From ‘increasing concern’ to ‘immediate and direct’ threats from the south
Five NATO members border on the 'Middle Sea’. The situation there is of increasing concern, and we are now ready to establish contacts, on a case-by-case basis, between the Alliance and non-NATO Mediterranean countries, with a view to contributing to the strengthening of regional stability.
Claes (NATO Secretary-General) (1995, p. 7)
Before the Arab Spring turned violent, the threats emanating from the MENA region were perceived as a source of concern, not acute dangers requiring an immediate response. During the 1990s, NATO and the EU addressed them using the same liberal IR toolbox that they were using in the east. The two organisations emphasised consultation, dialogue and partnership in their efforts to bring peace and prosperity to the MENA region. NATO launched the Mediterranean Dialogue in 1994 with Egypt, Israel, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia. Algeria and Jordan joined in 1995 and 2000, respectively. The stated objectives were to contribute to regional security and stability, achieve better mutual understanding and dispel any misconceptions about NATO among Dialogue countries.
In 2004, NATO launched the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative, a complementary dialogue based on the same principles with Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates.
The initiative was part of an attempt to make the Mediterranean Dialogue more operational, and to enlist the members in the fight against terrorism and the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and their means of delivery following the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks against the USA (North Atlantic Treaty Organization, 2004).
The EU launched its Mediterranean Partnership in 1995. The objective of the partnership was to create security, stability and prosperity in MENA by strengthening democracy, rule of law, good governance and respect for human rights, trade liberalisation and increased cultural understanding through the development of civil society organisations (Barcelona Treaty, 1995). The principle means employed to this end were dialogue, cooperation and economic support and the assumption was that the Mediterranean countries would willingly transform their societies in accordance with EU demands just as the Eastern European states had done, since it was in their own best interests. The EU consequently relied primarily on the same constructivist-style socialisation approach relying on soft power instruments to initiate a positive spiral of cooperation that was expected to foster a sense of community and common interests. A renaming of the partnership to Union for the Mediterranean in 2008 did not change this approach; the liberal assumptions, instruments and objectives remained the same.
Although the EU and NATO used the same approach in the MENA region as they had done in Eastern Europe, their results were markedly different. Whereas the approach had the desired transformative effects in Europe, it made little difference in MENA. Three factors explain the different outcomes. The first was the different motivations of the partners. Whereas the majority of the countries to the east were eager to join the EU and NATO and wanted to adopt their ways and values, this was not the case with the MENA countries. Their cultural background and traditions were different. They had no identity-driven desire to be recognised as ‘real Europeans’, and several of the authoritarian regimes in MENA perceived démocratisation and market liberalisation as threats to their power and privileges. NATO was viewed with suspicion as an instrument of the USA, and the EU promotion of democracy, human rights and free media as a subversive attempt to undermine their power.
They consequently limited EU support to regime-friendly groups and continued to clamp down on civil society groups perceived as threatening.
The second factor was that EU and NATO had fewer and far smaller carrots. Membership, the principle attraction inducing the Eastern European states to bend over backwards to meet EU and NATO demands, was not on offer. This deprived the EU and NATO of most of the soft power leverage that they had enjoyed in their dealing with their eastern partners (Nye, 1990). Whereas the countries to the east actively sought to internalise the ways and values of the West in order to be recognised as part of the EU-NATO community (Schimmelfennig, 1998), the MENA partners had a far more transactional view of their partnerships with the two organisations. They used the partnerships instrumentally to advance their immediate security and economic interests and ignored or opposed the aspects of partnerships that did not.
The ability of the EU and NATO to coerce the MENA partners to do something against their will was limited by the voluntary nature of the partnerships, and the fact that the EU and NATO could not threaten recalcitrant partners to put their membership applications on hold. When the 11 September attacks increased the dependence of the EU and NATO on MENA partner support in the ‘War on Terror’, their leverage declined further still. This dependence made it difficult for the two organisations to push for economic and democratic reforms and punish MENA partners restricting democratic freedoms and violating human rights. As a result, the EU and NATO were criticised for prioritising narrow economic and security interests at the expense of human rights and democracy (for this debate, see Malmvig, 2006). While this could be regarded a cynical Realpolitik, it also reflected the fact that the EU and NATO decision makers were caught in a dilemma with limited leverage.
This brings us to the third factor explaining the limited success enjoyed by the EU and NATO: the geopolitical context and the many conflicts characterising the region. The EU and NATO were not the key players in the MENA region. Unlike in Eastern Europe, where they enjoyed a near hegemonic position for almost two decades following the end of the Cold War until Russia began to reassert itself, the EU and NATO played a secondary role to the USA in MENA. The USA was the region’s principle peace negotiator and conflict manager and it was not particularly keen on giving its European allies an independent role. This relegated NATO to a marginal role, and the EU’s inability to wield military power made it ill-equipped to deal with the region’s violent conflicts. The failed attempt by the EU-3 (France, Germany, and the UK) to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran in 2003-2006 illustrates the limited influence of the EU. The EU-3 continued to participate in the negotiations jointly with Russia and the USA, but it took secret bilateral negotiations between the USA and Iran to achieve the breakthrough that led to the signing of the 2015 deal that made it much harder for Iran to develop nuclear weapons without detection (Cronberg, 2017, p. 45).
This impotence prompted the Israeli Prime Minister Sharon to comment that the EU was a 'payer and not a player’ in the Middle East (cited in Talal, 2007). Sharon’s scathing comment reflected the poor fit between the liberal ideals and soft power methods espoused by the EU and NATO, and the Hobbesian ‘Realist’ realities of the MENA region (Florensa, 2015). The success of EU and NATO’s soft power instruments depended on a sense of community, shared interests and voluntary cooperation that simply did not exist.
Although this criticism of the EU and NATO preference for soft power methods has some bite, it goes only so far. The attempts to create democracy, peace and prosperity in the MENA region by means of hard military power and regime change did not fare any better. The American-led military overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 created a very weak conflict-ridden state in Iraq and paved the way for the rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) in Iraq and Syria in 2014. Similarly, the NATO-assisted military overthrow of the Gaddafi regime in Libya in 2011 resulted in state collapse and the outbreak of a civil war. This collapse turned Libya into a major destination for migrants and refugees en route to Europe. In the 2012-2016 period, some 565,837 arrived in Europe from Libya (Darme and Benattia, 2017, p. 15). NATO’s Libya operation thus helped create the refugee and migrant crisis that shook the cohesion of the EU in 2015. The failed Western efforts to stabilise and democratise the MENA region have, therefore, helped to create the immediate and direct threats that Europe now faces from the region.