NATO’s role in the southern Mediterranean: learning lessons from the EU

Keeping a safe distance might actually help the NATO Alliance to rebuild its credibility in the region. As the EU recently learnt, breaking down 'democratization' into concrete bits and treating Islamist parties as legitimate interlocutors is the way forward.

Patryk Pawlak
7 June 2012

NATO’s role in the southern Mediterranean should be addressed within a broader discussion about its future. Whilst the Strategic Concept adopted at the Lisbon Summit in 2010 aimed to provide some strategic framework for such a debate, the wave of revolutions in Middle East and North Africa and NATO’s involvement in Libya in particular have once again raised questions about security and stability in Europe’s southern neighbourhood. While one should not deny the Alliance a voice in the discussions about the region’s future, one needs to be careful not to propose and implement rushed solutions that ignore historical and political realities. More important than answering questions is therefore first getting those questions that need to be asked right.

The authors of the Atlantic memo point out a number of challenges to security and stability in the southern Mediterranean. They rightly observe that ‘the changing nature of regional security and Arab governance demands a multifaceted approach’ but instead of stopping to reflect upon the suitability of NATO’s engagement, they call for partnerships with other institutional actors to ‘offer a more comprehensive assistance package’. By looking at the transformation process mostly through the prism of potential problems and not emerging opportunities, they offer NATO-centred solutions to problems which not always require military involvement. Generating growth, employment and stability are currently the top priorities for the region’s transformation. Most of them need to be addressed by building functioning institutions and developing opportunities for education – objectives which NATO is hardly suited to perform.

The text is guided by an omnipresent, albeit implicit, assumption that the success of democratic transformation is everyone’s goal and that all actors across the political landscape agree on the end goals of the process, including those connected to future civil-military relations. The situation is much more nuanced which makes the proposed recommendations more problematic. For instance, the authors suggest ‘forging lasting bonds with their [countries] governments and militaries’. On the contrary, the crisis in Egypt involving numerous American and European non-governmental organisations shows that the democratisation process and people's well-being might be the eventual victims of withholding support. Germany, for instance, has suspended ratification of all pending agreements with Egypt, most of which could contribute to improving people's situations. Similar forms of overreacting might undermine the transformation process and jeopardise the endeavours of elected governments while at the same time strengthening the image of the military as the only group capable of providing stability during an uncertain period of transition.

Other specific recommendations signal more of a return to business as usual rather than real change. With reference to Egypt, the authors suggest that ‘NATO can still encourage an open democratic civil society by bartering its counterterrorism and counterinsurgency knowledge for SCAF support in democratisation’. But are we really sure that SCAF’s vision for the country is the same as that of the Egyptian people? And who would suffer most from the lack of such support: SCAF or NATO? The case of Libya is even more sensitive and the proposal for NATO to act ‘as an advisor and interlocutor between the TNC and other armed groups in the process of SSR and Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR)’ seems to be devoid of political considerations. NATO was clearly on the side of the rebels and it is therefore far from capable of being an objective mediator in the process. Furthermore, NATO's broad interpretation of UNSC resolution 1973 (2011) may lead to potential complications with countries like Russia, China or Brazil.

Suggesting that the Alliance ‘should clarify its objectives on how to achieve security in the region in partnership with these countries’ is inherently schizophrenic. There is an underlying assumption that the security objectives of all the parties involved are the same, for instance in the proposal to share experience in ‘dealing with defence priorities, asymmetric conflicts and peacekeeping missions while also staying attentive to the security concerns of the Arab League member states’ while at the same time proposing to ‘take steps to ensure that such training cannot be used against NATO’s interests, curbing capabilities in some realms’. The issue of trust between parties is indeed essential yet seems to be absent from present discussions.

The reluctance to question NATO’s role in the process may be partly explained by the assumptions that the authors reveal only in the conclusions: ‘It may be tempting to take a hands-off approach as new governments look to define their own path; however, the North Africa region is too critical to neglect’. First, one needs to be careful not to confuse support for the transformation process with attempts to control it. Keeping a safe distance from the region might actually help the Alliance to rebuild its credibility in the region. Second, a ‘hands-off’ approach does not necessarily mean ‘neglect’. Just because NATO would not be directly involved in the transformation process does not mean that it would be absent from the region alltogether. In any case, almost all NATO Member States are present in the region through bilateral cooperation or under the EU flag. Their involvement in the region takes numerous forms and could by no means be characterised as showing ‘neglect’.

If not NATO, could the EU do the job? One should listen to Andrea Teti’s call for restraint while engaging and learning from past mistakes. However, Teti fails to see the EU’s potential to fill the existing gap and underestimates the learning processes that have taken place in Brussels and the national capitals over the past year. Since the outbreak of the revolution in Tunisia, the EUISS has closely monitored events in the region and has continuously engaged with European and regional policymakers. While this current approach's results are still pending, our recent seminar in Brussels has already indicated a number of positive signals. First, the EU came to realise that Islamist groups are indeed legitimate political actors and that engaging with them in a more strategic way is essential for the success of the transition processes in the MENA countries. At the same time, it was clear from the debates that the EU’s engagement would need to adopt a multi-level approach, both in terms of policies and actors, and to focus on pragmatic aspects of the democratic process. While the aim should be to create incentives for the development of a sound democratic system, a need for drawing clear red lines still exists. There is also a realisation that conditionality as a policy has little effect, in particular when contrasted with the approach of Gulf countries which continue to expand their political leverage by providing financial means without any strings attached. Regarding concrete initiatives, it has become clear that institution building during the process of democratisation is very difficult. While there is an agreement in the region on the nature of the democracy they seek, the means to translate this aim into concrete structures and mechanisms are often lacking. Finally, policymakers are also aware that confidence-building measures are essential. Although pragmatism and politics play a role in the EU’s varied engagement across the region – in the MENA but also in relation to Gulf countries – we urgently need to be doing a better job at explaining our inconsistencies.

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