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.

The vote was an embarrassing defeat for the Cameron government, which had had been among the most hawkish NATO members regarding intervention prior to the vote. While the negative outcome was in part the result of poor party management on Cameron’s part, it also reflected broader trends in British domestic politics that could have an important impact on future US-British military cooperation.

There has been a visible shift in the public mood over the past decade within the Conservative Party. Given the deterioration of the British economy and the global recession, many Conservative MPs are calling for Britain to play a more modest role in world affairs. At the same time, they are less willing to follow the American lead in foreign affairs than in the past. A good deal of this sentiment is attributable to the impact of the Iraq war. Tony Blair’s decision to support George W. Bush in the Iraq war was highly unpopular with the British public and has diminished support for U.S. policy among the British population

At the same time, the austerity measures introduced by the Cameron government have resulted in deep cuts in funding for the British armed forces. As former secretary of defense Robert Gates has noted, these cuts will significantly limit the ability of British forces to engage in future military operations with the United States. Many British military officers grumble that Cameron wants the strategic benefits of a strong defense but does not want to pay for it.

In contrast to Britain, France firmly sided with Obama, supporting military intervention after the Syrian use of chemical weapons even without a UN mandate. However, President Obama’s decision to abruptly drop plans for a military strike and sign on to President Vladimir Putin’s proposal to put Syria’s chemical weapons under international control to facilitate their destruction left Hollande in the lurch and was seen in Paris and elsewhere, particularly Saudi Arabia, as a sign of irresolution and lack of steadfastness on Obama’s part.


These new challenges in the south will require new security approaches. In the future, most interventions involving NATO are likely to be undertaken by ad hoc coalitions of the willing, some of whom may be NATO members while others may not be. This underscores the importance of having capable regional partners who can operate effectively with NATO forces and focusing on programs like the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, which are designed to enhance interoperability between NATO and regional partners.

ICI has been quite successful in this regard. As noted, Qatar and the UAE participated in the Libya operation while the UAE and Bahrain participated in ISAF in Afghanistan. NATO should build on the readiness of the GCC countries to participate actively in NATO operations to expand and deepen cooperation with the GCC countries.

Three issues in particular could be useful areas for increased cooperation. The first is missile defense. The prospect that Iran may acquire a nuclear arsenal in the not too distant future is likely to intensify the interest of the GCC countries in missile defense and other measures designed to reduce GCC states’ vulnerability to nuclear blackmail. However, even if this threat is contained through an emerging “Grand Bargain” between Iran and the P5+1, Iran is likely to acquire a very large arsenal of increasingly accurate conventionally armed long-range missiles, possibly from China, that will present a potent strategic threat in its own right.

Energy security is another area where cooperation could be usefully expanded. The European members of NATO are highly dependent on oil and gas from the Middle East and Gulf to fuel their economies. They have a strong interest in making sure that supply lines from the Middle East and Gulf remain open. As major energy exporters, the GCC states also have an interest in secure supply lines. Enhancing maritime security could open up another avenue for potential cooperation.

Finally, there is a need to sustain a credible deterrent posture vis-a-vis Iran even if its nuclear program is contained through a negotiated agreement. As noted above, Iran’s nonnuclear military power is likely to increase as a consequence of the end of the UN sponsored embargoes. The GCC states, as well as Turkey and Israel, will have to be strategically reassured—a potential major mission for NATO that will be militarily and politically very demanding.

However, as NATO focuses increasingly on the south, it should not neglect its core interests in the East. Russian pressure on Ukraine to abandon negotiations on an association agreement with the European Union, squashing Kyiv’s hopes of closer integration with Europe, is a sharp reminder that Russia has not given up the use of strong-arm tactics against its neighbors. Thus NATO needs to continue to monitor Russia’s ambitious military modernization plans carefully and maintain a strong deterrent capability on its Eastern periphery.

F. Stephen Larrabee holds the Distinguished Chair in European Security at the RAND Corporation. Peter Wilson is an Adjunct Staff Member at RAND.

[1] For a comprehensive discussion of the impact of these reductions, see F. Stephen Larrabee, Stuart E. Johnson, John Gordon IV, Peter A. Wilson, Caroline Baxter, Deborah Lai, Calin Trenkov-Wermuth. NATO and the Challenges of Austerity (Santa Monica, CA: RAND MG-1196-OSD,2012 ).

[2] Gates noted that with substantial reductions in defense spending in Great Britain, British forces won’t have full-spectrum capabilities and the ability to be a full partner with US forces, as they have been in the past. See Karla Adam “Gates warns that British defense cuts weaken military partnership with U.S.,” Washington Post, January 17, 2014.