Strategy through Partnership Is Key to NATO’s Future

cc Flickr, modified, U.S. Department of Defense Current Photos, U.S. Air Force Staff Sgt. Joshua Matrine, a crew chief with the 159th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron, cleans the canopy on an F-15C Eagle aircraft assigned to the Louisiana Air National Guard at Leeuwarden Air Base, Netherlands, March 28, 2017. The 122nd Expeditionary Fighter Squadron, comprised of Louisiana and Florida Air National Guard members, conducted training alongside NATO allies to strengthen interoperability and demonstrate U.S. commitment to the security and stability of Europe. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Jonathan Snyder)

In April, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) celebrated its 70th anniversary, yet the Alliance faces an uncertain future. With Montenegro’s accession in 2017 and North Macedonia’s expected accession later this year, the debate over whether NATO should continue to grow is in full force. However, an alternative exists for NATO to enhance global security and stability. Instead of focusing on expansion, NATO should leverage its established institutional and strategic expertise to improve the safety and security of its members through capacity-building and outreach to help build regional partnerships in Asia, Africa, and South America.

NATO is arguably the most successful security cooperation organization in history. The Alliance succeeded in removing the barriers and rivalries between nations that historically plagued Europe, creating a system of military governance that has prevented warfare on a continent previously defined by two of the bloodiest conflicts in human history.  This success is based upon NATO providing a forum for member-states to work together on security concerns. Its leaders understand the mechanisms required to resolve the complex political-military challenges and foster cooperation within an alliance that stretches across two continents.

To make further gains, NATO must expand its efforts of inter-organizational communication in Europe, Africa, Asia, and South America. NATO and the EU have already pledged to work together to bolster understanding and security cooperation in Europe. But many of the threats and concerns facing the Trans-Atlantic Alliance today originate from outside Europe. Opportunities exist for NATO to help combat these threats by forming new partnerships with regional organizations. NATO could partner with the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) to help share knowledge in how to combat the illicit arms trade and human trafficking that threatens the Sahara and Sahel region. In the Pacific, NATO can advise the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on maritime activities geared towards countering the scourge of piracy that has long plagued the waters of Southeast Asia. Through these partnerships, NATO could build and potentially integrate these regional military commands to foster longer term security cooperation, with the hope of creating durable regional alliances.

The benefits from NATO-led cooperation are twofold. First, NATO could enable partner states to build security capacity and capabilities within their home regions. This helps eliminate the ungoverned areas where violent non-state actors have planned and coordinated the kinds of attacks we have seen in NATO member-states – such as the 2015 Paris shootings. Second, NATO can further bind these states together and create more effective systems to maintain political-military communications by strengthening the military professionalism and skillsets of regional security organizations. This will improve global security by reducing tensions between neighbors and strengthening the regional-level forum where states can peacefully resolve disputes.

Much of NATO’s success to date lies in its partnership programs. The Mediterranean Dialogue, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, and the Partnership for Peace are NATO’s three primary partnership programs. The latter of these remains one of NATO’s biggest post-Cold War success stories. The Partnership for Peace has helped transform the political and military structures of dozens of non-NATO states in Eastern Europe and Central Asia and has helped facilitate improved coordination between NATO and these partner states. Eleven Partnership for Peace members have even been directly involved in NATO operations in Afghanistan.  If NATO grows its partnerships and works more closely with regional bodies, they can expect to reap similar benefits with nations outside of Europe.

NATO maintains the necessary infrastructure required to build these partnerships. NATO runs 25 centers of excellence and 33 Partnership Training and Education Centers (PTECs) designed to improve the capabilities of its members and partners at little monetary and material cost. Opening these centers to new national and organizational partners would help establish these security partnerships. These kinds of partnerships that NATO could facilitate are already being undertaken at the bilateral level, such as the American-led Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership or the partnership between Germany and the African Union to counter small arms proliferation. Policymakers from these countries should consider incorporating NATO resources into these initiatives in order to both foster NATO’s relationship to these new partners and leverage the broader NATO expertise.

In addition, NATO’s partnership model allows the Alliance to grow and impact global security while avoiding pushback from Russia. Moscow is unlikely to vigorously protest the creation of new partnerships with the same zeal as it has with NATO’s eastward expansion. Russia could very well see benefits from improved security and stability, and Russia’s own involvement in partnerships like the Partnership for Peace suggest that they may tacitly accept NATO shifting its policy in this direction.

NATO’s partnership model is a proven commodity that can improve the safety and security of its members and partner nations through capacity-building and outreach. The world looks very different from the era that shaped NATO’s formation and maturation between 1949 and 1991, but that does not mean the sun has set on the Alliance. Through the Cold War and beyond, NATO has helped preserve peace and stability in Europe through its network of political-military integration and the success of its more than 40 partnerships. If NATO continues to leverage its most valuable resources – experience and knowledge – it can maintain its crucial role as a leader for global security.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of any institutions with which the author is associated.

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