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Flexible Security Arrangements and the Future of NATO Partnerships

February 16, 2021
NATO’s engagement with partner countries has played a key role in the evolution of the alliance.

NATO’s engagement with partner countries has played a key role in the evolution of the alliance. Beyond laying the foundation for enlargement, it has been instrumental to peacekeeping and stabilization efforts. At the same time, it has helped facilitate interoperability of forces and exported standards of democratic governance and military professionalism. Yet, over time, NATO’s partnership policy has been hampered by increasingly outdated frameworks, political barriers, and decreased institutional bandwidth. Simultaneously, security challenges have increased in and near Europe, as well as across the globe, altering traditional conceptions of security in the Euro-Atlantic area.

Responding to these changes, several European NATO members and partners have pursued a networked approach to security, creating and joining smaller groupings to tackle various challenges. Some of these groupings address a specific problem within or in connection with NATO structures, while others operate outside of the alliance. This paper refers to the former as “flexible” and to the latter as “minilateral” formats.

This has allowed European NATO members and partners to work toward common interests and priorities, enabling more swift decisions making and filling gaps in capabilities and readiness by sidestepping institutional red tape. Meanwhile, NATO has tried to adapt its partnership policy, but it lacks a comprehensive approach for doing so. Yet, the global nature of challenges facing the alliance requires a broader and more efficient partnership agenda that builds on past successes and adapts to the current context.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg highlighted the importance of partnerships in the context of these growing global challenges as he launched NATO 2030 last year—an initiative to identify priorities for the coming decade to help inform a new strategic concept. To ensure that the alliance and its partners can effectively navigate the changing security environment, it needs to rethink its partnership policy. This should include a stocktaking of NATO’s partnership frameworks and consider more collaborative and dynamic alternatives to the recent tendency to over-bilateralize its partnership engagement.

This paper explores how NATO can apply the lessons of its partnership history and successful examples of minilateral and flexible arrangements to an updated approach. It proposes a dynamic issue- and interest-based partnership policy that places a greater focus on relevant political dialogue and consultation with partners to help inform the alliance’s strategic direction, particularly as it develops a greater political competency resulting from the NATO 2030 process. The paper also considers the viability of more flexible groupings of members and partners with shared interests under the NATO umbrella to address global threats emanating from a broad set of actors and circumstances—from geopolitical rivals to disruptive technologies and natural disasters.

Significant institutional hurdles remain a challenge to an ambitious partnership rethink, but NATO must find new creative ways to think about cooperative security to solidify its enduring relevance and to address challenges that neither its members, nor its partners, can tackle on their own.

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