Mustafa Alani presents his analysis of Arab attitudes to NATO and how the Alliance may seek to overcome stereotypes and prejudices.

Cold-War image: Although NATO has always been both a political and a military organisation, its Cold-Warstereotypical image was very much that of the military alliance ( © Nato)

Cold-War image: Although NATO has always been both a political and a military organisation, its Cold-War
stereotypical image was very much that of the military alliance ( © Nato)

In politics, perceptions of reality are often more important – and more dangerous – than reality itself. This is probably the case in all cultures and civilisations, but nowhere more so than in the Arab world. No matter how benign a particular policy or how good the intentions of its promoter, it will not be taken at face value. Rather, rightly or wrongly, it will be viewed from a perspective that is heavily laden with historical baggage. Until NATO is able to address this state of affairs and overcome the negative image it has in the Middle East, the Alliance has little prospect of ever playing a constructive role in the region.

Even though NATO is a newcomer to what is in any case an overcrowded Arab and Middle Eastern political arena, its image is already poor. This is not the result of anything that the Alliance per se has done in the region, since it has hardly done anything. Rather, it is a reflection of prevailing attitudes in the Arab world that are themselves rooted in Arab historical experience and, above all, Arab historical grievance. As a result, the policies and objectives of the Alliance in the Middle East have effectively been pre-judged, and the possibility of NATO playing a constructive role in the region all but written off by the Arab public.

NATO's outreach efforts towards the broader Middle East, like any other project in the Arab world, cannot be successful or credible unless the Alliance devotes time and resources both to assessing its existing image and building a better one. Understanding the difficulties that NATO is likely to face in its public-diplomacy efforts in the coming years requires some understanding of the Arab mentality, of deep-held convictions among Arabs and of the legacy of a series of historical events.

Negative image

Today’s elite in the Arab world, whether in state service, business or politics, is for the most part like me, that is male, Muslim and born in the early 1950s. Our perceptions of NATO were formed by the political environment in which we grew up and the events which we ourselves experienced. Without doubt, the image of NATO with which we grew up was negative. At best, our attitude was one of indifference. At worst, it was one of concern. This reflected a number of regional factors as well as the accepted wisdom of the time about the nature and objectives of the Alliance.

For the Arab public, NATO has no separate identity from those of the Western powers and states that created the Alliance and constitute its members. In this way, the Alliance's image has been formed by attitudes towards events in the Arab world involving major NATO members. These include France’s colonial rule and especially the Algerian War; Italy’s involvement in Arab North Africa; the United Kingdom’s occupation of and controlling influence in the Gulf region; and the seemingly unlimited and unswerving support provided to Israel by the United States. Indeed, rightly or wrongly, NATO’s direct or indirect “support” is still today perceived as the main reason behind Israel’s swift victory and Arab humiliation in the 1967 war.

Another factor contributing to NATO’s negative image in the Middle East is Turkish membership of the Alliance. Although Turkey is both a predominantly Muslim country and geographically stretches from Europe to the Middle East, Turkish membership does not necessarily help improve NATO’s image among Arabs. This is for two reasons. Firstly, in spite of its predominantly Muslim population, Turkey is an avowedly secular state. Secondly, as the successor to the Ottoman Empire, Turkey has its own imperial legacy in the Middle East to live down.

During the Cold War, the various political movements and ideologies that dominated the Arab political scene played an especially important role in undermining NATO's image among Arabs. The Arab nationalist movement, the Arab socialist movement, leftist and communist groups, as well as Islamist groups, all these political forces were and still are naturally hostile to the West and by extension to NATO. Moreover, most of these groups sympathised with NATO’s Eastern Bloc counterpart and rival, the Warsaw Pact. Although NATO has always been both a political and a military organisation, its Cold-War stereotypical image – whether in the West or the East – was very much that of the military alliance. Even though the Alliance traditionally only operated in the Euro-Atlantic area within clearly defined borders, Arabs tended to view NATO as a powerful, aggressive alliance committed to promoting the security and political interests of the West. In effect, whether justified or not, NATO was widely perceived, in the not so distant past, as an imperialist, colonialist club.

Since the Alliance had no need to counter its negative image during the Cold War, NATO took no steps to present itself in a different light and the image stuck. Today, as NATO seeks to engage the Middle East and carve out a constructive role for itself, it has to address the deep-rooted attitudes and entrenched prejudices of the wider Arab public. Indeed, in recognition of this situation, the Alliance identified public diplomacy as a priority area in its dealings with the Arab world. In this way, NATO is formally seeking to provide a better understanding of its transformation and current policies, to promote mutual understanding and to dispel any misconceptions about the Alliance. To have any chance of bearing fruit, such a strategy must take into consideration a number of factors and requirements, including those outlined below.

Overcoming stereotypes

To begin with, NATO needs to present itself as a security actor in its own right, that is as an organisation where policy and strategy is developed and decided by the collective efforts and participation of all Allies, as opposed to an alliance dominated by its most powerful members. This is important, above all, so that the Alliance can differentiate itself in Arab minds from those Allies that have historically played important roles in the Middle East and, in particular, from the United States. This is a major challenge since the Arab public is naturally suspicious and a strong believer in conspiracy theories. That said, it is not only Arabs who tend to view NATO as US-dominated and a vehicle for promoting and implementing US strategic objectives. Indeed, such views are even prevalent in various NATO member states.

For the Arab public, NATO has no separate identity from those of the Western powers that created the Alliance

The best way for NATO to overcome prejudice is, of course, to demonstrate that there is something in its new-found desire to engage the Middle East and Arab world for the target countries and populations. This is possible if the Alliance presents its bridge-building strategy in terms of a need for common policies and a genuine partnership between Western and Arab worlds to address the changes in the global security environment since the end of the Cold War and, in particular, the security threats confronting the international community since 9/11. In this way, NATO must offer, and be seen to be offering, two-way dialogue and cooperation, rather than simply pursuing its own interests and security agenda. To achieve this, NATO will have to make clear that membership in Alliance partnership initiatives is based on the free will of the states involved and to illustrate the benefits of partnership.

Illustrating the benefits of partnership is easier said than done. Although ten members of the Arab League have already joined either the Mediterranean Dialogue or the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, the two NATO cooperative programmes focused on this part of the world, the ultimate aims and objectives of NATO's albeit still modest engagement with the region are not understood. Both Arab elites and the wider public are largely confused by terms such as “dialogue”, “initiative” and “partnership” and wonder what they are actually going to produce in practical or policy terms. Is NATO able and willing to play an effective role in solving regional problems? Will NATO seek to become a neutral arbitrator in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Or will NATO seek to take on a diplomatic role akin to that of the European Union in regard to the alleged Iranian nuclear programme? Many suspect that NATO has yet to think through its policies towards the region and to work out where precisely the region fits in the Alliance’s overall strategy.

Another area of confusion is that of the nature of the relationship between NATO’s initiatives and strategies towards the Middle East, on the one hand, and the US Greater Middle East Initiative and bilateral US security and defence commitments with individual states, on the other. The four members of the Gulf Cooperation Council that have joined the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative since its June 2004 launch – Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates – all already have wide-ranging institutionalised security-military cooperation agreements with the United States. Moreover, these agreements cover many of the same areas that are highlighted in NATO's partnership initiatives, including the fight against terrorism; combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction; assistance in the fields of defence planning, military training and exercises; border security; and civil-emergency planning.

Although NATO needs to develop and project its own identity in the Arab world, countries with relationships with the United States also need to be reassured that there are no contradictions or conflicts of interest between their future commitments to NATO and their existing commitments to the United States. Here, Washington has to take the lead and make it unequivocally clear both that it supports the NATO initiatives and that participation in NATO programmes is complementary to participation in US programmes, whether bilateral or multilateral.

Developing policies

In developing policies towards what the Alliance has loosely termed the “broader Middle East”, NATO can and should become far more discerning. In reality, there is no such region. Rather, the Middle East is a series of sub-regions, each of which has its own specific security needs, political concerns and social and economic characteristics. NATO’s engagement with the countries of Arab North Africa, for example, does not necessarily have any bearing on countries in the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula or on the rest of the Arab world. Each sub-region requires a different approach that is tailored to the specific conditions prevailing there. NATO would therefore do well to develop a series of sub-regional approaches based on a more nuanced understanding of the situation on the ground to promote practical cooperation in line with the prevailing needs.

Even though NATO’s image is generally negative, it is not irreversibly so. This is, on the one hand, because the level of knowledge of the Alliance is still low and, on the other, because NATO is able to present itself as an organisation that has a history of supporting Muslim communities. While the Alliance took far too long to become involved and end the bloodshed in the former Yugoslavia, it has, since 1995, played an important role in defending the lives and protecting the interests of Muslims in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.* Moreover, the Alliance has been playing an increasingly significant role in stabilisation operations in Afghanistan since 2003, which is clearly of great benefit to that country’s Muslim population.

Interestingly, Arab media frequently allude to the possibility that one day NATO may take on a similar stabilisation role in Iraq to that which it has in Afghanistan. Whether NATO might eventually be able to play a similarly constructive role in Iraq is, however, unclear. Any decision to expand the NATO role beyond simply providing military training to the Iraqi armed forces would undoubtedly be extremely controversial. Moreover, it would be difficult to predict at this stage the kind of impact, whether positive or negative, NATO might have if the Alliance were to become more directly engaged in helping bring peace and stability to Iraq.

Given limited resources, NATO cannot hope to communicate with and promote its new regional initiatives among all sectors of Arab opinion and will therefore have to target its public-diplomacy efforts. In this way, the Allies will, for example, have to choose whether to focus attention on elites or to seek to influence and inform wider public opinion. While the two approaches are not mutually exclusive, they do require different tactics. Targeting the former is clearly easier and will likely generate more immediate results. But ultimately, NATO must also address its image among the wider public.

The best starting point for any communication strategy would probably be to establish an Arabic language NATO website, including an Arabic edition of NATO Review. The Alliance already publishes NATO Review in 24 languages, that is 22 Allied languages and Russian and Ukrainian, and might be pleasantly surprised at the number of new readers the magazine is able to acquire in the Arab world, were it to translate NATO Review into Arabic. The internet is an extremely powerful tool and provides an easy and highly effective way to communicate with vast numbers of people. Indeed, increasing numbers of young Arabs, especially journalists, researchers and students, are already turning to it as their primary source of information. Establishing an Arabic NATO website would therefore be an encouraging and bold first step towards bridging the current cultural and political divide. In time, it might also help pave the way for a more positive image of NATO to emerge in the region.