With NATO celebrating 75 years since its founding, Alliance members will gather in Washington, DC, on July 9-11, for a historic summit. Two of the key issues on the agenda will be addressing the acute threats emanating from the Black Sea region and adopting a strategic approach toward the Middle East and Africa. The following article is part of MEI’s special series, “Shoring up NATO’s Vulnerable Flanks,” which aims to help shape these twin consequential debates that will occupy the Alliance ahead of the Washington Summit and beyond.

North Africa and the Sahel between governance problems and external pressures

The northern coast of the African continent and the Sahel region have substantial bearing on the security of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), not only due to their spatial proximity to NATO’s southern members but also in view of the important commercial relations that link the countries on either side of the Mediterranean Sea. Looking further south, European cooperation with Africa holds important economic advantages in the form of access to natural gas, oil, mineral reserves, and potentially renewable energy. Furthermore, the Sahel and North Africa are two of the regions with the world’s fastest population growth rates, which brings both challenges and opportunities for local governments and international partners, especially on the migration front — a key political factor and special concern for European constituencies. Sahel states, in particular, have struggled to address governance issues that have contributed to increasing poverty and the marginalization of various demographic groups, all the while failing to provide adequate security and address the corruption of local security forces and officials. These countries continue to struggle with terrorist and other armed group insurgencies. These actors, which often enjoy legitimacy in (especially) border areas where they control criminal and/or economic activities, seriously hamper the stability of host states by keeping smuggling and trafficking networks alive.

Africa has seen increased Russian and Chinese interest, especially in the past decade. The two countries have pursued their economic and geostrategic objectives on the continent by strengthening political and commercial relations with regional actors and exploiting NATO’s limited reach and failure to foster stability there. The Russian presence in North Africa has a particularly long history, dating back to the Soviet Union. This tradition of bilateral relations as well as Moscow’s success at presenting itself as an anti-imperial force, a supporter of local stability, and a defender of national sovereignty — such as by routinely criticizing the Western support to the Arab uprisings — have helped to enable Russia to fill the real or perceived voids left by Western players and to seize short-term opportunities across the region.

This strategy has manifested itself differently in the various countries of North Africa. Libya notably became a launching pad for Russian military engagement in the neighboring Sahel. Russia’s relationship with Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, on the other hand, is evolving and faces its own challenges. From NATO’s perspective, the Russian presence needs to be countered; yet regional countries may decide to use it as a bargaining chip vis-à-vis the West — something Alliance members should keep in mind given that stronger engagement with these countries will need to be built not only upon a narrative of countering Russian influence but also upon a positive rationale of its own.

The Chinese presence in the region, while different than that of Russia in terms of strategy and outcome, also has its roots in Beijing’s historical support for African independence movements fighting against former Western colonial powers. In more recent decades, it has developed mainly along commercial ties. As such, the core of Beijing’s strategy toward North Africa and the Sahel is today represented by economic and trade cooperation, pursued through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

This changing context requires a different approach from NATO. If not properly addressed, it could have damaging effects on the security architecture of the European continent, including by increasing the pressure of irregular migration, raising the prices of key commodities, and escalating the threat of terrorism emanating from the region. For this reason, an inadequate NATO response to these crisis factors in North Africa and the Sahel could erode the cohesion of the Alliance, endangering its effectiveness at providing deterrence and collective defense.

The weaknesses of NATO’s current approach to North Africa and the Sahel

Despite its stated interest in a stable African continent and southern Mediterranean, NATO has struggled to affirm itself as a security provider in the region. Its presence in the last decade has been characterized by incoherence and weak results. This is only partially due to the nature of the threats, which are diffused, hard to pin down, and encompass political and socio-economical dimensions. It is also the consequence of an undefined level of ambition from NATO as an organization, the lack of a consensus among allies on such ambition, and the allocation of insufficient resources toward these ends.

Since 2010, the Alliance’s approach to Africa has revolved around the two core tasks of cooperative security and crisis management, with the aim of “projecting stability” in neighboring regions. To fulfill the first of these tasks, NATO launched Defense and Security Capacity Building (DCB) programs with local countries, engaged in staff-to-staff relations, and offered officer education courses. These have been mainly pursued through the multinational Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) platform, leaving major regional security actors and states like Libya, Niger, and Mali, which are outside this format, to themselves and with limited to no engagement with NATO.

Especially in the past decade, engagement through NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue with partners in North Africa and the Sahel — specifically Algeria, Egypt, Mauritania, Morocco, and Tunisia — has been focused on combating terrorism, addressing transnational crime, and improving the capacities of regional militaries. As a result, local countries, working bilaterally and multilaterally with NATO members, made significant progress toward eliminating domestically focused terrorist groups. Yet this — particularly in the Sahel — ended up regionalizing the threat, strengthening transborder terrorist organizations fueled by local grievances and tensions. While North African states have proven more stable, the drivers of domestic instability in this region, at times exacerbated by exogenous crises, are also firmly linked to weak governance and economic hardships, which impact local populations.

Concerning the second task of crisis management, the Alliance has led only a pair of operations in North Africa and the Sahel since 2011 — “Unified Protector” in Libya and “Sea Guardian” in the Mediterranean Sea (still ongoing). The operation in Libya, conducted with a limited footprint and mainly through air strikes, obtained a fast military victory but did not stabilize the country. This limited involvement by NATO pushed individual Western states, including NATO members, to take the initiative and to launch operations on a bilateral or limited coalition basis. This was the case with France’s Operation “Barkhane” in Mali and Italy’s ongoing Operations MISIN and MIASIT in Niger and Libya, respectively. Despite this, none of these efforts have yielded lasting stability. The reluctance to act decisively on the African continent and the scarce resources employed appear, at least since 2014, to stem from NATO giving primacy to deterrence and defense on the Eastern flank as well as to the lack of a comprehensive approach to crises emanating from the southern neighborhood. Here, tensions between NATO allies with different interests have impeded the development of a common policy, fostering a negative perception and distrust of the Alliance in the region.

To try to give cohesion to the various political activities conducted in the region, in 2016, NATO launched the “Framework for the South”; while in 2017, the Alliance created the Strategic Direction-South HUB (NSD-S HUB), housed within Joint Force Command Naples, to enhance NATO’s situational awareness on regional issues. These organizational improvements might be a step in the right direction, but they have not borne clear improvements.

In May 2024, the “Independent expert group supporting NATO’s comprehensive and deep reflection process on the southern neighborhood” publicly released a report with recommendations for how to improve the Alliance’s current engagement on its Southern flank. The bulk of these recommendations call for crafting a new narrative inclusive of southern partners, one that valorizes the partnerships. In addition, the report proposes institutional improvements to strengthen engagement, enhance and expand capacity building, improve communication, and expand outreach beyond governments. Valuing existing southern partners and recommitting to the region as it faces numerous threats that implicate and affect NATO’s security are all important goals, and the recommendations include the elements necessary to bolster such cooperation. But if NATO is considering serious engagement with its Southern flank, the Alliance needs to articulate a clearer strategic approach that will not only carry forward its current priorities of stability and counterterrorism but also provide a clearer value proposition for its southern neighbors.

Opportunities in North Africa and the Sahel

Given this complex reality, it is all the more pressing for NATO to craft a strategic basis for its engagement in the South. As a first step, it is important to generate the resources needed to increase this outreach. As mentioned, NATO’s engagement with North Africa and the Sahel is often seen by partners there as limited and infrequent. The extent to which NATO can put forward the financial and material resources to transform the current partnership is a matter of internal dynamics or considerations for the Alliance as well as for its members. Falling short in this regard will be interpreted as NATO struggling to project stability in its own neighborhood, thus undermining confidence in the institution as a provider of regional collective security.

There is still opportunity to rebuild NATO’s reputation in North Africa and the Sahel, provided the Alliance engages with partners there via a tailored approach that allows for the different realities across this varied macro-region. Morocco, for example, is well recognized as a steadfast NATO partner — and perhaps the North African country with the greatest potential to further build on these ties. Morocco is already broadly engaged in the MD format as well as the individually tailored partnership program framework; importantly, Rabat would welcome even greater engagement.

Algeria has been less engaged with NATO but today holds new potential. While not yet ready to integrate into Western and European defense structures and approaches, Algiers is diversifying its defense partnerships. To date, this has meant diversifying away from a strong reliance on Russian arms purchases. Furthermore, Algeria has grown wary of Russian engagement in the Sahel — if not suspicious of it. Increasingly, Algeria has looked to Turkey, Germany, China, and Italy for new military deals as well as displayed a degree of practicality that could provide momentum for more NATO engagement. As it diversifies its arsenal of weapons, Algeria is gradually moving closer to building stronger interoperability with the militaries of several key NATO members. Bilateral engagement with these partners has room to grow. But at the regional level, working with Morocco and Algeria together, within the same platform, requires lowering the sharp tensions between Rabat and Algiers caused by the Western Sahara conflict. And while NATO does not wade into such bilateral issues, there are ways for the transatlantic bloc to help lessen the friction on both sides as the territorial dispute resolution process takes its course at the United Nations.

When it comes to Tunisia, this North African state is in a paradoxical position. President Kais Saied is trying to redirect the country’s international partnerships away from Europe and the West, keen to find any actor willing to validate his grievance-ridden worldview — particularly Russia. While Russia can be helpful in some areas, for instance in securing access to grain, it is unclear that the Tunisian military is willing to pursue a drastic realignment toward Moscow. Tunisia’s defense sector is still heavily reliant on Western partnerships with the United States, France, Germany, and Italy. NATO’s continued support and strengthened engagement with the Tunisian military is, thus, a crucial guardrail.

In light of these national differences, NATO’s partnership framework with North Africa should be revised, moving from a regional grouping format to a series of separate bilateral or multilateral engagements with states and regional organizations on specific topics. However, this multi-pronged process should be coordinated via an overarching “partner engagement plan” driven by the Alliance’s priorities and desired end states.

Outline of a comprehensive and strategic NATO approach toward the South

Those priorities and desired end states should be identified through the development of a comprehensive and strategic approach toward the South. NATO Allies agree on the relevance of the region but not on where and how to take action. A more proactive approach would involve identifying not only critical resources and opportunities but also potential vulnerabilities and related risks of exploitation by competitors. Because divergent national interests sometimes paralyze NATO’s consensus-based decision-making process, the Alliance should be comfortable with a few Allies with common interests taking the lead and the responsibility to act on behalf of NATO in specific countries or on certain issues. In each case, the Alliance should highlight the priorities and clearly establish the level of ambition, leaving to single volunteer members (or small coalitions) the freedom to act with a sort of “strategic mission command” approach.

Such a comprehensive and strategic approach requires three important elements: First, NATO needs to articulate a counternarrative and adopt a strategic communications effort that pushes back against the anti-Western messaging, disinformation, fake news, and anti-institutional sentiment that have thrived in the Alliance’s southern neighborhood and damaged its image. This counternarrative requires understanding the real grievances, current or historic, that have driven it as well as coming to terms with them and owning past mistakes. It also necessitates identifying winning propositions based on pragmatism and positive transnationalism. There is a tendency to view transactional relationships as negative and devoid of principles; but some such transactions could in fact be based on a shared principle of security and mutual desire to respond to local needs. Second, the Alliance must invest in identifying end goals that reflect the interest and buy in of partner countries to avoid sudden sharp and damaging policy reversals. And finally, NATO benefits from the support of complementary institutions and organizations, which help ensure a more resonant, comprehensive, and consistent transatlantic approach toward the southern neighborhood. While NATO’s own outreach and public diplomacy efforts are important, its strategy, messaging, and goals are bolstered when backed by the European Union and other multilateral bodies with separate access to funds, expertise, and opportunity to engage in a holistic approach to collective security. Only when all these elements are in place will it be possible to square the triangle of insecurity between North Africa, the Sahel, and NATO.


Silvia Colombo is a researcher and faculty advisor at the NATO Defense College.

Intissar Fakir is a Senior Fellow and Director of MEI’s North Africa and Sahel program.

Photo by FADEL SENNA/AFP via Getty Images

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