November 10, 2014

NATO’s Partnership Policy: New Challenges, New Opportunities


The Alliance will need to decide how to respond to countries seeking to join it as full members.

Over the past two decades, NATO has built a network of members and partners comprising 41 countries. Despite the recent prominence given to membership enlargement, NATO seems destined for at least the next few years to focus on broadening and deepening its partnerships with non-member countries and other international institutions. NATO has developed an extensive partnership programme since the Cold War. The Alliance now has some two dozen official national partners and is developing ties with more countries as well as international institutions. Partners contribute capabilities, money and legitimacy to NATO activities. They have provided thousands of troops to support NATO in Afghanistan and in the Balkans, air support in Libya, and support to other NATO projects. But managing such a diverse portfolio of partners presents challenges.
Current Partners
The end of the Cold War prompted NATO to seek to develop relations with its former Soviet bloc adversaries; calling them “partners” had a nice ring and lacked any concrete commitments. In December 1991, NATO established the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC), in which members and non-members discussed political and security issues of concern to all Europe. The new Partnership for Peace (PFP) Programme, launched at the January 1994 Brussels summit, sought to go beyond dialogue and build trust between NATO and the former Soviet bloc members through cooperation on concrete projects. Organised bilaterally between each partner country and NATO, PFP allowed each country to determine its own priorities for cooperation in unique relationships with the Alliance. However, the PFP Framework Document obliges all partners to preserve democratic societies; respect international law and their arms control commitments; fulfil their obligations under the UN Charter, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Helsinki Final Act to refrain from the threat or use of force against other states; respect existing borders; and settle disputes peacefully. The Framework Document committed NATO to consult with partners if they perceived a dire threat to their territorial integrity, political independence or security.
In 1997, the Euro-Atlantic Partnership (EAPC) succeeded the NACC as a comprehensive multilateral forum comprising all NATO members and partner countries. Its deliberations have focused mostly on issues related to crisis management, peace support and transnational security threats such as terrorism. EAPC members regularly hold discussions on current conflicts, such as Kosovo and Afghanistan, where military contingents from members and partners are deployed together. They also discuss the general PFP programme’s implementation and future. The EAPC is useful for countries not seeking NATO membership to contribute to Euro-Atlantic security while still maintaining their own distinct and separate foreign policy.
But it was the 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States that propelled the Alliance to its new partnership policy. That incident, which led NATO to invoke its Article 5 collective defence clause for the only time in its history, forced allies in the most vivid way possible to recognise that threats to their security could come from all corners of the globe and that they needed to transform the Alliance from a geographic to a functional entity. From this point onwards, NATO’s partnerships were seen not only as a tool for overcoming old Cold War antagonisms, but also as a means to project stability outside Europe. The best-known example is the way in which NATO has collaborated with dozens of non-member militaries in Afghanistan, where the Alliance has enjoyed a UN Security Council mandate and since 2003 led the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) supporting the Kabul government. Even before then, many non-members contributed (and still do) troops and other support for the NATO-led operations in the former Yugoslavia. Most recently, several Arab states joined NATO’s Operation Unified Protector in Libya and the counter-piracy operation Ocean Shield in the Gulf of Aden. These more recent operations, as well as Palestinian leader Abbas’s invitation to provide peacekeeping troops in Israel-Palestine, are no longer “toxic” in the Arab world.
NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept identified the Alliance’s promotion of “cooperative security” through partnerships with non-member governments, other international organisations and non-governmental organisations as one of its core goals. At the November 2010 NATO summit that adopted the Concept, leaders committed to counter worldwide threats, ranging from cyber attacks to the proliferation of ballistic missiles and other global challenges to Alliance interests well beyond the Euro-Atlantic area. NATO leaders have since tried to make additional tools and resources available to partners, including by providing more training and support for security-sector reforms; holding more frequent and targeted consultations, with “flexible” formats that enable any allies and partners to meet on any issue in any configuration; and expanding concrete cooperation between NATO and its most militarily capable partners.
According to NATO, the Lisbon summit launched a major initiative to make the Alliance’s dialogue and cooperation with partners “more inclusive, flexible, meaningful and strategically oriented”. Foreign ministers endorsed the new approach at their April 2011 meeting in Berlin. The new policy makes partnership consultation mechanisms stronger and substance-focused. It outlines a “toolbox” of mechanisms and activities for partners, simplifies the way that NATO develops cooperation, and offers partners a substantial role in shaping strategy and decisions on NATO-led operations to which they contribute. The document defines the new strategic objectives for these partnerships as being to:

  • Enhance Euro-Atlantic and international security, peace and stability
  • Promote regional security and cooperation
  • Facilitate mutually beneficial cooperation on issues of common interest, including international efforts to meet emerging security challenges
  • Prepare interested eligible nations for NATO membership
  • Promote democratic values and reforms
  • Enhance support for NATO-led operations and missions
  • Enhance awareness of security developments including through early warning, with a view to preventing crises
  • Build confidence and achieve better mutual understanding, including about NATO’s role and activities, in particular though enhanced public diplomacy.

The specific objectives for partnership attacks encompass consulting on security developments, preventing and managing crises, and contributing to NATO campaigns, counter-terrorism, counter-proliferation, civil emergency planning and “emerging security challenges” such as cyber defence, energy security and maritime security, including counter-piracy.
The partnerships are mutually beneficial, or they would not form or persist. NATO partners enhance Alliance operations, add critical capabilities and provide political and geographic diversity. Although partners do not gain formal NATO security guarantees, they do acquire access to NATO training, exercises and education; build security capacity with the Alliance’s assistance, engage in political dialogue on shared interests; and pool resources to gain efficiencies. NATO is the only multinational alliance capable of conducting sustained high-intensity combat operations outside its traditional area of operations. For a time in 2011, the Alliance was commanding partners in six operations in three continents—Libya, Afghanistan, Kosovo, a training mission in Iraq, and maritime missions in the Gulf of Aden and the eastern Mediterranean.
NATO has made further reforms in its partnership policy since the 2012 Chicago summit. Last year the Alliance updated its Political-Military Framework to enable partners to participate more effectively in NATO’s assessments, planning and decisions regarding present and possible military operations. It has committed to apply the lessons learned in recent and current operations and ensure that its “operational partners” enjoy better political consultations with the NATO countries also engaged in missions and to improve partners’ interoperability with the Alliance by integrating them more systematically into NATO training and exercises. Four partners sent troops to join NATO’s large Steadfast Jazz exercise in 2013, while others participated in smaller exercises. In addition, Finland, Sweden and Ukraine have assigned forces to the NATO Response Force (NRF), while Georgia pledged to make forces available to this rapid-reaction force in 2015. NATO training programmes continue to promote interoperability between NATO and partner forces, but a new focus has been on reforming partner military education institutions.
NATO’s immediate problem is how to strengthen ties with non-member partners in the face of a hostile Russia, whose leadership has demonstrated a capacity and willingness to employ force to defend its declared sphere of vital influence against Western encroachments, from the EU as well as NATO. Another challenge is managing a diverse portfolio of partners that differ in terms of their location, capabilities and values.
As in the past, NATO will treat its various partners differently. Ukraine and Georgia fall in a special category given their close ties with the Alliance, thwarted aspirations for eventual NATO membership and the major Russian military threats they face. Along with Russia, each of these countries has a special partnership committee with NATO. The other non-Russian Former Soviet Union (FSU) states, the transition countries in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) and the distant but increasingly globally influential Asian countries each come under different regional frameworks and with different NATO-linked institutions. The Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the Partnership for Peace covers the former Soviet bloc states in Europe, NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue groups covers the seven countries of the southern Mediterranean rim, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative includes four Gulf states, and NATO’s “partners across the globe”—Afghanistan, Australia, Iraq, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand and Pakistan—all have their own independent bilateral means of engaging NATO. These groups are supplemented when needed by more flexible formats for meetings based on the “28 Allies + n” formula, first employed with Russia, Ukraine and Georgia. In the case of these other partners, the NATO membership issue is absent, at least in the near term, a situation that makes relations in these partnerships less tense but also less interesting to both parties. NATO will have to define more clearly its long-term plan and expectations for these partners, as well as acknowledge the inevitable constraints and challenges in developing these partnerships. Beyond assistance to strengthen and reform partner countries’ security structures, NATO can mostly offer advice and standards. In the case of the MENA region, the sources of instability are often social or economic forces, which the Alliance has little capacity to shape.
NATO has also developed partnerships with the European Union, the United Nations and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE). NATO sometimes helps these institutions to address regional security challenges directly when NATO itself chooses to adopt a lower profile. Thus, NATO empowers the EU and the African Union through several training and equipment programmes to address security threats in sub-Saharan Africa. NATO also cooperates with the UN on some issues. But since international institutions operate by consensus, this cooperation can be constrained to the lowest common denominator. To avoid this problem, NATO often creates its own variable geometry in which the Alliance cooperates most with those countries that are able and willing to contribute to address each specific issue, regardless of their formal institutional affiliations.
NATO policymakers are seeking ways in which partners who contribute substantially and consistently to the execution of Alliance policies (such as Australia) can have more influence on how these operations are prepared and conducted. For example, the strongest contributors might be invited to participate in the Alliance’s technical (interoperability) communities and relevant debates in the North Atlantic Council, and receive SHAPE certification of their military interoperability with NATO for various types of military mission. The hope is that giving them a feeling of ownership will lead them to contribute more. In addition to the recurring consultations with ISAF partners at NATO meetings, the 2012 Chicago summit saw the first special partnership session independent of ISAF, with an official session of NATO leaders including President Barack Obama and the then Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen meeting with the 13 partners that had made major contributions to NATO missions other than Afghanistan.
The Afghanistan experience has taught NATO the importance of providing comprehensive security assistance to partner countries and other multinational security organisations so that they can better defend themselves with less help from the Alliance. NATO is refining how it provides security assistance to Afghanistan, Ukraine and other recipients as well as strengthening its tools for doing so.
As NATO continues to pursue relationships with non-traditional partners, critics claim the Alliance is abandoning its principles. Some might hope that it would serve as a tool for diffusing liberal-democratic values globally. But while NATO is grounded on liberal democratic values, some new or potential partners do not share these values. When NATO partners with them, critics charge that the Alliance is abandoning its values by cooperating with repressive regimes. However, NATO’s flexible partnership policy makes it easier to limit its engagement with problematic partners or at least treat them in a different category than the more developed democratic European neutral countries of Austria, Sweden, Finland, Ireland and Switzerland or the West-leaning countries of Asia, including Australia, Japan and South Korea.
The multitude of agreements, partners and partnerships has created confusion and sometimes dissatisfaction among certain members. For example, because NATO’s partnership policies appear to be based on shifting requirements of each specific event in time, the utility of these new partnerships is not always clear to existing NATO members. As the policy is constantly changing and adapting to new circumstances, it would be difficult to evaluate its overall success. However, the Alliance’s longevity is partly due to its ability to evolve and respond to new international security environments. The fact that NATO’s network of partnerships is so large—and expanding, due to the desire of additional countries to affiliate with the Alliance—suggests that the policy has been an overall success.

Future Members

Looking ahead, NATO will need to decide how to respond to countries (like Georgia) seeking to join it as full members. NATO leaders have continued to insist that the Alliance maintains an open door to new members, refusing to reward Russian aggression or to let Moscow define any membership enlargement as a provocation. Nonetheless, this month’s summit will not invite more members to join and has not fast-tracked any aspiring members. Even before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, NATO governments feared making security commitments that they would find difficult to keep and worried that adding more members of modest defence capability but located closer to threatening neighbours would result in a net decrease in NATO’s security.
Originally composed of 12 countries, NATO now has 28 member states. In 2010, NATO announced that its “door remains open to any European country in a position to undertake the commitments and obligations of membership, and contribute to the security of the Euro-Atlantic area”. Article 10 of the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty established the foundation for this policy, while the 1972 Helsinki Final Act guarantees the right of any European country to join a defence alliance. The criteria for joining NATO remain that any new entrant must want to join, must have achieved sufficient security and other reforms to be an acceptable new entrant, and must be able to make a net addition to Alliance security, such as by bringing new security capabilities. Countries currently participating in the Membership Action Plan (MAP), the precursor to full NATO membership, include Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Republic of Macedonia. At the 2012 summit, Rasmussen held a special meeting with the four formal “aspirant countries” of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Georgia, Macedonia and Montenegro. According to Rasmussen, NATO’s membership enlargement has increased security and stability in Europe. Former U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton argued that NATO’s enlargement yielded a “stronger, more durable, [and] more effective NATO”.
Still, the extent to which NATO will enlarge further—and at what pace it might do so—appears largely beyond the Alliance’s control. The last new entrants were Albania and Croatia, in 2008. Those states that could most easily enter NATO—Sweden and Finland—do not want to do so, at least until Russia relaxes its objections. By contrast, the country that most eagerly seeks to join the Alliance, Georgia, has found it impossible in the past to overcome Russian objections and threats that have made the other allies nervous about allowing it to join. The 2008 Russo–Georgian War made NATO policymakers more conscious of the potential security costs of Alliance enlargement, while Western economic problems have increased concern about taking on new security commitments when defence budgets are already straining NATO’s capabilities. Georgia has already risen to the rank of the four so-called “aspirant” countries. They held a special NATO+4 meeting in Chicago at foreign-minister level, a process that probably should continue at future NATO summits. To reassure NATO countries concerned about the possibility of a renewed Russo–Georgian War, the Georgian government should reaffirm its pledge not to use force, while NATO should affirm its support for UN and OSCE principles such as the unacceptability of changing national borders by force, the right of self-defence and the right of every country to choose what, if any, alliances or international organisations it can join. Although the United States does not want to antagonise its European allies, U.S. officials need to pressure European members to be more supportive of Georgia as well as to establish some type of mechanism to review the sale by NATO countries to Russia of arms that could be used against Georgia or other NATO partners. The U.S. government should reward and encourage the new Georgian government to pursue more democratic reforms and a less vindictive approach to political competitors. The source of Georgia’s strong support in Washington and NATO is its people’s attractive commitment to liberal democratic values shared by all Alliance members.
The Alliance was fortunate that the Ukraine crisis has ensured that NATO’s failure to enlarge did not dominate the headlines at the Wales summit. There have been only three enlargement summits since 1989; most NATO summits do not invite new members. But other summits have advertised that NATO has an open door to new members, as should the Wales summit. The communique should also duly recognise the progress made by the aspirant countries towards meeting the Alliance’s membership criteria. NATO governments should clarify their route to further integration into NATO and what resources the Alliance will provide aspirants to make that possible. In the case of Georgia, which, despite problems, has been strengthening its credentials for NATO membership, the allies should confirm that, while the government wants a Membership Action Plan (MAP), acquiring such a document is not a prerequisite for joining NATO. Existing mechanisms, such as the NATO–Georgia Commission and Annual National Plan, are sufficient to prepare Georgia for eventual membership. Georgia has been striving to meet NATO’s technical interoperability standards as well as to align Georgian defence tactics, techniques and procedures with those of NATO. In Afghanistan, Georgian troops have fought shoulder-to-shoulder with forces from other NATO members and sustained casualties. When other ISAF and NATO members were pulling troops out, Georgia was putting more in. Georgian diplomats have succeeded in making the NATO–Georgia Commission a vibrant entity with high-level meetings, including of heads of state and key ministers. Georgia is joining the revived NATO Response Force.
Several countries in the Balkans also seem good candidates for NATO membership in a few years’ time. Since they are located close to existing NATO members, developments in these states can directly affect the Alliance’s general security. In some cases, major transnational narcotics, human-trafficking and other criminal networks use their territory to move illicit goods from Asia into Europe. Sometimes associated with terrorism, these networks are precisely the novel threats identified in NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept. Existing members Bulgaria, Romania and Turkey are eager to bring these countries into NATO so that the Alliance can work closely with them to address these threats and extend security more directly to the wider Black Sea region, an important conduit for European energy supplies and NATO’s ties with Central Asia. Their entry is not seen as entailing large costs, given that they have ceased resorting to force to solve their territorial and ethnic disputes and that Russian officials have expressed fewer concerns about their entering the Alliance than they have about Georgia and Ukraine. Were it not for its nomenclature dispute with Greece, Macedonia would probably receive an invitation to join NATO since it received a Membership Action Plan well before its neighbours and has made substantial progress in its implementation. But since NATO is a consensus-based organisation, Athens can continue to veto Macedonia’s entry indefinitely. Montenegro and Bosnia-Herzegovina have made rapid progress in reforming their defence sectors. Despite Bosnia’s multi-ethnic national makeup, NATO membership seems to enjoy widespread support throughout the country.
According to NATO’s most recent annual report,

in 2013, good progress was made in implementing the reforms necessary to meet the Alliance’s standards, even if further progress is required for these countries to achieve their membership aspirations. Specific areas of work include: registering immovable defence properties as state property in Bosnia and Herzegovina; bringing security agencies up to NATO standards and addressing corruption in Montenegro; and continuing progress toward civilian and military reform goals as set out in the Annual National Programme in Georgia. An invitation to the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia will be extended as soon as a mutually acceptable solution to the issue over the country’s name has been reached with Greece.

The most serious challenges facing these countries may be a lack of strong supporters for further NATO enlargement in several major European countries and their need to sustain defence spending despite economic challenges to demonstrate that they would make net positive contributions to NATO’s security.
In addition, many countries seem destined to remain in PFP and other NATO partnership arrangements for a long time before they might become formal NATO members. In the Balkans, lingering popular resentment over how NATO helped detach Kosovo from Belgrade in 1999 precludes Serbia’s joining any time soon. The Central Asian countries are not in Europe, remain Moscow’s military allies and would need to make major defence and political reforms to meet NATO requirements. Armenia and Azerbaijan would also not join NATO for fear of antagonising Moscow, and would have to resolve their territorial dispute since this is a prerequisite for NATO membership. It will probably take a change of regime in Moscow before the issue of many of these countries joining NATO becomes an active topic of discussion at a NATO summit.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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