Emerging security challenges in NATO’s south: How can the alliance respond?

Emerging security challenges in NATO’s south: How can the alliance respond?

Sorin Ducaru*
Today, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is facing a more complex array of challenges and threats than it has at any time since the end of the Cold War. For the first time in its history, the alliance is dealing simultaneously with significant threats from two strategic directions. Preeminent among these threats are assertive Russia, which continues to display little regard for international law, and the challenges posed by an unstable Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region right on NATO’s doorstep.  

The difference between the two regions is not simply a matter of geography. They also present different challenges with respect to NATO’s political and military strategy. In NATO’s East, where the main challenge is posed by one state actor, familiar concepts of deterrence can be applied with a high degree of confidence, even though hybrid actions further complicate the security landscape. In NATO’s south, however, deterrence through military reprisal is unlikely to keep most threats at bay. The combination of weak states, non-state actors, regional tensions and political and religious radicalism – coupled with an enormous influx of refugees – calls for a far more complex approach. In short, if NATO is serious about projecting stability to its southern borders, a “one-size-fits-all” approach will not work. The alliance needs to adopt a multi-layered strategy that takes into account regional specifics. 

First, NATO needs to bolster its collective defense and deterrence capabilities. It would be a major mistake to discuss this issue only in an eastern context. Not only do several NATO allies border the Mediterranean Sea, but Russia’s maritime ambitions have also underscored the strategic importance of the Eastern Mediterranean (and, by extension, the Black Sea). 

Sending a credible signal of determination and reassurance to those allies that are geographically most exposed, whether they are located in the east or south, conveys an important message. The fact that more and more allies are increasing their defense budgets says more about NATO’s credibility in this regard than any communique ever could.

Second, NATO needs to strengthen its ability to project stability in the neighborhood and to advise and assist local forces. For more than two decades, NATO has trained local forces across the world. Training needs to be made a core capability. The alliance has already made a good start, most notably with its Resolute Support training mission in Afghanistan. NATO has also launched training and capacity building initiatives in Georgia and Moldova. In Jordan, training for Iraqi officers started in March. Moreover, NATO will be advising Tunisia on counter-terrorism strategies and helping improve the capacity of their armed forces. NATO also stands ready to assist Libya, as soon as the political conditions are conducive to support. At the Warsaw Summit, these activities should be consolidated into a major defense capacity building initiative.

Third, NATO needs to take its cooperation with regional partners and international organizations to a new level. Ultimately, our aim must be to enable our partners in the MENA region to play an even greater role in achieving regional security.

Lastly, NATO needs to enhance its strategic awareness of energy security developments. Even though NATO is not an energy institution, the allies need to intensify intelligence-sharing on energy developments, and also have the North Atlantic Council discuss the implications of, for example, how the low oil price environment will affect security. 

All these strands of work point towards the same conclusion. NATO needs to become more proactive. Over the past few years, we have put increasing emphasis on examining non-traditional challenges. But more needs to be done. We need to put even greater emphasis on intelligence-sharing. We also need to focus more strongly on strategic analysis and on harnessing the expertise of the private sector, for example on energy security and cyber defense. Last, but certainly not least, the North Atlantic Council also needs to devote more time to discussing disturbing security developments. In hindsight, it is not enough to claim that we should have seen the crisis coming. We must become better at anticipating crises, and use NATO’s political and military toolbox to defuse them.

* Ambassador Sorin Ducaru is the NATO assistant secretary general for emerging security challenges. This is an abridged version of the original published in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Spring 2016 issue. www.turkishpolicy.com