Sustainable security in the Middle East: NATO’s role

Sustainable security in the Middle East: NATO’s role

The recent developments in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have created new concerns at national, regional and global levels on the sustainability of security. 

NATO has also shown great interest in intensifying and solidifying its presence in the Persian Gulf and the Mediterranean. By adopting the “Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI),” relying on an active public diplomacy apparatus, NATO is trying to convince regional countries to accept this approach and facilitate NATO’s direct engagement in engineering a regional security mechanism. However, since this approach is not an all-inclusive grassroots one, it will be doomed to failure. 

When we look at NATO’s documents, official statements and remarks, we see the “ICI is based on some key principles, including nondiscrimination, self-differentiation, inclusiveness, two-way engagement, non-imposition, complimentarity and diversity.” Nevertheless, in practice, this is not really the case.

NATO’s practical failure to sustain inclusiveness is clear from the outset, since some key countries in the region have been left out of this process from the start. For non-imposition, it has been said “ICI partners are free to choose the pace and extent of their cooperation with NATO.” Yet there is no doubt this kind of relationship is not a balanced one and “the interested partners,” which are obviously in a weaker position, have no choice but “to outline the main short- and long-term objectives of their cooperation with the Alliance, in accordance with NATO’s objectives and policies.” 

Taking into account Hobbesian ideas prevailing in NATO and its self-centric legacy, it is evident there is really no ground or space for two-way engagement, complimentarity or diversity.

The analysis and assertions by the media in the region indicate several events and elements have pushed the small size or geopolitically weak countries to resort to overseas powers and NATO’s security umbrella. The first and most important element is the five destructive wars that have raged the region in the last few decades, i.e. USSR invasion of Afghanistan (1979), Saddam’s invasion of Iran (1980) and his eight-year proxy-war against this newly freed country from local despotism and foreign hegemony, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait (1990), and American-led invasions against Afghanistan and Iraq at the beginning of the new millennium. 

These wars have had devastating ramifications for the region and the world. First, they have provided a breeding ground for extremism, international organized crime and terrorism. Second, terrorism and organized crime have led to new concerns on home security, marine security and energy security. Third, this situation has led to a sort of cultural and identity crisis providing ground for socio-political uprising in countries of the region. If the ruling elites and their foreign supporters stand against the wishes of the people or try to deceive them, it will lead to proliferation of failed states. 

In short, it is necessary to ponder if NATO’s role, taking into account its practices in the region, has been beneficial to engineering a viable security structure or to creating a sense of security or stability within the region. 

The indispensable alternative is to get out of the box both mentally and practically. Instead of the traditional reliance on endless “arms race” and resorting to “overseas security umbrella” in a zero-sum context, the regional countries should take a new approach to address their security dilemma. This new approach needs to be supported by a new paradigm considering security as a common good that should be available to all – poor and rich, small and big, north and south – in a fair and equitable manner and in a win-win context. 

It might be much easier to say than to do, as has been the case for NATO; however, the changing perspective in the region, in the streets as well as among the new generation of elites, illuminates this is happening. 

Mostafa Dolatyar is the director-general at the Institute for Political and International Studies (IPIS) in Iran. The original version of this article was published in the fall 2011 issue of Turkish Policy Quarterly (TPQ). This is an abbreviated version of the article. For more information, please visit