“The spirit of our endeavour is, To strive, to seek, to find and not to yield”

Alessandro Minuto-Rizzo, President

In Conversation with Dr Rolf Schwarz, author of the book “NATO and the Middle East: in search for a strategy”

Interview by Maria Bagnara ● 11 August 2021
The Middle East and North African countries have been facing highly complex scenarios. Within the last decade, the region has been threatened by multi-layered rivalries, regional tensions, climate change, growing migration flows, new terrorism and arm proliferation. All these challenges have been exacerbated by the COVID 19 Pandemic that have significantly impacted MENA’s already fragile states. The Trump administration acted as an accelerating factor, reinforcing authoritarian regimes in the region. Nevertheless, the US withdrawal opened a vacuum dangerously replaced by regional and non-regional powers, alarming the Alliance.
In this context, do you think that the new US administration will produce a real change in the MENA region? Will this have an impact on the role of NATO in the region? Can we expect a greater role of NATO in the MENA region?
The MENA region holds enormous potential, but is also characterized by conflict and violence, as one can read in the news again these days. Some of the region’s conflicts are longstanding, others are caused by weak and fragile states.
My book looks at NATO’s relations with the MENA region historically. Throughout much of its history, the Alliance paid little attention to its neighbouring region. In the last two decades, NATO discovered the region through its partnerships and embraced crisis management as its main form of engagement. However, outside interventions have often contributed to, instead of solving, fragility in the region. Afghanistan and Libya are clear examples.
Today, NATO is faced with a conundrum of doing too little or too much. I argue in my book that NATO should take a more long-term perspective and work on conflict prevention. This means adopting more civilian instruments and combining security, development and diplomatic tools. The new US administration can certainly help NATO shoulder this new strategy. Perhaps the upcoming NATO Summit could already present first steps in this direction.
As mentioned in your book, NATO and the Middle East: in search of a strategy (Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc., 2020), a significant issue within the Alliance is its image, so far related to the West (mainly to the USA) and to unpopular military interventions in the area. How can NATO change and improve its image?
It is true that NATO’s image in parts of the world is tainted. This is often due to long-standing misperceptions and distrust, that can only be overcome in my view by dialogue and a changed strategy of NATO. The Alliance needs to admit that its attempts at increasing stability in Africa and the Middle East through hard tools (interventions and military power) are mixed and have not delivered. To counter its negative image, NATO needs to embrace a more long-term focus and place emphasis on building security communities.
Security community is a term coined by Karl Deutsch some 60 years ago and describes a community in which members feel assurance among each other and agree to settle disputes peacefully among each other. Such security communities can also be built with Middle Eastern partners. But this means focusing more on soft security approaches and on reforming institutions in partner countries. It also means breaking up taboos, that NATO’s Middle Eastern partners can one day become members of the Alliance.
Twenty years ago, the late Ronald Asmus wrote a book entitled “Opening NATO’s Door” in which he described how NATO opened up to Eastern European partners, offering dialogue, reform and integration into the Alliance. The same could be imagined for the Middle East, but will require building security communities and the advancement of like-mindedness among Allies and those Middle Eastern partners that wish so.
Many observers believe that NATO should cooperate more with Europe. Europe is geographically closer to the region and significantly impacted by the conflicts and the migratory flows produced by years of protracted wars. Don’t you think that Europe should be more involved in NATO’s activities in the region? How can the Alliance and the EU cooperate more to ensure a peace process in the MENA?
Through my research, I found that European allies, like France, Spain and Italy, have a natural inclination to prefer co-operation with Mediterranean countries. This is probably due to geographic proximity. That said, Gulf countries are very open to working with European countries, and as I mentioned there are several areas of common interest, such as education and training, but soft security issues such as migration and the protection of society against emergencies that could be embraced to enhance collaboration between Europe and the Gulf region.
One of the major issues in the MENA region are local governments, characterized by weak institutions and widespread corruption. How can NATO work on the ground to ensure stability and to support governments’ reforms?
This is actually a crucial point, and one I highlight in the book. The key is to focus on prevention and on advancing reform in the political and security sector before governance failures occur. Dealing only with the consequences of weak institutions, for instance through military interventions once states have already failed, is not very efficient and very costly. I show in the book that the best indicator for the onset of state failure is the breakdown of the social contract that binds citizens to the state, and that more attention needs to be placed on economic and welfare factors. To advance conflict prevention, the international community needs to employ the full range of economic, development, and governance tools. NATO has some of these tools, and in concert with others, such as the United Nations and the World Bank, can make a difference. It is only through a comprehensive approach – one that addresses security, welfare, and representation in a sequential manner and takes into account their interdependence – that lasting stability can be advanced.
In your book you mentioned in several occasions that NATO should project stability by acting earlier and prevent conflicts rather than conducting military interventions. To do so the Alliance should work closely with partners’ institutions and help them build a more transparent and democratic system. How can NATO contribute to security community building? How is NATO developing its partnerships in the region in order to enhance long-term stability?
The idea of building institutions that are transparent and efficient is not new. NATO worked toward this among its members and made this a requirement for aspirant countries wishing to join the Alliance. It is well known that such institutions will increase a country’s resilience toward outside challenges and can serve as a buffer against state failure. States outside of NATO, however, often lack capacities to address these challenges and are reluctant to work in partnership with others. The result is lack of reform and slow progress on welfare and development.


“Building security communities in the Mediterranean and in the Gulf region is the best strategy to aim towards the South”    (p. 10)


NATO’s partnerships can help in this area. They can advance institution building and reform, and also advance norms and values. Critics have argued that in the Middle East certain norms and values, such as the rule of law and democracy, are absent and that NATO’s efforts are therefore futile. I demonstrate in my book, and this re-joins academic studies by Emmanuel Adler and Michael Barnett, that values are not a prerequisite for the building of a security community.
Security communities develop where multilateral channels of communications exist, where a generally held discourse of community emerges, where a convergence of dealing with security threats takes place, and where gradually defence provisions are reduced.
In this process, technical and functional cooperation can lead to trust, thereby reinforcing these trends. NATO’s partnerships with Middle Eastern countries have focussed more on cooperation and mutually shared interests and less on a convergence of norms and values. While this could hinder further integration within NATO in the long term, it should not be seen as hindering the emergence of a functional security community, characterized by the emergence of common strategic interests, increased communications, and a common discourse of community. This is already observable in NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue and in NATO’s Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI).
Moreover, regional and global trends can help support the deepening of these dialogues toward a closer sense of community, and this is where I would expect leadership of the new US administration, as you asked in your opening question.
On the 13th of August Israel and two Arab Gulf States, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed the so-called Abraham Accords becoming the third and the fourth Arab countries to open diplomatic relations with Israel. Few months later Sudan and Morocco normalized their diplomatic ties with Israel. In your opinion will the Abraham Accords open new opportunities for NATO?
The Middle East is again in the news, and we are witnessing a further escalation of a long-standing conflict. The recent escalation shows once more that only a lasting political solution to the Middle East conflict can bring peace to the region. This requires an effort of the parties involved and of the international community. NATO’s experience in crisis management and peacekeeping and its extended network in the region could make the alliance a partner for peace in the Middle East.
NATO’s relations with Israel, as well as with Israel’s neighbours, Egypt and Jordan, but also as you mention with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco that have now signed agreements with Israel, place NATO in a position where it can contribute to a peace settlement. Already 15 years ago, the idea of NATO peacekeepers in the West Bank emerged, and while it was then discarded, nothing excludes reflections towards conceiving NATO as a peacekeeper in the Middle East. My book is a historical and academic analysis of the alliance’s engagement with the region and in doing I offer some ideas on what an outside role towards peace-making in the Middle East could look like. While the space for an agreement has thus shrunk, it seems to me that without outside impetus, and probably an outside guarantor, no peaceful resolution can be found.
On the 5th of January, during the 41st GCC Summit in Al-Ula, Gulf countries announced the lift of the three-and-half-year blockade against Qatar. Now that diplomatic relations between Qatar and the four Arab States have been restored, can we expect a greater cooperation between the Gulf states and NATO? The NATO Istanbul Cooperation Initiative regional centre in Kuwait is a key training centre and hub in the Gulf, can we expect further initiatives?
NATO’s partnership with the Gulf region started in 2004 through NATO’s Istanbul Co-operation Initiative, which initially started as a series of bilateral engagements. But the ICI always had the ambition to contribute to regional security. In fact, the partnership made progress through diplomatic and outreach efforts, and Ambassador Minuto-Rizzo, who is the President of the NDC Foundation was driving these efforts, which I describe in detail in my book. In the field of training and education, NATO and its partners in the Gulf region found common ground and advanced collaboration, leading to the creation of a dedicated Middle East Faculty at the NATO Defense College in Rome and in 2017 to the establishment of a NATO-ICI Centre in Kuwait, as you mention a key training centre in the region. These efforts have created trust and built a feeling of belonging to a security community. At the same time, there are still divergent views on what the priorities of the partnership should be – should it focus more on regional security concerns, like conflicts in Syria or Yemen, or should it focus on security sector reform and other NATO initiatives.
As you mention, the recent rapprochement within the Gulf Co-operation Council is a positive development. It could allow work on the currently defunct yet existent GCC military structure to resume. From an academic point, it is interesting to see that NATO’s training and education activities have always involved all Gulf countries, which shows to me that a regional security approach is still very much in fashion. One could of course take a very bold view, and suggest that such a regional security approach should also involve confidence-building measures with Iraq, Iran or Yemen.

Rolf Schwarz

Dr Schwarz has served as political adviser for the Middle East and Africa at NATO Headquarters and as professor at the NATO Defense College. He currently is a senior adviser at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. He is the author of the book NATO and the Middle East: in search of a strategy published in the United States of America and in the United Kingdom in 2020 by Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc.

Maria Bagnara

Ms Bagnara is an Arabist specialised in Economics and Institutions of Islamic countries at the LUISS Guido Carli University of Rome. She collaborates with the NATO Defense College Foundation.

Share on


Subscribe to our newsletter