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Building a NATO partnership for the Greater Middle East

Chris Donnelly examines how NATO's experience with the Partnership for Peace might help build a comparable programme in the Greater Middle East.

Effective talk shop: A series of forums for regular political and military/security dialogue is needed for the wider Mediterranean region and Greater Middle East (© NATO)

A decade ago NATO launched two ground-breaking partnership programmes, the Partnership for Peace for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean Dialogue for countries in the wider Mediterranean region. Both programmes now have to be redesigned to take account of changes in Euro-Atlantic security such as NATO enlargement as well as the new challenges that the Alliance faces today. In seeking to reform the Mediterranean Dialogue and possibly extend it to cover more of the Middle East, much can be learned from the PfP experience.

Unlike the Partnership for Peace, the Mediterranean Dialogue has not been a great success. It has played no significant role in stabilising the region or in helping and promoting the evolution of participating countries. There are several reasons for this. They include a lack of investment of time, people and money; a profound suspicion and ignorance of NATO on the part of many countries in the region; the lack of those mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation on which the success of NATO and the Partnership for Peace is based, and, the inability to decouple wider regional security issues from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Whereas a decade ago NATO's prime security concern was the stabilisation and transformation of Central and Eastern Europe, today it is addressing problems coming from or passing through countries of the "Greater Middle East". If NATO is to meet the security concerns of its members, it will have to shift the focus of its attention from Central and Eastern Europe to this region over the coming months and years, and the Mediterranean Dialogue will have to evolve accordingly.

If the international community provides adequate resources for stabilising Afghanistan, then NATO's role in the International Security Assistance Force could provide a model applicable to Iraq and even, in time, to helping resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel's dilemma is that, the stronger it has become militarily the less secure the Israeli population feels. An "honest broker" is needed, trusted by both sides, which can help negotiate and then enforce a sophisticated security package. The United States cannot do this, nor can Europe, as neither is seen as impartial. However far-fetched this might seem at the moment, NATO is probably the only institution that could tackle this problem in the next few years.

Of course, these potential developments are all "ifs", and big "ifs" at that. But looking back over the past five years, let alone the past 15, the pace of NATO's evolution has far outstripped what was predicted at the time. The pace of world events is accelerating and NATO, despite its shortcomings, is the international institution which has proven the most flexible and capable of evolving to meet the demands of the new security environment. This is likely to continue to be the case, and NATO's evolution is likely to hold more surprises.

As the Alliance moves further from its "Cold-War" role as a passive defensive organisation towards becoming the proactive security organisation that today's "Hot Peace" requires, it is becoming increasingly evident to Allies that their security can only be achieved collectively. The divide between "Allies" and "Partners" needs to close rapidly. Allies' security can only be assured by close collaboration with Partners in Central and Eastern Europe and the Greater Middle East as well as with each other. It is this development which, more than any other, is today driving NATO's evolution, and provides the biggest incentive to make partnership programmes more substantive and better integrated into the Alliance's mainstream activities.

Building on success

If NATO's partnership mechanisms are to evolve to meet the new security challenges, it would be logical for this evolution to be based on the features of NATO which have been responsible for its success. Wags have sometimes joked that NATO stands for "No Action, Talk Only". It is, however, precisely the Alliance's ability to provide a forum for dialogue where members can argue out their problems rather than coming to blows over them that has been the basis of its success. This is what the Partnership for Peace did for those nations that wanted to join the NATO club, and what the Mediterranean Dialogue has to date failed to do, despite its name. Developing these mechanisms for the diverse situations now facing Central and Eastern Europe and the Greater Middle East is the fundamental challenge facing both the Partnership for Peace and the Mediterranean Dialogue.

NATO's mechanisms, both formal and informal, for creating a common defence and security culture are not only the basis for its traditional raison d'être - the provision of collective defence - but, when exported to Central and Eastern Europe, have proved to have a significant influence on the democratisation process as a whole. Democratic control of armed and security forces, civil military relations and defence reform are now known to be far more important elements of democratic and economic transformation of a country than was at first thought. These issues are still a challenge to many Eastern European and Balkan countries, but they are also today of great concern to many countries of the Greater Middle East. Developing these mechanisms and extending them to new parts of the globe will be an essential element of a new NATO partnership mechanism.

Allies' security can only be assured by close collaboration with Partners in Central and Eastern Europe and the Greater Middle East as well as with each other

To build security partnerships in the wider Mediterranean region and the Greater Middle East, NATO now needs to develop greater expertise in this part of the world and to increase institutional mechanisms for engagement. Just as NATO in the late 1980s and early 1990s had to develop greater institutional expertise in the Soviet Union and subsequently its successor states, so the Alliance today needs to do the same for the countries of North Africa and the Greater Middle East. The Partnership for Peace provides a model of the kind of framework necessary to support engagement primarily in so far as it was a mechanism capable of great flexibility. An analogous programme for the Mediterranean and Greater Middle East needs to take account of certain specific regional features, some of which are the same as were met within Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, and some of which are very different.

For example, there is almost total ignorance among populations, and even certain governments in the region, about the true nature of NATO. As a result, a long-term, broad-based information and communications programme is needed. This requires active engagement not only of government bodies but also of non-governmental organisations, as was done with Central and Eastern European countries a decade or more ago. But whereas Central and Eastern Europe saw the Partnership for Peace primarily as an implement to draw information and engagement out of NATO, and to get NATO to inject influence into Central and Eastern Europe, countries of North Africa and the Greater Middle East want first and foremost a means of getting their voice heard, and of influencing Allies' decision-making. This is good because we need to listen and understand before we can reply and formulate policies. Our influence in the region will be directly in proportion to our readiness to listen and to hear.

Within the region as a whole, civil society is less developed than in most of Europe, as was the case in Central and Eastern Europe 15 years ago. This makes the engagement of non-governmental organisations and universities important, both as a means of getting NATO's message across and to help the development of democracy. In some cases, such as Algeria, there is an immediate and specific need for access to experience and expertise in establishing a new civil-military relationship and democratic control of armed forces.

Whereas from the start, many Central and Eastern European countries wanted to join NATO, and the Partnership for Peace provided a mechanism for them to do so, the same is not true of countries of North Africa and the Greater Middle East. If public opinion in these countries sees a new initiative as being a revival of a military alliance, as a tool for Western pressure or control, or, worst of all, as a tool to give Israel an early perspective of NATO membership, then no progress will be made.

Forums for dialogue

For that reason, a new mechanism to replace the Mediterranean Dialogue should not include formal documents to be signed, particularly if they contain a list of principles and values to be shared. All that is needed in the first instance is a series of forums for regular political and military/security dialogue coupled with a dense web of cooperative offers on many levels based on the proven PfP principle of self-differentiation. These offers and invitations must be seen as being complementary to, and not rivalling, those of the European Union, and they must reflect what the countries themselves want and need. If they are seen as "top-down" proposals they will be politely ignored.

In parallel with a programme of information and diplomatic engagement, there is increasing scope for military confidence-building measures. Here, bilateral relations between NATO members and Central and Eastern European Partners on the one hand and Mediterranean and Greater Middle Eastern countries on the other can be mutually beneficial to developing multilateral links. But experience in this field teaches us that the Alliance needs to increase its sensitivity to concerns in the region. NATO force groupings operating in the Mediterranean, set up, of course, with other concerns in mind, can inadvertently appear threatening to North African countries.

In addition to the military and security confidence-building measures, which will be as valuable in the Mediterranean or Greater Middle East regions as they have been in Central and Eastern Europe, there is much greater scope for a formal information-sharing mechanism. There is a need for a new Partnership and Cooperation process to become a networking centre where everyone can find out what is going on in the region. This can perhaps most effectively be done with the help of an electronic system. There is no substitute for bringing people together on a regular basis to meet and talk, but extended use of video conferencing can certainly increase communication at low cost.

As "soft" security issues are less sensitive than hard military ones in most North African and Middle Eastern countries, it is the former which will be the most benign area in which NATO can initially become engaged. The NATO Science Programme is an ideal mechanism to break the ice. Using its Science Programme as well as other public diplomacy tools, NATO is in a good position to generate interest and debate in the region on new security issues that pose a common threat. Under the auspices of scientific and information programmes, NATO officials will be able to visit the regions more and also expand their own expertise. Just as in Central and Eastern Europe in the early 1990s, we can expect NATO's initiatives with these programmes to stimulate bilateral engagement by academic institutions in Allied countries. Such engagement will quickly lead to the much-needed development of think tanks in the region, with which collaborative programmes can be run. In current circumstances, non-governmental organisations and universities in Allied countries are aware of the need to refocus their attention on this part of the world, which many have neglected. A relatively modest initiative here by NATO can stimulate a flood of benign Western engagement, as it did in Central and Eastern Europe.

An important feature of such a focus, and one that is often undervalued, is the work that the NATO Parliamentary Assembly (NPA) can do with regional participants. Although the NPA is separate from NATO, its programmes are useful to support the Alliance's aims and to complement diplomatic and military activity. The NPA can often go where NATO's bureaucracy finds it difficult to tread and parliaments often find it easier to talk to one another than governments. A good example is the parliamentary dialogue that is currently taking place in the Caucasus in spite of regional tensions. Similar dialogue might help improve relations between certain North African countries.

Getting it right

The most important consideration for turning partnership and cooperation in this area into a success is to be able to divide up the area, formally or informally, to work in sub-regional clusters. Above all, the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian question needs to be separated from the issue of NATO's relationship with North African states. Many states of the region also have serious tensions with their own neighbours. For these reasons, collaboration with NATO is likely to develop first along bilateral lines and only secondly in a sub-regional collective forum.

A further consideration is that new security problems, including the key issue of terrorism, now concern states much further afield than the existing PfP or Dialogue members, including Indonesia and Pakistan. The new mechanisms should be capable of opening at least some of the dialogue to other countries with similar problems. After all, NATO's role in Afghanistan necessitates political contacts with distant countries. A painless and immediate mechanism for this would be, for example, to open NATO's Science Workshops to participants from these countries. At present, only residents of PfP and Dialogue countries are eligible to be invited to such activities.

In one area in particular it is important to draw the correct lesson from the development of Partnership for Peace. PfP membership was originally offered to all countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union without conditionality. Subsequently, for those countries such as Serbia and Montenegro that aspire to join the Partnership for Peace as a path to rejoining the Western community, a condition of democratisation and good governance has been imposed. While the value of this can be debated, one thing is certain. It is essential that a new programme for partnership and cooperation with North Africa and the Greater Middle East should include no such condition. The countries of the region will choose different paths towards democracy and modernisation, and will move at different speeds. They will resent anything that appears condescending or culturally imperialistic. The cultural gap between Europe and North America on the one hand and North Africa and the Greater Middle East on the other is greater today than that between East and West at the end of the Cold War. Efforts to help close this gap will be more effective if collaboration is offered gently and with sensitivity.

Although terrorism is as great a threat to Middle Eastern countries as it is to Europe and North America, and collaboration on this issue is of prime importance, representatives of these countries are tired of attending meetings where all conversations start by linking the Arab world and the threat of terrorism. We will get further in such discussions if we moderate our approach.

The feature of the Partnership for Peace that has had the greatest impact has undoubtedly been the establishment of official representations at NATO Headquarters. Providing office space for representatives from PfP countries and encouraging those countries to send serious civilian and military contingents to serve at NATO Headquarters created a momentum for change which immediately had a profound impact on all those countries which took up the opportunity. It will be this measure which, above all others, will contribute to building real dialogue and cooperation with countries of the Mediterranean and Greater Middle East.

Once such representation is in place, all the many and varied activities that have evolved within the Partnership for Peace can be developed for these regions too. The growth of a team of national representatives who understand NATO and who can begin to transmit their understanding back to their own capitals makes engagement possible in a way that nothing else can do. All the programmes open to PfP countries become immediately accessible. Diplomatic engagement becomes more effective. Most important of all, it is the presence of a decent-sized representation that opens the informal channels of communication. Much of NATO's real work in smoothing out conflicts and eliminating friction is done face to face by mid-level diplomats and officers in the bar, the restaurant or the corridors of the Headquarters. Indeed, it is the fact that all national delegations and representations, military and non-military, are co-located under one roof that makes NATO unique. The congenial atmosphere that this fosters allows real diplomacy to flourish. It is this privilege that we need to extend to our Mediterranean and Middle Eastern colleagues.

As the Partnership for Peace is itself overhauled and re-branded, there will almost inevitably be a greater degree of collaboration between it and the new mechanisms for dialogue and cooperation with North Africa and the Middle East. Perhaps the best solution, therefore, would be one common umbrella programme covering all aspects of partnership, both the Partnership for Peace and the Mediterranean Dialogue, beneath which there could be a greater distinction between the regions, and between parts of the whole: a "Partnership for Cooperation" which takes in Central and Eastern Europe, the wider Mediterranean region and the Greater Middle East.

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