NATO and Its South: Redefining the Terms

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On May 7, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) released a report that lays out the findings of a “comprehensive and deep reflection process on the southern neighbourhood” carried out by a group of independent experts. This process derives from a tasking at the 2023 Vilnius summit pushed mainly by nations from NATO’s southern flank. This report comes against the backdrop of Russia’s aggression toward Ukraine, which has refocused NATO on its core mandate—collective defense and deterrence—and on its eastern flank. This refocusing follows three decades of post–Cold War soul-searching, which led to a constant expansion of the alliance’s missions, with an increasing emphasis on “crisis management” and a multiplication of out-of-area operations, with arguably mixed results and legacies. As a result, there is considerable friction, both among NATO members and between NATO and countries in its South, about the desired level of engagement in and with the southern neighborhood. The report shows a genuine and serious effort to factor in the many parameters and stakes, informed by exchanges with allies; NATO staff; and representatives, institutions, and civil society based in its southern partner states. Its recommendations are meant to guide discussions on the issue ahead of and during the July 2024 Washington summit.

Q1: What is the track record and perception of NATO in African and Middle Eastern regions?

A1: Over the years, NATO has increased institutional engagement in and with countries from what it calls its “South,” a vast area spanning from West Africa to Central Asia. This engagement has taken the form of institutional partnerships via the Mediterranean Dialogue launched in 1994 and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, which included four Gulf countries and was launched in 2004. NATO also established a southern hub within the Allied Joint Force Command Naples in 2017.

Nevertheless, NATO’s history with its South and perception in the region remains largely marked by its military interventions in Afghanistan (2003–2021) and in Libya (2011). Both failed to bring stability, if not witnessing a deterioration of the local and regional security environment. The report is clear-eyed when it states that:

"The perception of NATO and Allies in the southern neighbourhoods is somewhat negative. For many in the region, NATO is perceived as adopting double standards in responding to crises and conflicts on the world stage and is perceived as using its military assets to project power and interests from the ‘so-called’ “Global North” without fully taking into account the needs and concerns of the South."

This perception is unevenly shared in the region, with some specific countries having developed close partnerships with the alliance, such as Jordan (one of the four Enhanced Opportunities Partners), Mauritania, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. But it might conversely be an understatement in some areas, such as in the Sahelian states, where a dominant narrative is that the 2011 NATO-led campaign in Libya is the original cause of the region’s current instability. The subsequent collapse of the Libyan state that resulted from what Africans see as NATO’s aggressive action, despite the organization framing itself as a defensive alliance, led to a mass exodus of foreign fighters from Qaddafi’s army, with the fighters fanning out across the Sahel and carrying with them stockpiles of Libyan weapons. This dramatic event is seen locally as the starter’s pistol to more than a decade of violence, instability, and military coups that have plagued the region (which the United Nations today refers to as “the global epicentre of terrorism”) ever since. NATO’s hasty retreat from Libya in the aftermath of state collapse is not unrelated to the country’s current predicament, and it has more widely created both an impression of unreliability and of an organization interested in its security even at the expense of others. 

Complicating the African view of NATO even further is the organization’s language that “the Russian Federation is the most significant and direct threat to Allies’ security and to peace and stability in the Euro-Atlantic area.” In the past two years, at least four Sahelian states have invited Russian military trainers to replace trainers from NATO member states as those countries’ security partner of choice. At a moment when Sahelian states are aligning more closely with Russia under the guise of asserting sovereign rights over their own security, governance, and economic futures, this has in many ways meant a broad rejection of the seemingly “neo-colonial” policies of traditional partners, amplified by misinformation and disinformation. 

In the Middle East, the alliance’s actual footprint has been limited. But Washington’s “war on terror” and the “forever wars” of Iraq and Afghanistan have taken a toll, by association, on NATO’s image in the region. At the same time, demonstrating its adaptability after an initial withdrawal in 2011, NATO redeployed to Iraq in 2018 amid the fight against the Islamic State, complementing the efforts of the coalition to defeat the Islamic State and providing strategic advice to the Iraqi ministries of defense and the interior. In addition, NATO has conducted several maritime security operations, such as Operation Ocean Shield in the Gulf of Aden from 2009 to 2015 and Operation Sea Guardian in the Mediterranean, which has been active since 2016. Simultaneously, for countries that have tied their security to U.S. security guarantees, such as Jordan and the Gulf countries, NATO remains a reference model, the yardstick against which to compare their own defense relationship with the United States—which they have been striving to upgrade. 

Q2: Why was a report on NATO’s southern flank published?

A2: This report stems from a shared concern by some southern NATO countries that the renewed focus on the eastern flank could result in less attention to the threats emanating from the southern flank, including terrorism, the weaponization of energy resources, and irregular immigration. Notably, Spain, the host country of the 2022 Madrid summit, was instrumental in ensuring that the significance of these challenges and threats was reflected in NATO’s new strategic concept and was consistent with NATO’s broader 360-degree approach.

Southern European countries have since maintained pressure on NATO’s international staff to have clearer deliverables or actionable plans to ensure the alliance’s enduring interest in its “southern neighbourhoods.” This eventually led the North Atlantic Council to commission an independent group of experts to formulate a set of political guidelines, centered around NATO's objectives and potential roles in these neighborhoods, at the 2023 Vilnius summit. A group of 11 independent experts was appointed on October 6, 2023. The report’s recommendations should be discussed ahead of the July 2024 Washington summit, during which some decisions should be made on the matter.

Q3: What are the key takeaways from the report?

A3: The experts paint a grim picture of the security environment in this broad area. They assess that the challenges of the southern flank are increasingly interconnected with those of the east, by way of Russia, and that the security of allies is closely intertwined with that of the Middle East, North Africa, the Sahel, and the Gulf of Guinea region. A novel aspect of the report is its focus not only on threats and risks but also on opportunities (a term that appears 16 times).

The report suggests a change in semantics when referring to the region, and it coins the term “southern neighborhoods,” with a final “s,” to better reflect the diversity of the subregions, each with unique political landscapes requiring tailored approaches. A crucial emphasis is placed on the need to listen, engage, and better understand the southern neighborhoods. The report insists that this must be a two-way process involving political dialogue, credibility, trust, and coherence. The southern neighborhoods must also gain a deeper understanding of NATO, given the existing negative perceptions of the organization. According to the report, NATO needs to undertake internal efforts to simplify processes and enhance transparency, thereby improving its image among neighboring regions.

The report tackles the vast region through two angles. First, the report employs a geographic lens, offering recommendations for short-, medium-, and long-term actions in the three “regions of strategic interest”: North Africa, the Middle East, and the Sahel and Sub-Saharan Africa. Second, it examines thematic areas of cooperation such as human security; women, peace, and security; counterterrorism; maritime security; climate change; public diplomacy and strategic communications; and foreign information manipulation and interference (FIMI).

The key recommendations of the report can be broken down into three categories.

The first category includes some institutional measures, such as the appointment of a special envoy for the southern neighborhood, the convening of a special summit meeting with all of NATO’s southern partners, or the establishment of NATO political representation within the African Union. It is also noteworthy that, in the context of the war in Gaza, the paper proposes that NATO invites the Palestinian Authority to observe or participate in NATO’s ongoing Mediterranean Dialogue activities, in accordance with existing practices.

Second, the report makes recommendations related to concrete cooperation, notably in terms of training and capacity building, building on the experience of NM-I, which could be replicated to the benefit of other partners. The report also emphasizes the potential for maritime security cooperation and cooperation on resilience, including via the establishment of resilience advisory support teams.

Finally, special attention is given to information and communication, mutual knowledge, and civil society engagement. The report suggests setting up a Counter-FIMI Centre of Excellence and a permanent “Facts for Peace” initiative, as well as promoting youth engagement.

Relatively absent from the report, however, is a thorough analysis of interallied relations and dynamics regarding engagements toward the southern neighborhoods. While the report hints at risks of dispersion and duplications, it glosses over the competition and sometimes tensions among alliance members who have conflicting interests in some theatres, such as Libya, Syria, Iraq, or West Africa.

Q4: How might NATO go about implementing the report’s recommendations?

A4: NATO should be careful; the West’s overreliance on security approaches to advance its own counterterror interests has been, at best, insufficient, and at worst counterproductive. For NATO to rebuild those relations, it first should demonstrate that it is genuinely interested in long-term partnerships that will deliver net benefits to African and Middle Eastern states—what their leaders regularly call “win-win” arrangements. It would do well to take a holistic approach to advancing its objectives: focusing on helping to develop state capacity and civic institutions, in close coordination with the European Union and the United Nations, which remain the best equipped in these fields. 

Special attention should be given to strategic communication. In 2021, NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg’s unconcerted announcement of a troop surge for NM-I, increasing its personnel from 500 up to 4,000, sparked outrage in Iraq. This announcement, which came one year after the adoption of a resolution by the Iraqi Parliament calling for the departure of all foreign troops, was widely exploited by pro-Iranian groups. Heeding the lessons learned, NM-I has embarked on a course correction, emphasizing in its communication a steadfast commitment to Iraqi sovereignty and a close partnership with the Iraqi government, which is currently led by parties aligned with Tehran. The faux pas highlights the importance of tailoring communication strategies to local contexts and political sensitivities, in Iraq and elsewhere.

Some elements of the report show a real effort to move toward a demand-driven, cooperative approach that factors in “local contexts.” It notably underlines the need for “navigating non-exclusivity,” hinting at many partners’ wariness of “being drawn into a geopolitical struggle” and their willingness to maintain cooperation with NATO’s strategic competitors. The report’s emphasis on “inclusivity” and broader engagement with “parliaments, media, civil society and youth,” as well as “scholars and think tankers,” is certainly moving in the right direction. Ultimately, it’s a strong and engaged civil society that is the best antidote to Russian and other competitors’ meddling, terrorist recruitment, and military rule.

Mathieu Droin is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Carlota García Encina is a senior associate (non-resident) with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at CSIS. Cameron Hudson is a senior fellow in the Africa Program at CSIS. Selin Uysal is a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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Mathieu Droin
Visiting Fellow, Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program
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Carlota García Encina
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program

Selin Uysal

Visiting Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy