Partnerships in the Arab region

Partnerships and cooperative security are a priority according to the current Strategic Concept of the Atlantic Alliance. As a matter of fact they are the only avenues to project stability in a “no one’s world”, where uncertainty and complexity are the keywords. They are the basis for establishing a network to connect different peoples, sharing experiences, consulting each other and creating a practical cooperation. In other words they are the prerequisite to work for an “interoperability of human minds”.

The Alliance has established partnerships in North Africa and the Middle East, the landmark being the Istanbul Summit in 2004. It was a bold step with high symbolism and without those decisions nothing could be developed today.

But they have to be revisited, ambitious steps are not following the initial implementation. It is like a good music played at a low volume: it is there but you don’t hear it.

The southern Mediterranean and the Levant are boiling at our doors, not to speak about the Gulf. Millions of people leave their homes in despair to save their lives, new forms of terrorism show an unprecedented level of cruelty. Chaos is rising and we can see the flames.

The Alliance is therefore at an historical crossroads in a dangerous world: What to do to remain relevant and to address today’s threats in a proper way? It is time for political honesty, to spell out in concrete terms the objectives of the Alliance and the means to achieve them. No doubt the large Arab region is a priority.

What to do? Well, the first thing to do is to make the southern partnerships a “real political priority”. It has to be in reality and not on documents. The entire Alliance should be involved and the partnerships should belong to everybody. If it does not happen little outcome can be expected.

In a nutshell it should not be an affair of a few. It means that the International Staff, the International Military Staff, the Military Commands they should all be “fully involved” to attain the objective.

I carried on for four years the political dialogue with the Arab countries and Israel asking in detail to all those governments if they accepted a partnership with the Atlantic Alliance in a number of strategic areas: the unanimous answer, in unanimity, was a clear yes put on the record.

Therefore it is not true that Arab elites are hostile to NATO. Why should they? Evidence shows a different story. Kuwait wants to establish an operational NATO training centre. Tailored action plans are asked.

On a wider perspective the Arab partners in the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation initiative, plus Iraq and Libya, are asking for more and not for less. Four Arab countries took active part in NATO’ s military operation in Libya in 2011 after the approval of the Arab League. Such a positive answer was a consequence of the dialogue established with the Alliance.

A testimonial, a visible face at high level is essential to assure the counterparts that the Alliance takes them seriously. The level of the Deputy Secretary General is appropriate also for internal coordination as experience shows. The NAC must be “hands on”.

The second essential element is “resources”. Otherwise what kind of priority is it ? Our partners know that and they expect more. Without a concrete investment those vital partnerships will remain symbolic and in the end they may become irrelevant.

One should know that the majority of traditional activities in the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative are an opening to partners of existing activities . New acronyms are appearing from time to time, but there must be substance behind them. In total less than a million Euros or dollars are spent every year, when billions are spent in the region in defence contracts.

All this should be revisited. If necessary a new line for voluntary contributions should be opened and partner countries like Sweden, Finland and Switzerland can be asked to contribute. This is an area of soft security which can be agreed by everybody

Sometimes we hear the view that Arab countries are of interest if they add capabilities and take part in NATO’s operations. It is a simplistic old style opinion that I do not share. First of all practical cooperation and reciprocal knowledge are required, a quick fix is not an option. Cooperative security clearly involves a patient and resolute long term perspective. The results are certainly worth this effort.

More resources should sustain the political objective, using various tools including public diplomacy and training. From border control and defence reform to upgrading the regional Faculty in the NATO Defense College. In the end it is a win-win situation.

Otherwise more nice words will be used in future Summits, but the relationship with the partners will stay at a symbolic level.

Of course, one can ask why NATO should be on the forefront, but as a matter of fact the Alliance remains to this day the only serious provider in the area of defence, security and strategic affairs; it has a recognized expertise that no one else has.

The Arab armed forces, a practical example, are a crucial actor in the region in every day’s reality. Today those armies are often separate bodies inside their national society and their role may often be criticized. Who is more qualified than NATO to engage them in a professional way towards reforms, modern learning, transparency, accountability, democratic values, a healthy civilian-military relationship?

Libya and Iraq should become new partners, they are compelling cases of embattled countries that need assistance. It is in our direct interest to go in this direction. Why?

There is an overwhelming evidence that political outcomes in the region cannot be directed by the West. For good or for worse those countries will decide their own future, they have to be the actors of their destiny and that is what is going to happen. Therefore we have every good reason to invest in their institutions , their security, to orient the way they look at the world, to establish personal and official bonds. To work with them for a more stable and secure environment.

The picture in front of us is evident, the avenue ahead is also clear, for facts to follow.

Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo – Former Deputy Secretary General of the Atlantic Alliance. Author of the book “A political yourney without maps. Nato in the Arab Region”