NATO Needs a Southern Strategy

January 27, 2014 Topic: NATOInternational InstitutionsGlobal Governance Region: Europe

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.

In the future, the European allies need to pay greater attention to capabilities such as precision guided munitions, surveillance, and refueling aircraft, as well as unmanned aerial vehicles. However, given the planned reductions and decline in defense spending by most alliance members, it may be very difficult to get key allies to make these needed investments.

Fourth, the deployment on the ground of special operations forces by Britain, France and other nations (especially Qatar and the United Arab Emirates) was critical to the success of the air campaign. These forces helped to arm and train the rebel forces and also coordinated close air support as rebel units advanced into Tripoli. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Qatar participated directly in the air strikes on Gadhafi’s forces. This underscores the importance of deepening cooperation with the GCC countries, especially Qatar and the UAE.

Finally, the Libyan campaign highlighted the importance of continued engagement and close cooperation between NATO and the EU in the post-combat stage. Many of Libya’s current political problems stem from the lack of coherent political-economic engagement and follow-up in the post-combat stage of the Libyan operation. The EU failed to provide the necessary economic and political engagement in the post-combat phase. This severely hindered Libya’s political transition and created a new opportunity for groups affiliated with Al Qaeda to expand their activities in the Maghreb, which in part led to the Mali crisis.


The Mali operation also provides useful lessons. There is a critical difference, however, between the operation in Libya and the Mali operation. Libya was a NATO military operation. Mali was a unilateral French operation with allied support. The United States provided military support in three areas—air refueling, intelligence, airlift—but France assumed operational responsibility for the mission.

The success of the Mali operation was significantly aided by the fact thatthere is a strong bipartisan consensus in France in support of the use of military force in North Africa, which France regards as a region of national strategic concern. This strong bipartisan consensus enabled France to intervene rapidly and effectively in Mali.

The Mali intervention demonstrated the value of prepositioning light equipment and associated high performance mobile forces in areas near the conflict zone. France was able to respond quickly to Islamist and Tuareg insurgents because light armored motorized equipment and motorized military units were prepositioned in the region. This too is something that NATO needs to carefully consider when contemplating a strategic reorientation toward the MENA region.


The development of a Southern Strategy will require strong support of—and participation by— America’s key NATO allies.

Germany’s decision not to participate in the Libya operation raises serious questions about whether the Alliance can rely on Berlin’s support for—and participation in—future military operations beyond Europe’s borders, even ones, like Libya that are carried out under a UN mandate. In line with its decision not to participate in the Libyan intervention, the German government removed its naval forces from the Mediterranean and withdrew its crews from the NATO AWACS.

During the first decade after the end of the Cold War, Germany sought to broaden its security horizons and participated in multilateral out-of-area missions. German fighter aircraft, for instance, flew sorties during the Kosovo air campaign. For Germany, this represented an important step in defense policy, especially since Operation Allied Force did not operate under a mandate from the UN Security Council.

In the last decade, however, Berlin has become increasingly risk-averse. Its top priority is to protect the prosperity and stability that it has achieved since the end of the Cold War. This has made it increasingly cautious about the use of military power, especially involvement in crises beyond Europe.

The key question is whether Germany will assume security responsibilities commensurate with its increasing economic strength. Or will it become a big Switzerland—a trading nation that concentrates on expanding business opportunities in a globalized market but leaves the heavy lifting regarding security and defense to others.

But it is not just Germany that is a cause for concern. Obtaining British participation in military operations beyond NATO’s borders may become harder for political as well as economic reasons. This point was dramatically underscored by the decision of the British House of Commons in late August 2013 to reject British participation in an aerial strike against Syria even after the Assad regime had used chemical weapons on a large scale against rebel-held territories near Damascus.