Go South, NATO

The alliance—and its partners—would benefit from a more expansive security strategy.
June 26, 2024
As it turns 75 years old, a more political and global NATO is taking shape.

The alliance, long reliant solely on its member states for defense and deterrence, is now increasingly turning to its network of partnerships to respond to the security threats on its eastern, northern, and southern flanks. The upcoming Washington summit is an opportunity to strengthen and expand this network, especially to address challenges on the southern flank. But for this to happen, NATO members need to devote more political will and military and financial resources to convince potential future partners of the benefits of cooperation. 

Get Real

In 2002, Xavier Sala-i-Martín, Columbia University professor of development economics, published a criticism of some scholars’ tendency to overlook facts and focus on imaginary catastrophes. He showed instead that data on life expectancy, hunger, education, and access to drinking water and sanitation supports a positive assessment of the state of the world.

Nearly a quarter-century later, more recent data leaves less cause for optimism. For the first time on record, inequalities between developed and developing countries are growing. The number of democracies worldwide has declined while the number of states experiencing armed conflict has hit a post-World War II high (56), with hundreds of thousands of victims. Countless lives have been shattered, and more than 120 million people are displaced. The climate crisis is only adding to the troubles. Fully 700 million people just in Africa are expected to migrate by 2030 to escape drought. In the Middle East, 60% of the population faces worsening economic conditions and higher social vulnerability due to a degraded environment.

The situation on the fringes of the Euro-Atlantic area is particularly concerning. In some neighboring countries, it is catastrophic. Four in five of today’s armed conflicts occur in regions adjacent to NATO members. No fewer than 45 conflicts rage in the Middle East and North Africa, while 35 convulse Africa. Driving factors of this instability range from territorial disputes to global competition, from weak institutions to powerful transnational crime networks. Uneven, post-pandemic recoveries, persistent underdevelopment, hunger, and climate insecurity exacerbate conditions.

Against this backdrop, NATO’s Washington summit should commit to advancing the implementation of its Strategic Concept adopted at its 2022 Madrid meeting. This document, based on a 360-degree approach to security, focuses on deterrence and defense, crisis prevention/management, and cooperative security. It has until now, however, lacked a blueprint for the alliance’s southern flank, a glaring shortcoming.

Making Up Lost Ground 

While NATO allies confront an expansionist Russia in the East and the High North, a process of rethinking the bloc’s approach to its southern flank has fortunately started. An independent group of experts, at the request of the NATO secretary general, published in May a balanced and forward-looking report that outlines 114 short-, mid- and long-term recommendations for cooperation with countries in the alliance’s southern neighborhood. This is of fundamental importance for several reasons.

First, the transatlantic partners are losing presence in the region (and beyond), and their adversaries are regaining it. In the Sahel, for example, a vast territory of 10 countries about one-third the size of the United States with a population similar to California’s, jihadist movements and human trafficking networks are nearly omnipresent. Russia’s Africa Corps, a force estimated at up to 40,000 troops, is also there, supporting military juntas in exchange for money and access to minerals. The Kremlin’s success is even prevalent in war-torn Sudan, where Russia supports one faction in the civil war militarily while doing business with the other. Moscow’s approach in Sudan, as in the Sahel more broadly, is pragmatic and flexible, unencumbered by ethical considerations.

In contrast, the United States and the EU have been unable to stop conflicts or secure democracy in key Sahelian countries. Even efforts made to reach a common position on crises in Burkina Faso, Libya, Mali, and Niger have failed, undermining Euro-Atlantic credibility. The withdrawal of US and EU military training missions from the latter two countries have ended years-long efforts to establish political stability and build socioeconomic resilience there. The US approach, primarily through its Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership and its Global Water Strategy, have proved insufficient to contain Russia’s influence. Moscow’s exploitation of colonial grievances and use of misinformation campaigns have prevailed.

Second, a troubled Middle East—beset by the war in Gaza, the festering situation in the West Bank, the risk of another full-blown conflict in Lebanon, the enduring Syrian war, the animosity between Israel and Iran, and the Houthi attacks on maritime vessels—threatens US and EU interests. The risk of regional conflagration is increasing and Western influence is decreasing as Chinese diplomacy takes root and Beijing successfully broadens its network of interests and partnerships.

Third, some countries in the transatlantic community, especially the United States and the United Kingdom, face accusations of hypocrisy for advocating for Ukraine while not restraining Israeli actions in Gaza. Many “swing states” on NATO’s southern flank are now distancing themselves from efforts to condemn and isolate the Kremlin. On the second anniversary of the invasion of Ukraine, an Organization of American States declaration in support of the war-torn nation failed to garner the support of Mexico, Brazil, Colombia, Bolivia, El Salvador, and Honduras. More recently, about 20 of 100 countries represented at the Summit on Peace in Ukraine refrained from signing the joint communiqué, citing Russia’s absence from the gathering. Nations have also balked at the transatlantic community’s stance on Ukraine at the UN and in other forums.

Fourth, NATO needs to boost the number of partner countries and interlocutors from its southern flank. Currently, only 11 of NATO’s 40 partners come from its southern neighborhood, while five are in the Middle East, and seven are littoral Mediterranean and North African states. In Latin America, Colombia is the alliance’s only partner, although dialogue with Argentina on a similar relationship has begun. NATO also cooperates with the UN, the EU, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe but with no other regional organization. 

What Next?

The demanding global security context of interlinked challenges and opportunities calls for NATO to adopt a southern strategy that would expand the alliance’s policy tools and clarify its goals for establishing stronger security partnerships. Such a strategy should also lay out valuable opportunities for collaboration through enhanced political dialogue, defense industry cooperation agreements, military capacity building, interoperability, cyberdefense, and support for climate, peace, and security policies, among other shared interests.

The NATO Strategic Concept may generate distinct views across the alliance on the best way to operationalize it, but few would argue against the need for a broader base of partners that would enhance the bloc’s power and influence. 

To this aim, NATO should:

  • strengthen public policy strategic communication, particularly to counter disinformation and misinformation in Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America. Contesting the narrative that the transatlantic community holds double standards concerning Russia and Israel is key to regaining credibility. The allies should emphasize that defending the principles of the UN Charter is their goal in Ukraine, Gaza, Yemen, Haiti, Sudan, and other areas of conflict and instability.
  • resume dialogue with southern interlocutors to broaden the alliance’s base of reliable partners. The double nature of NATO, as a political and military organization, and its strategic flexibility, “political interoperability” (the ability to apply different policy tools to interactions with various actors in a range of geographies), and respect for a non-exclusivity principle of relations with third countries, offer a good basis to engage with potential NATO partners on security cooperation.
  • promote a “Wider Atlantic Deal”, a political initiative to engage with a select potential partners from the southern neighborhood, using the transatlantic community’s full panoply of instruments, for enhanced cooperation in non-military areas of shared interest such as development, trade, and environmental assistance. The Wider Atlantic Deal could be based on a comprehensive system of incentives and individually tailored programs to build stronger partnerships. Persuasive, mindful, and pragmatic diplomacy would have a crucial role in advancing the process. The EU, given its approach to security, which aligns with NATO’s, could also play a part particularly in the Southern neighborhood.
  • reinforce its capabilities and structure to strengthen cooperation with southern partners, and prioritize a southern flank strategy across the alliance’s political and military structures. A new Envoy for the Southern Neighborhood equipped with a clear political mandate, as envisioned in the report by independent experts, should have the resources and tools to ensure this happens. A revigorated Strategic Direction-South HUB that is truly integrated into NATO’s structure could help launch the southern strategy. 
  • build cooperation with southern partners through quick-impact flagship projects. Collaboration on constructing a manufacturing plant for drones, for example, would not require a large investment but would increase security cooperation and provide mutual security benefits.

These measures would fill the gap in NATO’s Strategic Concept while enhancing ties between member states and southern partners. Such a mutually beneficial scenario is a prerequisite for durably ensuring security and prosperity for all involved.