Why NATO won’t shift focus to counterterrorism
During President Donald Trump’s speech after the Iranian ballistic missile attack on US forces, he suggested that NATO should get more involved in the Middle East. Later that day, he and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg had a phone call. While this issue was discussed, few details of the call were released.
Trump has long complained that, when compared to Europeans, the US has taken on a disproportionate amount of the Middle East security burden. He has also described NATO as being outdated, believing that it should focus more on counterterrorism.
He says Europeans do not spend enough on defense and has called on European countries to deploy troops to northern Syria so that US troops can withdraw from there, and for European navies to deploy to the Gulf to help secure international shipping.
However nice this might sound, policymakers should be hesitant to expect NATO—as an institution—to take the lead on security operations in the Middle East and to refocus on counterterrorism missions.
Firstly, the 1949 North Atlantic Treaty, the alliance’s founding document, states that NATO’s area of responsibility is “the North Atlantic region north of the Tropic of Cancer.” There is plenty for NATO to worry about in this region without looking further afield like the Middle East.
Although the Soviet Union no longer exists, the threat from Russia remains. In Ukraine, Russia used military force to change borders in Europe—something that has not happened since World War II. Since 2008, Russia has invaded two of its neighbors and now occupies thousands of square kilometers of territory in Ukraine and Georgia. The Russian regime is rearming its military, expanding in the Arctic, threatening the Baltic states, and using hybrid warfare to undermine the democratic governance systems of Europe.
The NATO experience in Afghanistan has hardly been an easy and straightforward one. The same can be said about Libya. Instead of being an “expeditionary” force NATO should get back to the basics of worrying about the defense of Europe.
Secondly, those calling for NATO to re-tool to become a counterterrorism force fail to understand the nature of the alliance. NATO was never designed or meant to be a counterterrorism force. Although terrorism did exist at the time of the alliance’s founding in 1949, the architects of NATO focused the alliance on territorial defense for good reason.
The military capability that NATO offers can be one tool in the counterterrorism toolkit, but it should not be the toolkit itself. This is because NATO lacks many of the required capabilities needed for successful counterterrorism operations.
NATO is an intergovernmental military alliance so it lacks legislative powers to confront terrorism and the ability to implement sanctions and block terrorist funding. It also lacks many other capabilities required to fight terrorism, such as policy competency over law enforcement and border and immigration control.
While terrorism poses a threat to NATO members, it is not existential in the same way as a major nuclear-armed and aggressive neighbor like Russia.
NATO’s continued focus on territorial defense in Europe instead of counterterrorism does not mean that the members inside NATO should not be working together on counterterrorism operations, but NATO as an institution should not be the leader or main actor in these operations. Instead, if a military operation is required to fight terrorism, it should be led by a coalition of the willing, formed and led by NATO members, but not by NATO itself.
Instead of being an “expeditionary” force NATO should get back to the basics of worrying about the defense of Europe.
However, even though NATO should not increase its missions to the Middle East or completely transform into a counterterrorism alliance, there are things that NATO should and can do more of in the region. After all, instability in the Middle East can quickly spill over into Europe.
NATO should deepen its institutional relationships in the region. For example, the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI), launched in 2004, currently forms the basis of NATO relations with the Gulf states. So far only Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, and the UAE have become participants. NATO even has an office in Kuwait to support ICI activities. At a minimum NATO should seek Saudi Arabia’s involvement and consider expanding participation beyond the Gulf. The ICI actually does very little beyond the occasional symbolic meeting. Maybe it is time to breathe new life into this initiative.
Training should also form a major part of NATO’s role in the Middle East. Many of the militaries in NATO have years of combat experience from places like Afghanistan. NATO should find ways to increase training opportunities with countries in the region along the lines of NATO’s existing training mission in Iraq.
NATO should appoint a special representative for the Middle East to coordinate this. In the Middle East, personal relationships are paramount. NATO should appoint a highly respected statesman with knowledge of the region to be an enduring point of contact.
Partnerships lead to interoperability, which helps promote understanding and security. This is why cooperation between NATO and Middle East countries is so important. As Iran continues its destabilizing role in the region and terrorism continues to be a threat, NATO should build solid and enduring relations with the friendly countries of the region.
NATO should not try doing something it is neither equipped nor designed to do. NATO’s main focus must remain the defense and security of the North Atlantic region.
There is an important difference between NATO, as an institution, leading military operations in the Middle East, and the individual countries that form NATO taking on a bigger security role. It is the latter that should be advocated for, not the former.
• Luke Coffey is director of the Douglas and Sarah Allison Center for Foreign Policy at the Heritage Foundation. Twitter: @LukeDCoffey.