NATO’s Southern Exposure

The Real Threats to Europe—and the Alliance

A U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III from the 97th Air Mobility Wing (97 AMW) plane drops paratroopers during an exercise over the NATO airbase in Aviano, northern Italy, March 22, 2011. Alessandro Garofalo / Reuters

Ever since Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, NATO has focused on bolstering its defense and deterrence capabilities in central Europe. These efforts look set to pay off; at the alliance’s July summit in Warsaw, NATO is expected to adopt significant new initiatives to protect its eastern flank.

But the alliance risks coming up dangerously short on the threats that matter most to most of Europe and thus to NATO: terrorism and the ongoing influx of migrants. Especially in the wake of the Brussels and Paris attacks, if NATO fails to define a strategy for its southern challenges, it could slip into strategic irrelevance. There is precious time left before the Warsaw Summit to outline such a strategy.

NATO’s record in the Middle East and North Africa is mixed. Its approach has focused on building partnerships with regional powers. Its Mediterranean Dialogue—a forum that brings together Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia—has existed since 1994. Its Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, which includes four of the six Gulf Cooperation Council members, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates, was created in 2004. Yet with the important exception of Arab participation in the 2011 air campaign against Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, both forums have lacked practical substance.

A Turkish coastguard boat, with migrants onboard, is seen in the Turkish coastal town of Dikili, Turkey, April 6, 2016.
A Turkish coastguard boat, with migrants onboard, is seen in the Turkish coastal town of Dikili, Turkey, April 6, 2016. Murad Sezer / Reuters
Part of the problem with NATO’s efforts to strengthen its relationships in the region is that many of its potential partners are authoritarian states that are disinclined toward the political reform mandates that normally come with NATO partnerships. Moreover, some, such as Egypt, actively seek closer cooperation with Russia. And others are at least wary of drawing too close to NATO lest it exacerbate strains with a Kremlin now willing to intervene militarily in the region.

NATO’s efforts to support intraregional defense cooperation have meanwhile run into the hard realities of geopolitics—for example, the Algerian-Moroccan feud over the Western Sahara and the rifts within the Gulf Cooperation Council over policy toward Libya. Finally, Saudi Arabia, an essential partner for cooperation in

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