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NATO and a New Strategy for the South:

Updating the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative

by Maurizio Geri

Maurizio Geri is an international consultant with almost 20 years of experience in research and activism on peace, democratization, human rights, defense and security. He is an independent advisor on peace and security in MED, MENA and Africa while also doing consultancy work on Strategic Foresight for the Center of Defense Innovation in Italy. He previously worked as a strategic analyst for the NATO Allied Command Transformation in the US and for the NATO Strategic Direction South-Hub and worked with a number of think tanks, including the Carter Center, Nonviolence International, and the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He is a fellow at the Center for Media and Peace Initiative, analyst at EGIC and sometimes writes for Difesa OnlineOSSMED and his blog. He authored the 2018 Palgrave book “Ethnic Minorities in Democratizing Muslim Countries: Turkey and Indonesia.” 



The transatlantic, Mediterranean and West Asia and North Africa (WANA) regions’ security is deeply and increasingly interrelated, today probably more than at any point in the history of the North Atlantic Alliance. The security situations of Europe and WANA have very similar risks and challenges, from terrorism to climate change, from migration to chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear (CBRN) threats. Furthermore, the regions are more and more interconnected through movements of people, goods, money, weapons, drugs and now also viruses. The problems originating in the Southern neighborhood of the Alliance, which includes indirectly the entire African continent, are much more complex and long term than those in the Eastern region, which require mostly deterrence and defense from Russia. Following this analysis, the aim of this paper is to propose NATO a new strategy for the “South”, learning from past lessons, to maintain peace and stability in the “North” in the next decades.



The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is passing now from a phase of transition, facing a more uncertain world, also demonstrated by the recent pandemic. The NATO Secretary-General has appointed a group of experts to advise on how to better adapt the Alliance to new environments. NATO 2030 is a process inside the Alliance that could bring about a new strategic concept.[1] Finding an agreement on a new strategy in an alliance based on consensus decision making will not be easy, but it is a path worth taking. Considering the risk of division among NATO members on various issues regarding the Mediterranean and West Asia and North Africa (WANA),[2] particularly the differences between France, Italy, Greece and Turkey in the Eastern Mediterranean, a new, clear and efficient strategy for NATO’s Southern periphery seems to be the most fundamental step for the future of the Alliance.

At the security level, together with the era of radical Islamist terrorism threats and militant-criminal groups creating proto-states like the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the WANA region recently entered a new era of proxy wars, with increased competition between world and regional powers coming to the area to fight in other countries’ civil wars.[3] Furthermore, at the political level, after the failure of the so-called Arab Spring and reinforcement of authoritarian regimes, the region is now passing from the failure of regional institutions—from the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to the Arab League, unable to deal with disastrous situations like Syria, Yemen or Libya—and the prioritization of national interests and power politics. Finally, at the socio-economic level, after the refugee crisis, temporarily stopped by an agreement between Turkey and the European Union (EU), the region's human security issues are being exacerbated by constant economic stagnation, further aggravated by the pandemic, and a new migration crisis with massive movements from Africa that will impact regional stability in the next decades.

The African continent is, in fact, projected to reach 4.5 billion people by the end of the 21st century, with the largest population growth in human history, counting a fertility rate of 4.5 children, compared to other continents stabilized on an average of 2.[4] At the same time, global warming will produce ever-increasing desertification and scarcity of resources, primarily water and food, with rising threat of natural disasters and more pandemics in Africa. Finally, competition between major powers in the region for energy and spheres of influence is in a new phase of the “scramble for Africa” ​​with modern means, mainly economic, but in some parts, such as Libya, Sahel and the Horn of Africa, also military.[5]

Therefore, the role of NATO and other regional and international organizations will be crucial for the stabilization of the WANA area and Africa in general in the coming years. NATO will need to support both in helping to manage emergencies and in preventing possible risks of escalating conflicts with two of its core tasks, crisis management and cooperative security. This paper concentrates on the cooperative security pillar, leaving the crisis management one to another future discussion. Cooperative security until now has been focusing on reaction to security issues and protection from threats. However, in the long term, it should start working on the root causes of instability, from institutional reinforcement of the security sector and good governance to tackle the security-development nexus, to the social resilience of populations that will face many obstacles in the near future, as demonstrated by the current situation in relatively stable countries like Lebanon.

Nevertheless, to enhance its role in the region in the future, NATO will first have to gain local trust through confidence-building measures to mitigate the negative perception of the Alliance. To do that means to form partnerships based on a “two-way street process” with a focus on consultations and teaming up with its partners. This will also include strengthening NATO’s commitment to involving civil society to better understand future problems and possible solutions, listening to the needs of the populations in addition to those of the states. All this will create an opportunity to reform and update NATO's existing partnership frameworks: the Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI).


Why Updating MD/ICI Programs

The partnership between NATO and its Southern neighborhood began more than 25 years ago. Despite the political changes and intrastate conflicts in recent years, which have increased the instability of the WANA region, NATO’s partnerships have proven to be resilient, but not adaptable enough to the speed of change in the region. All institutions and international agreements need to evolve to survive, they need to keep up with new environments and challenges, and NATO partnership programs did not do that very well. NATO needs an urgent update of its partnership programs, not just as a gradual improvement as is usually done, but as a new “strategy” to generate a real impact on the region’s stability, with much more investments and broader, clearer and more reachable objectives.

NATO set up two frameworks of cooperation to develop political dialogue and practical cooperation with its partners in the Mediterranean and the Gulf regions. The Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) was launched in 1994 and currently consists of seven members: Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia.[6] The Dialogue is based on bilateral agreements that are renewed every couple of years called Individual Partnership and Cooperation Programs (IPCPs), grounded on a “Partnership Cooperation Menu,” comprising approximately 1,400 activities accessible to all NATO partners.[7] The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) was established in 2004 and includes four Gulf countries: Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).[8] Similarly to MD, the ICI is based on regular partnership activities for political and military dialogue. The key principles of the Mediterranean Dialogue/Istanbul Cooperation Initiative are: tailored and demand-driven cooperation, local ownership, self-differentiation and non-discrimination as well as complementarity with other international efforts. They include several lines of effort in areas of common interest, notably cooperation in education and training (e.g. exercises), interoperability, crisis management/prevention and public diplomacy, and improved coordination with other international organizations. Military education and training are therefore the cornerstones of NATO regional partnership policy.

Also, following the issuance of two strategic documents about the South in 2017 and 2018, the Framework for the South[9] and the Package for the South[10], NATO opened two centers dedicated to the South, the NATO Strategic Direction-South Hub (NSD-S Hub) in Naples and the NATO-ICI Regional Center in Kuwait. The Hub in Naples aims to enhance a comprehensive understanding of the region, with more situational awareness and information sharing.[11] Another vital role of the Hub is to improve NATO's image with confidence-building measures, engaging with civil society actors from the South to listen to their needs and visions for the future. The NATO-ICI Center in Kuwait is more dedicated to military training. More than 1,000 participants from Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Oman have benefitted from its training activities, mostly in 2018/2019.[12] Additionally, the NATO Defense College in Rome has been contributing to the training of partner countries with dedicated courses for many years.[13] However, those centers need to be better known beyond the community of insiders and military experts so that the civil societies of NATO members and the partner countries can ultimately appreciate them as well. This would be very useful to build the trust that, as said, is the first step toward a new strategy with the South. Nevertheless, to achieve that, it would be fundamental to include more civilians than military staff, particularly for the first two aforementioned centers, to reflect the Alliance's politico-military character. Despite the predominant perception of NATO as a military organization, it relies on political action as much as, if not more than, on military action, and its staff comprises both civilian and military personnel. 

All this shows NATO’s engagement with the South, however looking at the results, it is apparent that it has not yet reached the goal of supporting and projecting stability in the region. The problem is that the goal is too vague. Does anyone in NATO agree on a specific definition of stability? Furthermore, who and how should provide stability? In theory, NATO would have identified clear strategic ends, or mid- to long-term objectives, for the southern region and then depending on the available means it would identify ways to achieve them. In reality, there are no defined ends and  no specific strategy yet.

Several think tanks have already pointed out the lack of a clear strategy of NATO for the South and there seems to be a momentum for a change. The Atlantic Council published a report last year arguing, for example, that ‘going forward, NATO needs a more strategic vision of what it wants to accomplish in the Mediterranean and its broader southern neighborhood.’[14] The German Marshall Fund of the United States said two years ago, in a publication dedicated to the Mediterranean Dialogue, that ‘NATO lacks an overall strategy and a set of concepts to deal with the multifaceted challenges in the south.’[15] Also, a recent NATO Defense College publication on the South stated that ‘Disengaging is clearly not an option and NATO must continue to [...] follow what is happening on the other side of the Mediterranean.’[16]

Therefore, today there seems to be an urgent need for a comprehensive NATO strategy for the South to reach the decided goals. This paper proposes some recommendations to improve the ways NATO deals with the South to increase the impact of the stabilization processes in the area.


Recommendations for the Next Decades

First, in the long term, NATO should prepare a “regional strategy”, meaning a regional multilateral approach to the security issues of the South. To do that, NATO will need to move from bilateral agreements in MD/ICI programs, such as the IPCPs, to multilateral ones. This would multiply the impact of the programs, making them more efficient. Moreover, it would improve regional cooperation among partners. NATO could in this way actively support the integration of existing regional bodies in cooperative security, such as the African Union (AU), the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in the Horn of Africa, or the G5 Sahel Alliance. It could also encourage the creation of new ones, for example, a North African-Sahel future “Interpol” for border control, which is already quite challenging to do at the national level in the Sahara desert.

Second, NATO could divide the Mediterranean Dialogue in two programs: African Dialogue and Levant Dialogue because the two areas have different interests and needs.[17] The former should include besides the current North African countries (re Algeria, Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia) also countries of the Sahel that are currently part of the G5 Sahel, particularly Burkina Faso, Mali, Niger and Chad, and in the future even Sub-Saharan countries, to strengthen partnership with countries whose internal situation will increasingly affect the security situation in the Mediterranean. The latter Dialogue should include not only Jordan and Israel but also other countries of the Levant, first of all Lebanon, which is now at risk of failing and turning into another proxy war, and Iraq, where NATO already has a Training Mission. It is important to remember that Syria and Iran possess substantial WMD and missile arsenals capable of reaching European targets. So, while threats from the African continent are more related to terrorism, human trafficking etc, requiring crisis management and cooperative security pillars, the threats coming from the Levant can also include Article 5 deterrence and defense security pillar. The ICI program should also be expanded to include the other two GCC countries, Saudi Arabia and Oman.

Third, NATO could nominate a special representative, like in the past for the Caucasus, and establish new regional centers, as the one in Kuwait for ICI, for example, the MD in North Africa could be in Morocco or Tunisia. NATO could also support creation of new Crisis Management centers, in addition to the one in Mauritania[18]; expand the Partnership Training and Education Centers (PTECs)[19], which are now only in Egypt and Jordan; or even open Centers of Excellence[20] that are now only in NATO member states in WANA partner countries. This would have a multiplier effect not only on security, but also on local politics and economies, and increase the local advocacy for future new strategies of NATO partnership to project stability.

Fourth, NATO could concentrate partnership efforts on specific areas, emphasizing clear priorities, like counterterrorism and counterinsurgency training, border control and cybersecurity, Security Sector Reform (SSR) and Defense Institution Building (DIB) programs, human security and biosecurity. Additionally, NATO could enhance its multi-domain nature and allied responses in the maritime domain, particularly in preparation for the future migration waves, to include for example maritime interdiction to tackle human trafficking like the Sea Guardian operation.

Fifth, NATO could expand its Science for Peace and Security (SPS) Programme. For example, NATO recently launched a new project to support the development of Mauritania’s operational capabilities and emergency management in public health and civil protection, bringing together expertise from Romania, Mauritania and France. The project PROMEDEUS will improve coordination between the Mauritanian Civil Protection, health emergency system and participating authorities, impacting the broader Sahel region.[21] This type of a project should be the norm in the future.

Sixth, NATO should focus more on human security that will become increasingly important for the Alliance alongside traditional national security.[22] Operations related to human security would help not only the level of security, with a political, economic and social impact, but it would also improve NATO's reputation and endorsement in Africa, which is crucial for a broader strategy for the Southern region. Securing or destroying mines and other dangerous weapons, as done by NATO in t