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.


The upcoming Washington Summit will mark the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) 75th anniversary with a wealth of initiatives aimed at further bolstering NATO’s deterrence and defense capabilities while providing Ukraine with a “bridge” toward future membership in the Alliance. Perhaps less known, NATO leaders will also look into revamping the bloc’s engagement with the South — namely, the Middle East and Africa. Drawing on a reflection conducted earlier this year, this overdue and welcome development — NATO’s main initiatives toward the South date back several years — will nonetheless highlight the narrow window of opportunity available to NATO in light of past setbacks and various constraints the Alliance will continue to face.

Updating the Alliance’s approach to the South will be no easy feat, complicated by three major factors. First, the war in Gaza has exacerbated anti-Western sentiments. Second, Arab countries remain deeply reluctant to isolate Russia and antagonize China. And finally, there are lingering discrepancies as to the Southern flank’s relative weight in Alliance strategy as well as NATO’s niche vis-à-vis the European Union when it comes to regional activities — notably, the EU, not NATO, has recently deployed a military operation in the Red Sea to protect international shipping.

While the Washington Summit is unlikely to deliver any ground-breaking outcome, it certainly offers the opportunity to articulate the nexus between security in Europe and the Mediterranean-African region. This nexus has only become more strategically relevant in light of the challenge posed by Russia’s presence in the Middle East and Africa along with growing Russian-Iranian military cooperation in the Black Sea region. Against a backdrop of both conventional and unconventional threats, NATO should look into stepping up its involvement in maritime security as well as address increasingly relevant issues such as air and missile defense, among other areas, while continuing its long-standing engagement on counterterrorism.

NATO also has the opportunity to renew and streamline its partnerships with Middle Eastern and North African countries while strengthening its outreach to Africa. For all the anti-NATO prejudice across the South, NATO’s offer in terms of capacity-building and security assistance remains appealing to the defense and security sectors in a plurality of countries. Synergies on specific security priorities will not be hard to find. But strategic convergence may remain an elusive goal — at best, one could eventually emerge out of the many, concurrent largely bilateral processes of practical security cooperation with sovereignty-conscious partners, many of which will continue to hedge their bets.

A long-standing engagement damaged by stumbles

While Russia’s war against Ukraine has reaffirmed the centrality of the Eastern flank, the Alliance’s Southern flank remains an important factor in its overall security equation and has been a concern for NATO from the outset. Turkey and Greece joined NATO in 1952, after the 1947 Truman Doctrine had already identified the Eastern Mediterranean as a central theater of the strategy of containment. Moreover, Mediterranean Italy was included among the Alliance’s founding members in 1949, making NATO much more than a North Atlantic grouping from its outset.

Throughout the bipolar era, the Mediterranean served as a battleground for geopolitical competition, with NATO playing its part, including through the deployment of ballistic missile capabilities at key locations. As the two superpowers vied for friends and clients across the MENA region, NATO contributed to preserving naval superiority in the Mediterranean Sea, with Naples headquartering the United States Navy’s Sixth Fleet and a NATO command.

In the initial post-Cold War era, NATO no longer faced a strategic rival in the area, as the collapse of the Soviet Union led to Russian disengagement. Meanwhile, in an attempt to build bridges with countries in the South, NATO started a Mediterranean Dialogue in 1994, around the time of the Oslo agreements, and launched the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative with the Gulf in 2004. These two partnership formats, covering much of MENA, greatly contributed to giving tangible meaning to “cooperative security,” one of NATO’s self-identified “core tasks” in a post-bipolar setting.

It is often underappreciated that the first and only time NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense clause was invoked was after 9/11. The Alliance responded to the attacks through initiatives such as the Mediterranean-based Operation Active Endeavour. Running between 2001 and 2016, NATO ships patrolled the basin to help deter, defend, and protect against terrorist activities. Active Endeavour was succeeded, in 2016, by Operation Sea Guardian. Both operations have benefited from the active involvement of NATO Mediterranean Dialogue partners.

Yet the Middle East and Africa have also been a source of discord among NATO allies, as well as a place of mission failure. Transatlantic disagreements ruled out a NATO combat role in the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq; and NATO’s 20-year engagement in Afghanistan came to an abrupt end in 2021 with a plethora of hard lessons for the Alliance. For its part, the 2011 military intervention in Libya has become a standard target for NATO detractors who have denounced it as a glaring example of the Euro-Atlantic bloc’s militaristic hubris and the detrimental consequences of foreign meddling.

Critics often neglect that NATO intervened in the Libyan civil war to implement United Nations Security Council Resolution 1973, which had called for the establishment of a no-fly zone and a cessation of attacks on civilians. They also overlook that Arab states such as Jordan, Morocco, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates actively supported the NATO-led operation. For sure, the lack of meaningful post-intervention Western engagement (motivated in part precisely by the attempt to avoid nation building and the criticism that would have invited) led to the exodus of foreign fighters and the spread of stockpiles of Libyan weapons — a key contributing factor to the decade-plus of instability, military coups, and violence that has plagued the Sahel since.

The NATO Libyan intervention also backfired in the sense that the country is yet to stabilize and rebuild, with competing factions controlling different areas and assets of the energy-rich state. As the civil war has turned into a proxy conflict, Russia has become an important actor, including through a growing military presence. Yet various NATO members have also engaged in an unfortunate competition for influence there: Turkey, France, and Italy are all pursuing colliding strategies driven by their perceived national interests and different preferences about Libya’s course.

When NATO has accepted the arduous task of post-conflict stabilization, its record in the region has not always been as disappointing as in the Afghanistan case. The Alliance’s engagement in Iraq — a NATO partner since 2011 — has intensified in recent years with the goal of buttressing the country’s security institutions and preventing the return of ISIS. Launched in 2018, the NATO Mission in Iraq is the culmination of a capacity-building and training effort dating back to the mid-2000s. While its success will continue to depend on the fluid trajectory of post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, the mission shows that NATO resources and tools are prized even in the least likely of contexts.

NATO has already had to draw a number of lessons from Iraq’s complex political landscape. The 2021 “surge,” increasing its personnel from 500 up to 4,000, caused initial backlash as the Iraqi parliament had called for the withdrawal of all foreign military presence. But since then, NATO’s response has smartly involved tailored communication, an emphasis on Iraqi sovereignty, and more careful engagement with the government at all relevant levels.

Partnerships and tasks in a volatile environment

As the North Atlantic Alliance renews its engagement with the South, realism should be the guiding principle. The new approach should fully factor in the diversity of the Mediterranean-African macro-region and lucidly acknowledge the constraints NATO will continue to face, as politics within the bloc and the larger strategic context evolve, not always in the direction of an upgraded NATO role.

For one, NATO’s southern neighborhood is very different from the region to its east, where Allies have coalesced around the notion that Russia represents “the most significant and direct threat” and decided — not without some internal discrepancies — to leverage NATO to the maximum extent possible to counter Russian revanchism. In the South, NATO needs to navigate a varied environment characterized by a range of transboundary challenges and widespread instability. It faces rivals, such as Iran, Russia, and various terrorist groups, which are willing to work together to harm Western interests but whose actions in the region do not directly threaten the territory of NATO members.

NATO needs to also rely on a range of unevenly developing partnerships, some of which will continue to force the Alliance into uncomfortable tradeoffs — signally between preserving stability and impressing positive change. This makes NATO’s Southern flank — the Middle East and Africa — very different from the Indo-Pacific, a more strategically consequential area in which threats are mainly conventional in nature and local NATO partners display a higher level of alignment with Western priorities and values.

More importantly, while Washington’s support to NATO’s southern strategy is subordinated to a long-term commitment to the Alliance — suddenly less certain and contingent on the outcome of this year’s US presidential elections — various European members will continue attaching different levels of importance to the region, even as Europe as a whole has become more dependent on MENA energy after cutting off Russia and as the continent remains exposed to a range of Mediterranean-borne phenomena, such as migration.

NATO will hardly be the place where existing intra-allied differences are resolved through the launch of ambitious new initiatives. Rather, NATO will only be able to go as far and fast as its own members collectively allow, with long-standing issues, such as those between Turkey and Greece in the Eastern Mediterranean, resurfacing on a number of important files.

In the Central Mediterranean, Libya will likely remain a 700,000-square-mile weak spot. Operationalizing meaningful cooperation with the divided country remains a long shot, and signs point to no significant direct NATO involvement for the time being in a theater in which Russian influence is very significant and possibly growing. The same applies to the Sahel — the current epicenter of terrorism, according to the Global Terrorism Index. On the one hand, NATO can surely further leverage its valuable relationship with Mauritania, a partner since 1995. On the other, the Alliance can hardly hope to insert itself in the Western-wary region any more effectively than France and its partners managed to in recent years.

The fact is that local rivalries, a tendency toward transactional relationships, and an often-fractious environment will continue to pose constraints on NATO involvement. The Alliance will have a difficult time building strategic convergence and multilateral dialogue on key issues. Much of NATO regional engagement will remain at the bilateral level — through, in NATO jargon, “individually tailored partnership programs.” These bilateral relationships will require careful management but may be able to further grow with more liked-minded partners, such as the UAE and Jordan. As long as the Gaza war continues, however, NATO’s Arab partners will experience deep unease about the transatlantic alliance’s partnership with Israel. The multilateral dimension of the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue will inevitably suffer as a result.

On select issues, NATO will continue to strengthen its own mandate, tasks, and assets, seeking at the same time to involve willing partners. A promising area is maritime security. Mediterranean connectivity is boosting as well as redefining the basin’s long-standing role as a global hub. The increasingly digital world relies on material physical infrastructure in the form of cables — the ones connecting Asia, Africa, and Europe often cross the Mediterranean Sea. Building on its Maritime Center for the Security of Critical Undersea Infrastructure, officially launched this past May, the Alliance can expand its long-standing contribution to maritime security with a view to developing a coordinated and increasingly regional approach to the protection of critical infrastructure.

NATO can also make cautious but much needed advances in sensitive areas such as air defense. With the proliferation of drones and advanced missile systems, aerial defense capabilities are an increasingly pressing concern for both NATO and its partners. They are also intimately linked to the future of non-proliferation and central to the competition with Iran. The fact that Jordan and the UAE helped blunt the Iranian missile strike against Israel last April is a notable fact, which provides a basis for further work. In the coming years, NATO can look into upgrading its own air- and missile-defense system, which is already partly sea-based, as well as intensifying cooperation with interested southern partners.

Moving further south to the African continent, NATO should tread carefully but may be able to reap the benefits of Western strategies increasingly focused on the opportunity side of engagement with Africa. Namely, NATO can reach out to African countries that have shown a willingness to work with the US and Europe even against the backdrop of the war in Ukraine and in Gaza. Kenya, recently granted the coveted status of major non-NATO US ally, is just one such example. (Although, recent unrest in the country shows the ever-present pitfalls that African engagement can pose to NATO when strategically valuable local actors face challenging domestic situations.)

NATO’s relationship with the African Union (AU) also stands to be explored further. As African countries look for African solutions to the continent’s conflicts, NATO’s offer may be strongest in the areas of capacity sharing. For instance, in the past, NATO helped with the strategic airlift of AU peacekeeping forces in Darfur. Even a simple exchange of information and assessments would be mutually beneficial, paying important dividends when it comes to sensitive topics such as Wagner Group (since rechristened the “Africa Corps”) activities across the continent.

The need for greater coordination

A proposal that has gained some attention of late is the appointment of a NATO special envoy for the South — an initiative that would strengthen visibility and outreach but touch upon a number of sensitivities among both NATO allies and partners. As NATO already did by establishing a special coordinator for counterterrorism in 2023, most useful at this stage would be concrete steps toward better coordination of all the work that directly and indirectly affects NATO’s engagement in and with the South. Among other priorities, taking a fresh new look at the underutilized NATO Strategic Direction-South HUB (NSD-S HUB) would be a welcome step.

Precisely because it faces a narrow path in a vast and complex region, the success of NATO’s upcoming Washington Summit will depend on realistic and practical choices. The Alliance must build upon earlier lessons learned and best practices to develop a more streamlined — rather than overly ambitious but vaguely defined — new approach.


Emiliano Alessandri is a Non-Resident Scholar with MEI and an expert on Euro-Mediterranean relations with a focus on North Africa. 

Photo by Jaber Abdulkhaleg/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

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