NATO strategy looking south is more about warning, planning, partnerships, and the commitment to crisis management than it is about deploying large new forces against potentially existential contingencies. In anticipation of NATO’s July Washington summit, GMF Distinguished Fellow and Advisor to the President Ian Lesser recommends priorities for the alliance’s South-facing strategy.

NATO will celebrate its 75th anniversary at its Washington summit in July 2024. Understandably, the focus will be on deterrence and defense in Europe’s East. At the same time, transatlantic partners face a rapidly evolving strategic environment around the Mediterranean and significant risks emanating from an extended southern flank, from the Maghreb and the Sahel to the Levant, and from Africa to the Gulf. NATO’s eleven-member independent expert group on strategy south has just released its report and recommendations to Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at a launch event at GMF Brussels, and specific elements of a southern strategy for the Alliance are likely to feature in the Washington summit’s conclusions. 

Of the three core tasks enshrined in NATO’s strategic concept—deterrence and defense, crisis prevention and management, and cooperative security—all are relevant in some fashion to South-facing strategy. Can NATO develop an effective approach to the region even as it confronts more obviously existential threats from other quarters? What are the key elements in NATO’s southern exposure? What should drive Alliance strategy looking South?

A Perennial Challenge

Alliance politics and competing regional security demands have shaped NATO strategy from its inception. In the early years of the Cold War, NATO faced the risk of Soviet aggression and political subversion in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the first NATO enlargements involved Greece and Türkiye. Indeed, from the Berlin blockade of 1948–1949 until the Russian invasion of Crimea in 2014, Euro-Atlantic security partners have faced many more crises emanating from the South than from the East. Even a partial list is long: the 1956 Suez crisis; the 1967 and 1973 Arab-Israeli wars; the Iran-Iraq War; two Gulf wars; conflicts in the Balkans; September 11th and two decades of intervention in Afghanistan; the Libya intervention; multiple conflicts in Lebanon and civil war in Syria; insurgencies and terrorism in the Sahel; and the ongoing war in Gaza and confrontation with Iran. Spillovers from these and other flashpoints have had a direct effect on European and American security, not least from terrorism, arms proliferation, and refugee flows. NATO’s northern and central fronts may have been the focal point of existential risk during the Cold War, but it was a relatively stable zone of confrontation. 

Despite many crises and flashpoints, the southern flank has always been a subordinate theater in NATO strategy. With a few exceptions, the Mediterranean and its hinterlands were not the place where alliance territory was likely to be contested. In most alliance settings, the theater was—and is—a space divided bureaucratically among Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, with separate strategic debates and decisionmakers. To some extent, military areas of responsibility do cut across these geographic lines. But for the most part NATO’s south is a place of multiple, largely separate policy domains. 

Scale, diverse geography, and diffuse risks further complicate the picture. From Dakar in Senegal to Türkiye’s eastern border is roughly 8,000 kilometers across extraordinarily diverse geography. The security challenges encountered across this theater range from conventional military confrontations to insurgency, civil war, crime, terrorism, and the human security risks associated with poverty and migration. The North-South prosperity gap across the Mediterranean is only exceeded by the divide on the Korean peninsula. Across this vast geography there is no single locus of threat but rather a collection of challenges, including tension between NATO allies Greece and Türkiye. In the South, there is no single animating confrontation, no shared adversary around which a strategy can be built. Few if any threats along the southern flank are existential in strict security terms, although quite a few, not least terrorism and migration, can be politically existential for allied governments. Many are not amenable to hard-power solutions. The sheer diversity of these risks also encourages varying perspectives within the alliance, and not just in terms of focus. The ongoing instability in Libya underscores this reality, with France, Italy, and Türkiye backing different factions inside the country. 

Risks Old and New

Against the backdrop of continuing war in Ukraine, multiple crises in the Middle East, and growing competition with China, what are the likely drivers of NATO’s strategy looking south? 

First, there is an important nexus between the confrontation with Russia in the East and security in the South. These are not isolated theaters. To be sure, the center of gravity in an increasingly unstable relationship with Russia is to be found in the East and the North, in the Baltic, on the Polish border, and in the fate of Ukraine itself. But these are not the only areas where Russia and NATO come into contact. The Black Sea, the Western Balkans, Syria, Libya, the Sahel, and central Africa are all part of this competitive equation. So, too, is Russia’s active diplomacy with the Arab Gulf states and its burgeoning strategic cooperation with Iran. And as the lethal March 2024 ISIS-K attack in Moscow makes clear, the East-South nexus is a two-way street in terms of Russia’s own exposure to blowback from its policies in in the Middle East and Central Asia. 

Despite Ankara’s close economic ties and ambivalent relations with Moscow, Türkiye is fully exposed to the risk of a direct clash with Russian forces. In 2015, Türkiye downed a Russian fighter-bomber that strayed into Turkish airspace. That incident was contained. Today the potential for escalation would be greater. In many places around the Mediterranean, NATO and Russian forces operate in proximity and with far less caution and transparency than during the Cold War. Even short of deliberate aggression, the risks of accidents and escalation are very real. 

More prosaic, but very relevant to the evolution of the security environment facing NATO in the south is the Russian role in political manipulation, disinformation, and malign finance in places such as the Western Balkans, alongside arms sales to Syria, Egypt, Algeria, and Iran. Further south, Russian mercenaries remain a force to be reckoned with across the Sahel and central Africa. Russia may not be a meaningful regional power in conventional terms outside Syria. But its broader security posture is significant. In this sense alone, East and South are no longer isolated theaters.

Second, strategy south is likely to be influenced by the evolution of terrorism and insurgencies targeting Europe, North America, or regions where transatlantic interests are engaged. Al Qaeda and ISIS are not spent forces and pose a challenge to stability from West Africa to the Horn and the Levant. The war in Gaza could well inspire new terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere. These could easily transform the public and official debate about security planning after some years of focus on other risks. This facet of NATO’s southern exposure will certainly not be limited to the southern members of the alliance and may be felt most keenly in London, Paris, Berlin, and Washington.

Third, the war in Ukraine has already made clear the exposure of population centers and infrastructure to ballistic, cruise missile, and drone attacks. The most recent confrontation between Iran and Israel underscores the reality that exposure to attacks of this kind also exists across the southern flank. Substantial NATO air defense assets are already at sea in the Mediterranean, to be deployed as required. Demands in this area are set to grow as state and non-state actors acquire systems of increasing range and accuracy. Counter-proliferation and integrated air defense will be priorities for alliance planning looking south.

Fourth, maritime security and the security of Mediterranean infrastructure are set to become important drivers of thinking about NATO’s southern strategy. The attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden have underscored the risks. These are especially acute offshore in the Eastern Mediterranean, where Hezbollah in Lebanon and non-state actors in Syria possess substantial capabilities for attacks on merchant shipping, ports, and energy facilities. The exposure extends to critical undersea electrical and digital lines. The Mediterranean can play a key role in the future of North-South connectivity and ties onward to the Indo-Pacific. But the political and security risks affecting this sector can inhibit investment and damage the prospects for future development. 

Fifth, if NATO and the EU are to cooperate more closely in the years ahead, the Mediterranean and adjacent areas will offer key tests of what is possible. The mix of hard and soft security challenges in the South make the region a promising place for cooperation between these two institutions. There will also be a transatlantic burden-sharing dimension, as the space from West Africa to the Gulf encompasses areas many European states can reach—and where they can act in military terms. In this sense, the theater is very different in its demands from deterrence and defense on the eastern flank or in Asia. American power is highly relevant in and around the Mediterranean—indeed it has increased in recent years. But Europe is better placed to act militarily in its interest here than in other settings. If Europe is not capable of “strategic autonomy” on its southern periphery, it is unlikely to be capable of it anywhere. 

Finally, NATO will continue to have a role to play in strategic stability, risk reduction, and confidence-building within the alliance, not least in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean. NATO has played a critical role in stabilizing a looming military confrontation between Greece and Türkiye through confidence-building measures and dialogue. The recent shift from dangerous brinkmanship to tentative détente between Athens and Ankara has multiple sources, but the role of NATO as an anchor and facilitator should not be dismissed. 

A Wealth of Assets

NATO has substantial assets in the South. This is very different from the situation in the East, where (re)building NATO’s force posture and command structure for rapid response, with both high-intensity conventional defense and nuclear deterrence needs, has been demanding and costly. Leaving aside the situation in the Black Sea—arguably part of the Eastern equation—the wider Mediterranean region is a place where NATO has long had significant force structure and well-established commands. Strategy looking south is more about warning, planning, partnerships, and the commitment to crisis management than it is about deploying large new forces against potentially existential contingencies. 

Toward a Southern Strategy

It is worth stressing that a more explicit and focused NATO strategy toward the South is not about creating equivalence with challenges emanating from the East. The war in Ukraine and an increasingly unstable relationship with Russia gives rise to specific high-consequence threats to the territory and sovereignty of member states. The mantra of a “360-degree” approach is useful in terms of alliance politics, but much less so in terms of strategy and planning. This analysis suggests some strategic priorities for NATO looking south. 

  • Maritime Security. Protecting sea lines of communication and related infrastructure should be a core task for the alliance. The relevant space extends from West Africa to the Eastern Mediterranean, with links to the Indian Ocean via the Suez Canal and the Red Sea. Undersea pipelines and cables are part of this equation. The ongoing attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden and the resurgence of piracy off the Horn of Africa underscore the problem. There are also related human and environmental security risks in the maritime domain of special relevance to NATO’s southern allies. 
  • Counterterrorism. The terrorist risk has not disappeared, even as alliance strategy has been re-focused on the collective defense of NATO territory. Indeed, the war in Gaza and the prospect of escalation in the Middle East could inspire new waves of terrorism affecting NATO societies, partners, and interests. Cooperation on counterterrorism should be a leading element in any strategy for the South. The risks from this quarter are just as immediate in Brussels, Paris, or Berlin as they are in Madrid, Rome, or Istanbul.
  • Countering Russia in the South. The Mediterranean, Africa, and the Gulf may not be the center of gravity in the confrontation with Moscow. Yet these are all places where Russian and NATO interests, and often the forces of member states, come into contact. Countering Russia in this space will be an important open-ended task for the alliance.
  • Warning and Awareness. The scale and diversity of the security environment in the South, the diffuse nature of the challenges, and their complexity—many are at the murky nexus of security and criminality—make this a demanding environment in terms of rendering the strategic environment more transparent for policymakers. NATO has considerable assets for surveillance and intelligence, including its own Global Hawk platforms based at Sigonella in Sicily. More shared capabilities of this kind will likely be required in the future.
  • Counter-proliferation and missile defense. The spread of missile and drone systems of increasing range and sophistication will put a premium on enhanced surveillance and air defense around the wider Mediterranean region. These tasks are also very relevant to future cooperation with NATO’s regional partners.
  • NATO-EU Cooperation. As noted earlier, the mixed nature of security challenges across the southern flank, together with the ability of many European NATO members to reach and act across the region, offers important opportunities for meaningful cooperation between NATO and the European Union. The related issue of a stronger European leg inside NATO is perhaps most relevant in the South, where there is already considerable experience in backfilling for American forces deployed elsewhere (for example, in Operation Active Endeavour after 9/11). 
  • Enhanced Partnerships Linked to Strategy. Partnerships, including the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative should be an integral part of a more focused Southern strategy. Other global partnerships can play a role, including the existing partnership with Colombia and cooperation with regional organizations such as the African Union and ECOWAS. These partnerships can contribute to shaping the environment, from capacity-building to the development of a common security culture between North and South. But they are not, as sometimes imagined, a strategy in and of themselves. They should be derivative of NATO strategy and can be given additional weight by capturing more of the North-South security cooperation currently undertaken bilaterally by allies. This approach may go some way toward answering a perennial question from existing partners: “We are interested in doing more with NATO, but first tell us your strategy….” Renewed high-level political (that is, strategic) dialogue with partners, alongside practical cooperation, is a must. 

As NATO heads toward its Washington summit, Ukraine and strategy toward the East will be at the top of the agenda. But concern about challenges emanating from the South will not be the preserve of southern members alone. Events in the Middle East and Africa, and the appearance of new threats, not least to maritime security, remind us of contingencies for which NATO and its partners will need to plan—and to which they may be required to respond. A more explicit and focused strategy is needed to confront NATO’s evolving southern exposure.