Carlo Masala examines the evolution of NATO’s policy towards the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Helping Iraqis to help themselves: NATO is running a training centre for senior security and defence officials in the outskirts of Baghdad ( © SHAPE)

Helping Iraqis to help themselves: NATO is running a training centre for senior security and defence officials in the outskirts of Baghdad ( © SHAPE)

NATO has had a Mediterranean dimension for as long as it has existed. But only in the very recent past has the Alliance begun to devote the attention and resources to turn this aspect of its agenda into a priority area. In the process, NATO has raised expectations concerning its future role in the broader Middle East, including speculation about future roles in stabilising Iraq and even in bringing peace to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, that may be difficult to live up to.

NATO’s relationship with the Mediterranean may be divided into three phases. The first began with the ratification of the Washington Treaty, since Article 6 of NATO’s founding charter specifically included the “Algerian Departments of France” in the North Atlantic Treaty area. The second footnote to the Washington Treaty from January 1963 effectively deletes that reference in the wake of Algerian independence. But by that time, two more Mediterranean countries, Greece and Turkey, who had joined NATO in 1952 in the Alliance’s first enlargement, were established Allies.

The second phase extended from the period of decolonisation to the end of the Cold War, during which time the Mediterranean was described as NATO’s “Southern Flank”.

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and disintegration of the Soviet Union transformed the geopolitics of the Euro-Atlantic area and heralded the third phase of NATO’s Mediterranean engagement. Whereas Europe had now embarked on the road to unity and integration, the Mediterranean was increasingly an area of potential conflict as a result of the rise of Islamic extremism in North Africa and the Middle East, the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and growing demographic pressures. In the intervening decade and a half, this third phase has evolved in such a way that NATO’s broader Mediterranean policy may now be divided into three pillars, that is the Mediterranean Dialogue, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative and the Alliance’s involvement in Iraq.

Mediterranean Dialogue

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, France, Italy and Spain sought to foster trans-Mediterranean cooperation in regional frameworks such as the Conference for Security and Cooperation in the Mediterranean and the Western Mediterranean Group. These initiatives failed to prosper, however, as a result of civil war in Algeria and the imposition of international sanctions against Libya.

At the same time, a consensus emerged among the Allies that stability and security in Europe were closely linked to stability and security in the Mediterranean. Hence NATO’s decision in February 1995 to “initiate a direct dialogue with Mediterranean non-member countries”. Following consultations with Mediterranean countries, Egypt, Israel, Morocco, Mauritania and Tunisia accepted invitations to join what became known as the Mediterranean Dialogue.

The method initially applied to the Mediterranean Dialogue may be described as “reactive” and “gradual”. It was “reactive” in the sense that NATO’s primary goal was to dispel mistrust about its objectives and to promote a better understanding of the Alliance in the Mediterranean Dialogue countries. It was “gradual” because the Dialogue was effectively designed as a gateway through which to identify and develop areas of cooperation.

Since its creation, the Mediterranean Dialogue has constantly enlarged its membership, enhanced its activities and deepened its agenda. The number of participating countries has increased from five to seven, after invitations were extended to Jordan in November 1995 and Algeria in February 2000. At NATO’s 1997 Madrid Summit, a Mediterranean Cooperation Group was created, bringing representatives of the NATO Allies together with their peers from Mediterranean Dialogue countries in political discussions in both bilateral – the NATO Allies plus one Mediterranean Dialogue country – and multinational – the NATO Allies plus all Mediterranean Dialogue countries – frameworks.

Also in 1997, an Annual Work Programme was created covering activities ranging from cooperation in military activities, to civil-emergency planning, crisis management and disaster relief. In 2002, NATO foreign ministers decided to upgrade the practical and political dimension of the Dialogue by putting new items on the agenda such as consultations on security matters of common concern, including terrorism-related issues. At its 2004 Istanbul Summit, the Alliance offered to elevate the Mediterranean Dialogue to a genuine partnership. In its wake, a first meeting between NATO and all Mediterranean Dialogue countries at the level of foreign ministers took place in Brussels in December 2004, underlining the programme’s enduring importance for both Allies and Mediterranean countries.

The evolution of the Mediterranean Dialogue from a modest forum for cooperative security dialogue into a genuine partnership seems to appeal to other Mediterranean countries. The Palestinian Authority, for example, has expressed an interest in joining.

Istanbul Cooperation Initiative

The second pillar of NATO’s engagement in the Mediterranean is the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) that was launched at NATO's 2004 Istanbul Summit. Its aim is to establish cooperative relations with the countries of the broader Middle East and notably with individual members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Broadly speaking, the ICI follows the logic of the enhanced Mediterranean Dialogue, focusing on areas of common interest such as cooperation in the fight against terrorism, defence reform and joint training.

The key principles of this initiative, which has to date been joined by Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, are joint ownership, flexibility and complementarity. Joint ownership means that the ICI is a two-way street and must be supported by both sides. NATO does not wish to impose anything on ICI partners but is instead eager to listen to their ideas and learn about their needs to identify areas for cooperation. The initiative is sufficiently flexible to allow for the different needs and interests of the partners. Moreover, NATO is only engaged in those areas where it can bring added value to the region and has no intention of duplicating or competing with initiatives undertaken by other actors such as the G8 or the European Union.

In practice, the initiative offers tailored menus of cooperation activities for ICI participants covering a wide range of fields, including providing advice on defence reform, defence budgeting, defence planning and civil-military relations. There is a special focus on cooperation in the fight against terrorism, sharing intelligence-related data, cooperating in the field of border security and in combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the means of their delivery.

Stability and security in Europe are closely linked to stability and security in the Mediterranean

Anticipating the future direction of this initiative, three options appear to be currently available to NATO and its partners. The first may be described as a “gentle-collaboration” strategy. This should primarily emphasise “soft” security, that is information networking and the creation of a “dense web of cooperative efforts”. This strategy focuses on confidence-building and imposes few, if any, political preconditions, requirements, or desired end-states on ICI members. With this flexible approach, ICI members should be encouraged to combine their activities as frequently as possible (in groups of two or more). This is in effect the current approach.

The second option may be described as a “measured-collaboration” strategy in which NATO seeks to develop institutional links with the GCC and specifically to engage GCC members in targeted areas of cooperation. This is not on the agenda at present.

The third option may be described as a “states-further-afield” strategy. This would involve bringing as many countries in the broader region into the ICI as possible and developing cooperative initiatives and activities with all of them. Such an approach should help ensure early participation in and ownership of the ICI by its member states. Moreover, in the longer term, it might even lead to the creation of a regional security forum along similar lines to the ASEAN Regional Security Forum in Southeast Asia, including both regional and extra-regional actors.

Iraq and beyond

The third pillar of NATO’s Mediterranean engagement is the Alliance’s involvement in Iraq. Although disagreements among Allies over the Iraq War were so great that the then US Ambassador to NATO, Nicholas Burns, described them as a “near-death experience”, realism and pragmatism rapidly returned once the dust had settled. Indeed, irrespective of their positions in the run up to the US-led campaign, today all Allies have an interest in the creation of a stable and democratic Iraq and in ensuring that the Iraqi security forces can assume greater responsibility for their own security. In this way, the Allies agreed at the Istanbul Summit to assist Iraq with the training of its security forces.

In response to a request from the Iraqi government, NATO established a Training Mission in Iraq and is now running a training centre for senior security and defence officials on the outskirts of Baghdad. The Alliance also helps coordinate offers of equipment and training from individual NATO and Partner countries. Moreover, in addition to in-country training, NATO is hosting mid and senior-level Iraqi officers at the Alliance’s various educational establishments, including the NATO Defense College in Rome.

Elsewhere in Iraq, NATO has no stabilisation role, but is providing support to Poland in terms of intelligence, logistics expertise, movement coordination, force generation and secure communications. In this way, Poland has, since September 2003, been able to command a sector – Multinational Division Central South – in which troops from both Allied and Partner countries are operating.

To date, all NATO’s activities in the wider Mediterranean region have been modest and, above all, cautious. The Alliance has sought to handle regional sensitivities with care and not to put the progress that has been achieved at risk. At the same time, however, NATO has been building the regional expertise and investing in the necessary relationships that may, in time, enable the Alliance to become a more influential actor. Moreover, while the caution NATO has displayed so far may have reflected conditions on the ground, many of the region’s greatest security challenges, such as stabilising Iraq and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, demand a more proactive approach.

Although the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not currently on NATO’s agenda and the Alliance is not a party to the Middle East peace process, a possible NATO role in resolving this long-running dispute has been discussed in political and academic circles. Indeed, commentators and analysts have proposed both extending a NATO security guarantee to Israel and a peacekeeping role for the Alliance between a sovereign Palestinian state and Israel.

While strengthening the ties between Israel and NATO is feasible in the framework of the Mediterranean Dialogue, Alliance officials have repeatedly made clear that three pre-conditions need to be met before NATO could consider playing a more active role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These are a stable and lasting peace accord between the two parties to the conflict; agreement between Israel and Palestine about a role for NATO; and a UN mandate for NATO’s operation. That said, in the event that these pre-conditions are met, the weight of expectation will be so great that the Allies may have little choice but to take on the challenge, thereby opening another chapter in NATO’s history.