NATO’s Middle East policy reform: learning from EU failures

In response to Josiah Surface, Andrea Teti argues that NATO must think innovatively about the assumptions underpinning past policy. The EU’s past experiences in dealing with MENA countries point to a number of mistakes NATO should avoid reproducing.

Andrea Teti
21 May 2012

There doesn’t seem to be much one can learn from the EU’s experience these days, except how not to do economic reform in times of crisis. However, for NATO, as it thinks through its policy response to the Arab Uprisings, the EU’s experience is useful on a number of counts.

Stability vs. Security?

Firstly, the equation between ‘stability’ and ‘security’ is misguided. Rhetoric notwithstanding, the EU has been rightly criticized for opting to support the status quo rather than democratic transitions in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). This pursuit of stability was supposedly the lesser of two evils, with transitions to democracy bringing a whole range of potentially negative outcomes, including migration flows, radicalization within the EU, and the rise of probably Islamist and nearly certainly ‘anti-Western’ governments.

As the rise of radical Islamist groups in the MENA over the past four decades suggests, containment policies involving support for autocracies entail a considerable amount of blowback. Even well-meaning policies such as capacity-building and civil society support have too often effectively reinforced autocracies. Attention to how such programmes are designed and implemented, and paying specific attention to ideas of security and stability which underpin them, is crucial. Assuming NATO is at all well-placed to conduct such programmes, it is difficult to see how blowback can be avoided or minimized unless we reconsider conceptions of security and stability, and particularly the cost/benefit of policies over short and long terms.

Interests vs. Values?

Secondly, the dichotomy between ‘interests’ and ‘values’ is also false. For over a decade, EU experts have been debating whether the EU is driven more by a normative commitment to values such as democracy, or by ‘interest defined as power’. Their conclusion has been that the EU is a pragmatic actor driven by interests, but that those interests are not somehow given or natural, they are deeply affected by normative assumptions. This underscores the importance of challenging conceptions of interests – and of tools required to achieve these – which we normally take for granted. Again, this requires both explicitly challenging received notions framing policy, and paying attention to policy design and implementation to follow through on such broad guidelines.

Partnership and ‘King-Makers’

Partnership is another buzz-word which anyone familiar with the EU policy debate will be familiar with. However, as for the EU’s commitment to values like democracy, it is one which all too often has defaulted to support for status quo. NATO should learn from the EU’s mistakes: they are easy to make under the weight of short-term political calculations, but will ultimately land NATO on the wrong side of history, security and stability, as the recent Uprisings did the EU.

Positive Conditionality

Conditionality has always been integral to EU Neighbourhood Policy, and despite the EU’s latest claims that ‘positive conditionality’ constitutes a ‘step change’ in the EU’s posture, this is far from the case. The problem with positive or indeed negative conditionality is not the instrument in itself, but the way it has been designed and implemented. Here, NATO can learn from the EU’s failure to specify measurable standards or mechanisms for defining and enforcing conditionality. The EU never did so, and still does not, with the consequence that conditionality was rarely on the agenda, let alone enforced.


Measures such as the Bureaucratic Development Programme or support for civil society all come under the rubric of capacity-building, the possible – but not inevitable – negative consequences of which were noted above. For NATO, the real questions are two. First: is NATO the kind of organisation that ought to be engaging in such programmes? Second: would such a NATO engagement be fruitful?

On both counts, the answer is negative. Bureaucratic partnership could be established in a limited military-to-military sense, but one ought to be under no illusion that such programmes have a chance to deliver unless there is a much broader effort engaging regimes first and foremost. Moreover, even if NATO were an appropriate tool for such programmes, one cannot ignore domestic contexts, and there is not a single domestic arena throughout the region in which what would effectively be seen as NATO support for a government against opposition forces would be well-received – on the contrary, it would likely have de-stabilizing effects on the country.

On support for civil society organisations (CSO), the basic problem is that Western (inter)governmental organisations suffer from a profound lack of credibility among local CSOs, not least precisely because of NATO members’ support for (former) dictators. In a context like Egypt, for example, no credible CSO would touch NATO funding, and if it did, it would instantly lose any domestic credibility it had. Once again, the EU and European member states’ experience is direct testament to this, as the recent ‘NGO Crisis’ in Egypt shows.

In brief, NATO must think innovatively about the assumptions underpinning past policy. If it is serious about the strategic value of supporting transitions to democracy in MENA states, these are the hard realities any serious NATO must contend with, including the possibility that the best way to support MENA democratic transitions is for NATO not to engage in it. Unless these lessons are learned, any programme risks being nothing more than window dressing at best, and is more likely to be a recipe for blowback at precisely the time when Europe’s own internal socio-economic stability is being tested.

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