NATO cooperates with a range of countries – called Partners across the globe – on an individual basis. NATO's engagement with these global partners is taking on increasing importance in a complex security environment, where many of the challenges the Alliance faces are global and no longer bound by geography.
In addition to its partnerships with countries, NATO cooperates with a number of international organisations.
Key objectives of NATO's partnerships
In both regional frameworks and on a bilateral level, NATO develops relations with partners based on common values, reciprocity, mutual benefit and mutual respect. Dialogue and cooperation with partners enhances international security, increasing stability and safety in partner countries and in NATO members. It also contributes to upholding the rules-based international order, helping defend the values on which the Alliance is based.
Under NATO's partnership policies, the strategic objectives of NATO's partner relations are to:
- Enhance Euro-Atlantic and international security, peace and stability;
- Promote regional security and cooperation;
- Facilitate mutually beneficial cooperation on issues of common interest, including international efforts to meet emerging security challenges;
- Prepare interested, eligible countries for NATO membership;
- Promote democratic values and institutional reforms, especially in the defence and security sector;
- Enhance support for NATO-led operations and missions;
- Enhance awareness of security developments, including through early warning, with a view to preventing crises;
- Build confidence and achieve better mutual understanding, including about NATO's role and activities, in particular through enhanced public diplomacy.
That said, each partner determines – with NATO – the pace, scope, intensity and focus of their partnership with the Alliance, as well as individual objectives. This is often captured in a document setting goals for the relationship, which is regularly reviewed. However, many of NATO's partnership activities involve more than one partner at a time.
Partnership in practice: how NATO works with partners
NATO's partnership objectives are taken forward through a wide variety of means. Broadly speaking, NATO opens up parts of its processes, procedures and structures to the participation of partners, allowing partners to make concrete contributions through channels that are normally only used by members.
In addition, NATO has developed a range of partnership tools and mechanisms to support cooperation with partner countries through a mix of policies, programmes, action plans and other arrangements. In some cases, special programmes have been created to assist and engage partners on their specific needs.
In cooperating with NATO, partners can:
- share insights on areas of common interest or concern through political consultations and intelligence-sharing;
- gain access to advice and support as they reform and strengthen defence institutions and capacities;
- this includes activity areas like integrating gender perspectives into security and defence, and fighting against corruption in the defence sector;
- participate in a rich menu of education, training and consultation events (approximately 1,400 events a year are open to partners through a Partnership Cooperation Menu);
- prepare together for future operations and missions by participating in exercises and training;
- contribute to current NATO-led operations and missions;
- share lessons learned from past operations and develop policy for the future;
- work together with Allies on research and capability development, including through joint scientific projects; and
- enhance efforts to control or destroy arms, ammunition and unexploded ordnance.
As such, NATO's cooperation with partners takes place in the following broad areas:
Consultation is key to the work of NATO as an alliance and is central to partnerships. Political consultations can help Allies and partners understand security developments, including regional issues, and shape common approaches to preventing crises or tackling a security challenge. NATO's many committees and bodies often meet in formations with partners to shape cooperation in specific areas. NATO Allies meet with partners (individually or in groups) on a broad variety of subjects and at a variety of levels every day.
Interoperability is the ability for armed forces to operate together using harmonised standards, doctrines, procedures and equipment. It is essential to the work of an alliance of multiple countries with national defence forces, and is equally important for working together with partners that wish to support the Alliance in achieving its tactical, operational and strategic objectives. Much of the day-to-day cooperation in NATO – including with partners – is focused on achieving interoperability.
The Partnership Interoperability Initiative establishes mechanisms for enhanced cooperation with countries that wish to develop deeper interoperability with NATO. The Initiative ensures that the close connections built between NATO and partner forces over years of operations will be maintained and strengthened, so that partners can contribute to future NATO-led operations and, where applicable, to the NATO Response Force. This partnership tool has introduced a number of innovations, including the possibility of granting specific partners enhanced opportunities for deeper cooperation. Five partners (Australia, Georgia, Jordan, NATO Invitee Sweden and Ukraine) currently have access to this enhanced cooperation, which includes easing the process for these countries to participate in exercises and enabling regular consultation on security matters.
The Interoperability Platform is a standing forum for meetings with selected partners that have contributed to NATO operations or have taken concrete steps to deepen their interoperability with NATO. In this format, Allies and partners discuss projects and issues that affect interoperability, such as education, training, exercises, evaluation, capability development, command and control systems, and logistics.
Contribution to NATO-led operations and missions
Partners contribute to NATO-led operations and missions, whether through supporting peace by training security forces in the Western Balkans or monitoring maritime activity, for instance in the Mediterranean Sea. As contributors to those missions, partners are invited to shape policy and decisions that affect those missions, alongside Allies. A number of tools have been created to assist partners in developing their ability to participate in NATO-led operations, and be interoperable with Allies' forces.
Defence reform, institution- and capacity-building
For many years, NATO has worked with partners on defence reform, institution- and capacity-building. NATO Allies have agreed that long-term and lasting stability is linked to improved governance of the defence and security sector and institutions. Viable, effective and resilient defence institutions are essential to the long-term success of efforts to strengthen partner capacity.
The Partnership Action Plan on Defence Institution Building, aims to reinforce efforts by partner countries to reform and restructure their defence institutions to meet domestic needs as well as international commitments. In a NATO context, such work can go from strategic objective setting and joint reviews, to expert assistance and advice, as well as targeted education and training. Defence advice and reform is provided through bilateral partnership cooperation programmes, as well as through expert advisory programmes targeting specific aspects of defence institution building, like the Defence Education Enhancement Programme or Building Integrity.
The Defence and Related Security Capacity Building Initiative builds on NATO's extensive track record and expertise in supporting, advising, assisting, training and mentoring countries requiring capacity-building support from the Alliance. It allows for the development of targeted, tailor-made packages of defence capacity building support for countries, upon their request and with Allied consent. The following partners currently participate in the DCB Initiative: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Iraq, Jordan, Mauritania, the Republic of Moldova, Tunisia and the United Nations.
Other areas of cooperation
NATO also engages with partners in a variety of other areas where it has developed expertise and programmes. These include:
- Counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery;
- Emerging security challenges, such as those related to cyber defence, energy security and maritime security, including counter-piracy;
- Civil preparedness.
Evolutions in NATO's partnerships
NATO's partnerships began in 1990, when, at the London Summit, NATO pledged to "extend… the hand of friendship" to its former adversaries in the Cold War. This soon led to the creation of cooperation structures, such as the North Atlantic Cooperation Council in 1991 (which was replaced by the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997). In January 1994, the Partnership for Peace was launched, NATO's first formal partnership programme, focused on NATO's neighbours in Europe and the former Soviet Union. The same year, Allies launched the Mediterranean Dialogue for its Mediterranean neighbours. In 2004, Allies launched the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative for Gulf countries, and over the years, through cooperation in NATO missions and operations, NATO developed and built relations with partners further across the globe.
Reflecting the significant evolutions in NATO's partnerships policy, in line with the Strategic Concept adopted in 2010, a focused effort to reform NATO's partnerships policy was launched at the 2010 Lisbon Summit to make dialogue and cooperation more inclusive, flexible, meaningful and strategically oriented. This resulted in a partnership policy, which was endorsed by NATO Foreign Ministers at their meeting in Berlin in April 2011. The policy aimed to reinforce existing partnerships by strengthening consultation mechanisms and by facilitating more substance-driven cooperation. In addition, the policy outlined a "toolbox" of mechanisms and activities for cooperation with partners.
In line with the 2010 Strategic Concept, NATO offered its partners "more political engagement with the Alliance, and a substantial role in shaping strategy and decisions on NATO-led operations to which they contribute". The Political-Military Framework, which governs the way NATO involves partners in political consultation and the decision-making process for operations and missions to which they contribute, was updated, giving contributing partners decision-shaping authority but not the same decision-making authority as member countries.
The Berlin policy decisions opened up the possibility for new forms of political dialogue with partners, including through more flexible "31+n" formats (thematic or event-driven). These flexible formats are used, on a case-by-case basis, to enhance consultation on security issues of common concern and cooperation in priority policy areas, such as counter-piracy and cyber defence. The 2011 policy also opened up the possibility of developing deeper relations with partners across the globe as well as key global actors and other new interlocutors across the globe that share the Allies' interest in peaceful international relations but have no individual programme of cooperation with NATO. A number of partners across the globe have since joined NATO's partnerships community; most recently, Colombia became a partner in 2017.
At the 2014 Wales Summit, NATO Leaders endorsed two important initiatives to reinforce the Alliance's commitment to the core task of cooperative security: the Partnership Interoperability Initiative, and the Defence and Related Security Capacity Building Initiative. The first initiative was designed to reinforce NATO's ability to provide security with partners in future, through interoperability; while the second was more focused on helping countries, upon request, to provide for their own security, by strengthening their defence and related security institutions and capacity.
At the 2016 Warsaw Summit, Allies underlined that they seek to contribute more to the efforts of the international community in projecting stability and strengthening security outside NATO territory.
At the 2018 Brussels Summit, Allies committed to further strengthening NATO's role in this regard, helping partners, upon request, to build stronger defence institutions, improve good governance, enhance resilience, provide for their own security, and more effectively contribute to the fight against terrorism. The investments in partners' security contribute to Alliance security overall and partnerships continue to be essential to the way NATO works in addressing security challenges.
At the 2022 Madrid Summit, NATO adopted its new Strategic Concept, which continues to identify "cooperative security" as one of NATO's three core tasks. This pillar recognises that Euro-Atlantic security is best achieved through a wide network of partner relationships with countries and organisations around the world. As outlined in the 2022 Strategic Concept, "Political dialogue and practical cooperation with partners, based on mutual respect and benefit, contribute to stability beyond our borders, enhance our security at home and support NATO's core tasks. Partnerships are crucial to protect the global commons, enhance our resilience and uphold the rules-based international order."