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Assessing NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue

Mohamed Kadry Said offers a Southern assessment of NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue, ten years after its creation.

Working with NATO: Egyptians, Jordanians and Moroccans (pictured above) have all participated in NATO-led operations in the Balkans (© SFOR)

In the decade since NATO launched its Mediterranean Dialogue, the strategic environment in the Euro-Atlantic area, the Middle East and beyond has changed almost beyond recognition. In the wake of the terrorist attacks against the United States of 11 September 2001 and the US-led Afghan and Iraq campaigns, the Alliance has begun to play a much greater role on the international stage and the wider Mediterranean region and Greater Middle East appear increasingly areas for future focus. While there is obvious potential for upgrading NATO's engagement in this part of the world, the Alliance must seek to develop a two-way relationship with Arab countries and also to address their security concerns.

To date, NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue has been primarily political, serving to promote a greater understanding for NATO's policies and activities in Dialogue countries while simultaneously exploring their security needs. In this way, information exchange has been at the heart of the Dialogue via the Mediterranean Cooperation Group, a forum created at the Alliance's 1997 Madrid Summit. Through this, Allies hold regular political discussions with either individual Dialogue partners, the so-called 19 (now 26) + 1 format, or all seven Dialogue countries - Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia - the so-called 19 (now 26) + 7 format.

In spite of the political nature of the Dialogue, many hard security issues lie close to its surface. Economic interests and energy security are clearly central to NATO's Mediterranean policy since some 65 per cent of the oil and gas consumed in Western Europe passes through the Mediterranean. Moreover, security analysts have long predicted that the combination of stagnant economies and exploding populations in North Africa will present long-term strategic challenges to Europe in the form of illegal migration and even terrorism. At the same time, missile proliferation in the Middle East and North Africa directly impacts Europe's security and freedom of action in the Mediterranean.

From day one, however, NATO's Mediterranean Dialogue as well as all similar dialogue and cooperation initiatives, including the European Union's Barcelona Process, have been hampered by contrasting expectations between the Allies on the one hand and the Arab Dialogue countries on the other. Europe and the United States seem to believe that political dialogue, discussions and information exchange must be the starting point for a relationship to build confidence and stimulate constructive cooperation. By contrast, Arab Dialogue countries prefer to start with hard issues, including especially those relating to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Combating terrorism and freeing the Middle East from weapons of mass destruction were priorities for the Arab Dialogue countries in the 1990s, though not for NATO. The Arab countries' half-hearted participation in both the Barcelona Process and the Mediterranean Dialogue was a response to setbacks in the Middle East peace process. Differences in perspective have stood as a barrier against constructive thinking for the region's future.

The Alliance's 1999 Strategic Concept already suggested to Arab Dialogue countries a shift in potential NATO missions to include addressing a more diverse set of risks, many of which emanate from the South. This expanded interpretation of NATO's mandate inevitably raised questions among Southern countries about the geographic limits of Alliance activity. Moreover, these questions have become concerns about the preparedness of either the Alliance or individual Allies to act without explicit UN backing as a result of NATO's intervention in Kosovo and the US-led Iraq campaign.

Dialogue record

The Alliance must seek to develop a two-way relationship with Arab countries and also to address their security concerns

Over the years, NATO has supported a series of conferences and seminars for representatives from NATO and Dialogue countries. The first of these conferences was held in Rome, Italy, in November 1997 on The future of the NATO Dialogue followed by a conference held at Valencia, Spain, in February 1999 on The Mediterranean Dialogue and the New NATO. While the Rome Conference helped identify practical cooperative dimensions of the Dialogue, the Valencia Conference was the first opportunity for ambassadors from both NATO and the then six Mediterranean Partners to meet to discuss the way ahead.

Other practical dialogue activities have included institutional fellowships, civil-emergency planning and scientific cooperation. In 1998, the Alliance invited Mediterranean Dialogue countries to participate in its Institutional Fellowship Programme. Four such fellowships have since been awarded to Mediterranean Dialogue countries. Otherwise, parliamentarians, opinion leaders, academics, journalists and officials from Mediterranean Dialogue countries have participated in visits to NATO Headquarters. And a series of Dialogue seminars have taken place under the auspices of the Mediterranean Special Group with participation of legislators from NATO, Dialogue countries and non-Dialogue countries, as well as of representatives from international organisations. Moreover, three Dialogue countries have acquired observer status in the NATO Parliamentary Assembly: Morocco and Israel in 1994, and Egypt in 1995.

Dialogue country representatives have attended civil-emergency-planning courses at the NATO School in Oberammergau,Germany, and other venues. And Dialogue country scientists have participated in NATO-sponsored advanced research workshops and other initiatives within the framework of the NATO Science Programme.

The military dimension of the Mediterranean Dialogue includes observation of NATO and PfP sea and land exercises, visits to NATO military institutions, the exchange of staff officers, and participation in workshops and seminars. Although outside the context of the Mediterranean Dialogue, Egypt, Jordan and Morocco have participated in the Alliance's peace-support operations in Bosnia and Herzegovina, under both IFOR and SFOR. And Jordanian and Moroccan troops are currently involved in the NATO-led KFOR operations in Kosovo.

Developing the Dialogue

Before the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001 and the Afghan and Iraq campaigns, thinking about enhancing the Dialogue was limited. With the exception of one report by the US think tank RAND Corporation, it tended to focus on increasing the frequency of political discussions, offering additional opportunities for ambassadorial meetings, encouraging Dialogue countries to organise events similar to the Rome and Valencia conferences and establishing direct links between NATO's International Military Staff and the armed forces in the Dialogue countries.

The RAND study, entitled The Future of NATO's Mediterranean Initiative: Evolution and Next Steps and published in 1999, presented several policy recommendations. These included measures aimed at reinforcing the non-governmental dimension; reformulating the region's security agenda to include terrorism, energy security, refugee flows, civil emergency planning, and WMD proliferation; moving towards practical PfP-like defence-related activities; making parliamentary activity a formal part of the Dialogue; establishing a crisis-prevention and confidence-building network for the Mediterranean; conducting bilateral defence exercises; establishing a NATO-Mediterranean defence-studies network; and increasing Dialogue funding. The report also recommended an eventual southern expansion of NATO to "further dilute NATO's traditional focus on Central Europe and open new possibilities for engagement in the South".

Today's security environment is, however, so changed from that prevailing in the 1990s that three fundamental aspects have to be taken into consideration when assessing future prospects of the Mediterranean Dialogue. These are geography; mechanisms of change; and a new value system.

Geography: Since 9/11 and the Afghan and Iraq campaigns, the potential geographic space for security cooperation between NATO and Dialogue countries has expanded eastward all the way to Afghanistan and possibly beyond. Moreover, whereas Dialogue countries used to be outside the North Atlantic area and therefore beyond the Alliance's security system, today's threats are such that physical boundaries are increasingly meaningless. The geographical setting of any security system is a key factor in planning, training, command and control, strategic transport, and intelligence operations. Geography can also dictate new types of missions and operations. As Egypt, Jordan and Morocco have already worked under NATO command in the Balkans, these same countries might now consider sending troops to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan or joining Alliance operations elsewhere to combat terrorism and WMD proliferation.

Mechanisms of change: If "geography" refers to space, "mechanisms of change" concern the time factor and the level of urgency, efficiency, cost and possible side effects involved. The "Clintonian" approach to the Southern and Eastern Mediterranean with its emphasis on dialogue, treaties, confidence building and economic incentives has already been superseded by intrusive, pre-emptive and interventionist policies. While the interventionist approach raises ethical, legal and political questions, it also presumes both regional and international responsibility for stabilisation and reconstruction. The Afghan and Iraq campaigns already appear to have accelerated the pace of change within the region and led to a series of indigenous initiatives including plans for reforming the Arab League, social, democratic and human rights reforms in Egypt and Libya's unilateral decision to give up its weapons of mass destruction.

New value system: The more interventionist US approach to the Middle East is accompanied by an attempt to change the value system in the region to bring it more in line with Western, democratic models. This process and the huge imbalance in power caused by the US military presence and the uneven possession of advanced weaponry in the region may generate further instability and possibly even fuel further acts of terrorism. By seeking to address the cultural aspects of security and promote values such as democracy, human rights and open society, it will be even more important to craft new operational concepts and cooperation strategies between NATO, the Dialogue countries and other actors in the region.

Way forward

The overall situation suggests advancing the Dialogue to practical cooperation in a wide array of new areas including the following:

Combating terrorism: This should be central to any security cooperation strategy with emphasis on combating the threat to the energy industry's infrastructure. The vulnerability of vital shipping lanes makes the threat of energy terrorism very real. As a result, any coordinated terrorist attack on energy facilities would cause serious disruption to global energy supplies and the world economy and might involve many casualties.

Combating WMD proliferation: This will involve cooperation in stopping the flow of WMD, their delivery systems, components and related materials at sea, in the air, and on land. The goal must be to adopt streamlined procedures for rapid exchange of relevant information concerning suspected proliferation activity and maximising coordination among partners' interdiction efforts.

Disaster relief and humanitarian response missions: The Iraqi post-war reconstruction experience has demonstrated the importance of developing a rapid response capacity to fill gaps in immediate post-conflict assistance. Such assistance is vital for reconstruction to begin.

De-mining operations: Humanitarian de-mining has become an integral part of peace-building operations. In addition to the terrible injuries that mines cause, they also present an obstacle to the economic development of entire regions. As a result, cooperation in this field could help increase solidarity between NATO and the Dialogue countries.

Peacekeeping operations: Peacekeeping is likely to be a major and fruitful area for cooperation and confidence building. In addition to training activities, cooperation in this field may be extended to joint force planning, the creation of regional peacekeeping modules, and military participation in disaster relief and humanitarian emergency response missions.

Joint media operations: Cultural factors may make joint media operations to help promote economic, military and democratic reforms desirable.

Building regional infrastructure: Parts of the Mediterranean region lack the infrastructure necessary to connect countries and conduct effective military operations. Construction of roads, airports, energy and information networks is vital for both security and regional development.

Clearly, the Mediterranean Dialogue has come a long way in the past decade and, as intended, has provided both NATO and Dialogue countries an opportunity to start to get to know each other. It is already an effective vehicle for information-sharing across the Mediterranean as well as a useful confidence-building forum. Having enlarged once to bring in Algeria, its door should remain open to other countries. Since Jordan, one of the original Dialogue members, is not strictly speaking a Mediterranean country, there should not be geographic limits on future participation. Gradually, therefore, this could be extended to include Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Syria, more Gulf states and even Iran. The example of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, which eventually evolved into the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, is instructive, since it sought, above all, to be an inclusive institution and to bring in a maximum number of states.

To date, the Mediterranean Dialogue has generally had a low profile in the region. Early perceptions in Dialogue countries were a mix of criticism and acceptance because the ultimate goals of this initiative were not clear either to security specialists or to the wider public. For the Dialogue to move towards new horizons of cooperation and partnership, the Alliance's on-going transformation needs to be explained in Dialogue countries and misperceptions about NATO's greater power-projection role have to be addressed. Moreover, the visibility of the Dialogue should be raised to build domestic support for closer relations with NATO. The Alliance might wish to take the lead here by facilitating discussion on the prospects of turning the Middle East and adjacent regions into a WMD-free zone.

Since the lack of progress in the Middle East peace process has been a major factor undermining both EU and NATO initiatives in the region, both institutions should consider taking on a greater conflict-resolution role there. This might be achieved, in the first instance, by building a strategic understanding between Europe and the United States on Middle Eastern issues similar to that developed in the early 1990s on approaches to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Such understanding would help kick-start and reinforce implementation of agreements that have already been negotiated and would help pave the way for deeper cooperation between the Alliance and Dialogue countries.

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