How should NATO deal with its security partnerships?
Serie Geopolitiek & Wereldorde

How should NATO deal with its security partnerships?

20 Apr 2022 - 09:14
Photo: US, UK, Japanese, and Australian maritime forces transit in formation through the Bay of Bengal in 20121. © U.S. Indo-Pacific Command
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What is the purpose and fundamental security task of NATO? The leaders of the Alliance are currently updating its Strategic Concept. Due to be ready by June 2022, it will be the first revision of this key NATO document since 2010. In this Clingendael Spectator series, 11 international experts answer 5 key questions on NATO’s future. Question 3: How should NATO make the most of its security partnerships? Some partners (e.g. Sweden, Finland, and Australia) have moved closer to the Alliance over the past decade. Is the recently initiated AUKUS security pact (between Australia, the UK and the US) dividing NATO, or a sign of how geopolitical alliances will be struck in the future?

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It is clear that portraying the AUKUS security pact as a deal-breaker will not help us to advance NATO’s capacity at all. Australia sits in a critical position to counter the Chinese challenge; equipping this partner with the critical nuclear submarines technology will help contain the fast-growing Chinese posture.

Finland has already opted for empowering its air deterrent with F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, which is telling. I believe we are on the right track as for Sweden and Finland to promote them as ‘ally partners’.

The logical next step would be expanding the partnership portfolio with Ukraine, and augment it as a firm response to the Russian aggression in the Black Sea region.

bannerNATO’s partnerships are undergoing a sea change, especially with Sweden and Finland now looking ever more likely to join the Alliance. This reshuffling will also mean that NATO has to re-think its approach to partnerships, in the European but also the Indo-Pacific neighbourhood. More flexible security alliances are thereby not necessarily a problem, if NATO implements the following three steps.

First, NATO needs to clearly define and communicate what it wants to achieve with its long list of partnerships, which should be mutually beneficial for all involved. Second, this clarity regarding the aim should allow for easier prioritisation of partnerships, either to improve regional stability (e.g. Indo-Pacific, Southern Flank) or to gain capabilities where NATO is still lagging behind (e.g. technology, resilience). Third, the special partnership between NATO and the EU should be emphasised more. Especially in areas such as regulation of critical infrastructure, civilian capabilities, climate change, innovation/Emerging Disruptive Technologies (EDT) and industrial competitiveness, the EU can be a real asset to the military alliance.

bannerThe fundamental principle of joining NATO is being a democratic country. Why not work together with other democracies that have no desire or ability to join, but have similar objectives? Security partnerships should be approached from a strategic, capability enhancing and enabling point of view.

Smaller coalitions of NATO members, together with non-NATO members, have already been cooperating more closely through exercises and dialogues. The Northern Group, the Joint Expeditionary Force, the E3, the Visegrad Group and the European Intervention Initiative are just a few examples.1  They serve to align strategic thinking, share capability building efforts and maximise interoperability – all contributing factors to increasing military and political readiness. Moreover, in the case of Sweden, Finland and Australia, they bring in regional expertise and capabilities.

Importantly, the increased complexity of security challenges will require a comprehensive approach to security and crisis management; this is why well-functioning cooperation and a security partnership between the EU and NATO is so vital. Both institutions have acknowledged the need for and benefits of cooperation, and have taken action, but more can be done. Currently they are both outlining their respective strategic plans, the Strategic Compass (EU) and Strategic Concept (NATO), which presents an opportunity to clarify the division of tasks and closer cooperation.2

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I do not think AUKUS will divide NATO, because it does not really affect the Alliance. The mending process between Paris and Washington is progressing well, as far as I know. The defence industrial relationship between France and the UK is a bit more challenging, but I do not think this affects NATO either.

In general, I believe that partnerships with other democracies around the globe strengthen NATO. As for the European partners, I think NATO should be as inclusive and open as possible. However, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has clearly demonstrated the crucial difference between partnership and membership. Finland and Sweden have noted this and will apply for NATO membership before the summer.

bannerNATO does a good job of wringing value out of its security partnerships, but Russia and China are doing the work for us of reminding countries of the value of security guarantees from treaty allies. AUKUS was clumsily revealed, but it is an important initiative and will help countries, including France, to protect their interests in Asia. Asia has difficult political territory for alliance relationships, so as my colleagues Zack Cooper and Sheena Chestnut Greitens have written,3  we probably need several different and overlapping kinds of relationships there.


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A patchwork of various security and defence partnerships of smaller groups of countries is the reality of European and transatlantic security. This does not need to have a negative impact on NATO as long as it does not undermine the commitments of members to the Alliance.

It is important to maintain a clear difference between members and non-members; there should be no ambiguity about NATO security guarantees applying to its members only. That said, the deepening partnership with Finland and Sweden has been a most welcome development that enables NATO to involve these partners in its efforts to guarantee security in the Baltic Sea region. It has also made Finland and Sweden ready to join the Alliance relatively quickly, should they make the political choice to apply for membership.

bannerThe group of NATO partners is very diverse, ranging from immediate neighbours to countries in Central Asia, the Indo-Pacific, or the Middle East. A one-size-fits-all approach is impossible.

NATO partnerships must be seen mainly as instruments for pursuing NATO priorities. Thus, for example, renewed emphasis on deterrence and defence in the context of Russian aggression against Ukraine puts a premium on intensifying cooperation with partners similarly interested in deterring Russia: Sweden, Finland, Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova, and also the EU. If Finland or Sweden decide to apply for NATO membership, the advanced relationship with these partners should make it a relatively straightforward and fast process.

‘Variable geometry’ partnerships such as AUKUS, or indeed the new trilateral cooperation format of Poland, the United Kingdom and Ukraine, can be useful for strengthening the bond with particular partners. Such initiatives, however, should not contravene the policies of the Alliance or a provide a ‘back door’ to NATO security guarantees.

bannerAUKUS was decisive only with France – the main loser of the arrangement. NATO has always sat alongside parallel security arrangements. There are too many to list and it would be foolhardy to expect global players such as the US, and regional players such as the UK, France and Turkey to desist from making them. Any attempt to close off such arrangements or to arrive at some formula in the Strategic Concept (SC) that accords them subordinate status to NATO as such is doomed to fail (no consensus would be achieved).

Security partnerships are a strength. The most effective – in a variety of different formats – are with significant players such as Georgia, Ukraine, Finland, and Sweden. NATO already prioritises these relationships in practice. I think the SC could say more explicitly how its partnerships provide an extension of security around the NATO core (hence, a need to affirm the ‘projecting stability’ formula in the SC). More could also be said in the SC about the Framework Nations Concept.4


bannerAUKUS had a devastating impact on NATO, in a fundamental way inhibiting its ability to address China and the Indo-Pacific. Like the Skybolt affair of the early 1960s,5  AUKUS’ negative impact will durably reverberate as France, Britain, and the United States wrestle with leadership implications inside NATO. AUKUS must be considered one of the reasons why Russia felt it opportune to challenge NATO in late 2021.

NATO’s security partnerships with Sweden and Finland are straightforward: if Russia is driving these countries to seek NATO membership, which seems to be the case, the Alliance should accept it. NATO’s wider range of security partnerships is a mixed bag. In the Middle East and North Africa, they lack substance. In Asia, there is more substance, but there are considerable geographical and political obstacles to consider.

A value-centric agenda focused on international order holds promise. However, if AUKUS is the model, NATO’s global partnerships will go nowhere.


bannerNATO’s partnerships target three levels of entities: states (NATO currently has 40 partner states), international organisations (among which the EU and the UN), and private actors and NGOs. In practice, partnerships have not been a priority, as much as the cooperative security core task has remained secondary to NATO’s agenda.

Yet, there is little doubt that the need to work with partners will grow in the future. This is true for the NATO-EU partnership, but also with any entity that provides assets that NATO does not have. From cyber security to handling China and Russia, from sanctions to disinformation or resilience, NATO can only play a role if it acts through ‘security networks’ that allow for multi-actor cooperation. In these networks, NATO might take the lead or not, depending on the issue at stake. In any case, NATO must look at partnerships in more strategic terms, that is to say in the context of all its core tasks, for no strategic effect can be reached by NATO alone.

  • 1The Northern Group is a security and defence policy forum with a focus on northern Europe. The Joint Expeditionary Force is a rapid response force that includes the Netherlands, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Latvia, Lithuania, Norway and Sweden. The E3 is a loose diplomatic coalition including the UK, France and Germany. The Visegrad Group is a cultural and political alliance including the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia. The European Intervention Initiative is a French-led military initiative with 13 European countries and also includes countries that are not part of the EU or NATO like Norway, the UK, Sweden and Finland.
  • 2The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author in her personal capacity and do not in any way express the views of the Dutch Ministry of Defence, or any other entity.
  • 3Sheena Chestnut Greitens, ‘China: Two Key Questions’, Democracy a Journal of Ideas, no. 61; Zack Cooper, Melanie Marlowe, Christopher Preble, ‘The Pacific is not so pacific’, The American Enterprise Institute, 18 February 2022.
  • 4The Framework Nations Concept was introduced by Germany “to bring the topic of defence cooperation among NATO countries once more to the foreground”. All nations maintain their sovereignty and there is no ‘European army’. The concept aims to preserve military capability and “represents a step towards transatlantic burden sharing.” Claudia Major, Christian Molling, ‘The Framework Nations Concept’, German Institute for International and Security Affairs, 1 December 2014.
  • 5The Skybolt affair or Skybolt crisis was an unexpected clash between the US and the UK in 1962 “over the cancellation of an American missile program, Skybolt”. Philip Zelikow, ‘Report to JFK: The Skybolt Crisis in Perspective’, Foreign Affairs, March/April 2000.