NATO Needs a Southern Strategy

After ages looking east, NATO needs to refocus toward threats from North Africa and the Middle East.

In the first two decades after the end of the Cold War, NATO looked predominantly east, toward Central and Eastern Europe, Ukraine and Russia. Today it is being drawn increasingly south to the Mediterranean, Middle East and Gulf for a simple reason—this is where many of the new challenges are located. If NATO wants to avoid strategic irrelevance, it needs to give increasing attention to the threats from the MENA region and develop a “Southern Strategy.”

The southern members of the Alliance, particularly Italy and Spain, have long advocated the development of such a strategy. However, their calls initially received little attention, as NATO’s top priority at the time was the integration of Central and Eastern Europe into Western security structures. Since the completion of the second round of NATO enlargement, however, the Alliance has begun to focus increasing attention on threats from the south.


TheMediterranean Dialogue (MD), initiated in l994, signaled the Alliance’s recognition of the growing importance of security challenges from the south. The MD includes: Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Israel, Jordan, Egypt and Mauritania. Progress in developing the initiative, however, has been slow. While bilateral cooperation has developed relatively smoothly, multilateral cooperation has proven difficult because of members’ differences with Israel regarding the Palestinian issue and more recently the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations.

The Mediterranean Dialogue has also been hindered by the proliferation of various other dialogues on Mediterranean security. Many Mediterranean countries found it hard to distinguish between these various diplomatic initiatives. The political and military dialogues on Mediterranean security conducted by NATO and the WEU, for instance, had largely the same goals and included nearly the same countries.

NATO’s comparative advantage is in “hard” security. However, many of the Dialogue countries prefer to concentrate on “soft” security issues such as migration and cultural security—issues that are better dealt with in other fora such as the EU’s Barcelona process. As a result, the impact of the Mediterranean Dialogue has remained limited.


The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), launched at NATO’s summit in Istanbul in June 2004, has been more successful. Initiated by President George W. Bush, the ICI focuses on intensifying practical cooperation with the states of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) in areas such as:

  • Defense transformation, defense budgeting, defense planning and civil-military relations.
  • Enhancing interoperability
  • Anti-terrorism cooperation, including intelligence-sharing
  • measures
  • WMD counterproliferation
  • Cooperation in enhancing border security
  • Civil emergency planning

Four out of six members of the GCC (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE) are members of the ICI. Saudi Arabia and Oman, while not members of the ICI, have a regular political dialogue with NATO.

In contrast to the Mediterranean Dialogue where cooperation has focused primarily on seminars and dialogue, cooperation in the ICI has involved participation in actual NATO operations. Qatar and the UAE participated in the NATO air campaign against Libya and played a key role in training the rebel forces in Libya while the UAE and Bahrain participated in the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. Qatar also hosted the NATO Combined Air Operations Center (CAOC) for air space management on its territory.


Any attempt to develop a Southern Strategy needs to take into consideration lessons from recent efforts at crisis management in the south. The Libyan air campaign provides a number of important lessons for the future.

First, the Libyan intervention underscored that NATO members cannot assume that the United States will take the lead in every crisis. President Obama made clear that while the United States was prepared to take the lead in the initial phase of the intervention where American military assets were unique, Washington expected its European allies to take primary responsibility for the mission after the end of the initial phase. Thereafter the United States would “lead from behind.”

This does not mean that the United States will not provide leadership but rather that Washington will be more selective about when, where and how it intervenes in the future and that Washington expects its European allies to take the lead in some cases, especially in North Africa, where Europe has historically had strong interests.

Second, the Libyan operation highlighted the importance of obtaining broad political support for operations in the Middle East. The UN mandate and backing of the Arab League were critically important in obtaining political support for the air campaign and giving it legitimacy. Without the UN mandate and support of the Arab League many NATO allies and partners would have refused to participate in and lend political support to the air campaign.

Third, the Libyan campaign exposed a number of operational and planning weaknesses. Despite its overwhelming technological and numerical superiority against a fifth-rate military opponent, the coalition faced shortfalls in ammunition and weaponry in a number of areas. Many missions could not be carried out and sustained without significant U.S. military assistance.