Building an “Atlantic Bridge” across the Mediterranean
WASHINGTON — The Chicago Summit provided an opportunity to restate the goal of cooperative security through partnerships, including as part of NATO’s evolving southern engagement. NATO allies committed to strengthening both the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) by consulting more regularly with their Arab partners on a broader range of issues. The current fragmentation of the Arab world, the Alliance’s negative reputation among some populations, and competing priorities as NATO undertakes reform and faces budgetary challenges all hamper the emergence of NATO as a true “hub” for security in the wider Middle East and North Africa region. But through bilateral partnerships and regional dialogue, NATO can explore in the coming months the architecture of a stronger “Atlantic bridge” across the Mediterranean.
Following the Arab Spring, several southern Mediterranean countries have embarked on a challenging process of democratic transition. This opens the prospect for expanding NATO’s existing partnerships to cover assistance in security sector reform and civil-military relations. NATO will assist only if requested. But leaders on both sides of the Atlantic agree that civilian oversight and control of the militaries will be among the key benchmarks of any genuine attempt at democratization in the Arab world. Meanwhile, the Arab Spring has been accompanied by strategic developments that have brought NATO and some of its partners in North Africa and the Gulf closer together. With Egypt’s new foreign policy orientation appearing dangerously revisionist, the Camp David order that guaranteed regional stability and Israel’s security since the 1970s has been called into question. At the same time, the spread of democratic politics and crises such as Syria have dealt a blow to Iran’s regional strategy. In this context, NATO’s engagement with Morocco and Jordan on one hand, and with Gulf States on the other, has increased. NATO could use its strengthening relationship with dynamic players such as the UAE and Qatar (both of which have provided military assets to the Operation Unified Protector in Libya) to explore closer engagement with the Gulf Cooperation Council as a whole. The offer by the State of Kuwait to host an ICI Regional Centre seems to go in the direction of greater regional coordination as NATO’s involvement deepens. Partnerships with Gulf countries will continue to be tailored to the specific needs and profile of individual partners, but could also lead to common regional initiatives, perhaps involving also the relevant members of the MD. Cooperation on functional issues such as energy and maritime security would benefit from a multilateral approach and could complement the strategic dialogue on Iran and the cooperation that is being developed with some of the Gulf States in Afghanistan. If the necessary interest and guarantees were found, the NATO-Gulf dialogue could, over time, allow for more ambitious goals such as a common approach to non-proliferation, or even a southward extension of the missile defense system that is now being implemented in the Atlantic space.
The strategic aspect of the Arab Spring, not the drive for democratization, would clearly provide the rationale for this expanding dimension of NATO’s southern engagement. While new geometries of partnership shape up in the Gulf, it would be highly dangerous for Atlantic allies to leave a big piece of the North African mosaic unsettled. NATO’s current disengagement from Libya after its successful military campaign is problematic as protracted instability is a distinct possibility given the divisions that characterize the post-Gaddafi era. The emergence of a failed state unable to control its vast territory, especially in the south, would embed instability in the North Africa region, making NATO’s Mediterranean engagement both more necessary and difficult. In the coming months, NATO leaders should devote greater attention to internal developments there and should clearly convey the message that they will not let Libya fail. This renewed attention could go a long way towards prompting local leaders to coalesce around a common vision of the new Libyan state, without which no transition, let alone any future international peace-building effort, can be successful.
Emiliano Alessandri is a transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.