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Challenges from the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) are different in nature from the conventional threats that NATO is used to dealing with through deterrence and defense. Terrorists do not abide by the traditional deterrence rationale, while massive illegal migration is more of a destabilizing factor than a threat for European societies.

Yet these and other challenges have a direct impact on how NATO members, particularly the Southern European ones, perceive security and stability. Their natural response is to call on the alliance, in both its military and political capacities, to help address their concerns. NATO cannot and should not have a leading role in tackling such multidimensional problems. But it can be an important participant in the concerted efforts of national governments and international organizations, including the European Union (EU) and the United Nations (UN).

The alliance should base its approach on crisis management and cooperative security—two core tasks enshrined in NATO’s 2010 Strategic Concept.1 These tasks envisage the use of both military and nonmilitary means. However, the former will be of very limited use against the multifaceted causes of instability in the MENA region, particularly when it comes to dealing with nonstate actors.

Issues at Stake

Persistent instability has marked Africa and the Middle East over the last decade, mainly due to a combination of social, economic, and technological changes in the region’s societies—changes that fueled the Arab Spring uprisings that began in late 2010. At the same time, the MENA region has become an arena for renewed competition among great powers as well as midsize and small states. These nations intervene heavily—and often negatively—in local politics, crises, and conflicts from Syria to Libya.

Alessandro Marrone
Alessandro Marrone is the head of the defense program at the Italian Institute for International Affairs (IAI) and a professor at the Istituto Superiore di Stato Maggiore Interforze of the Italian Ministry of Defense.

The breakdown of state authority in the years after 2010 has empowered nonstate actors from militias, terrorists, and criminal networks to municipalities, tribes, and religious groups. Many states that have maintained authority over their territory have not adequately addressed the structural changes that frustrate citizens, making that control unstable and fragile.

Two further processes are taking place. On the one hand, nonstate actors have started acting as substitutes for weak, fragile, or failed states. These actors perform statelike functions in certain areas, from ensuring physical security to collecting taxes or providing basic services.2 On the other hand, a number of states in and outside MENA have been acting like nonstate actors by intervening abroad using hybrid and unconventional strategies, including through terrorist groups.

As a result, in the MENA region, nonstate actors such as municipalities or religious groups are gaining relevance, great powers and states are competing for influence, and nonstate-like behavior by states and international organizations is increasing. NATO, despite its adaptation in the post–Cold War period, remains a state-centric organization in its structure and nature. Because of this, the alliance has struggled at times to understand MENA dynamics and deal effectively with nonstate actors. It does not help that the allies lack a clear and common threat perception and sometimes prioritize divergent interests.

Since the 1990s, the bulk of NATO engagement in the region has taken place in the framework of two partnerships. The Mediterranean Dialogue (MD) aims to achieve better mutual understanding through political dialogue and practical cooperation to address common challenges. The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) focuses mainly on practical bilateral security cooperation with partner countries. The alliance has built defense- and security-related capacity in countries such as Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Mauritania, and Tunisia, while trying to enhance its bilateral partnerships with all MD and ICI states. Additionally, NATO has carried out several missions in the region—first and foremost in Libya in 2011 on the initiative of France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, but also in the Gulf of Aden and the Mediterranean Sea.

Karolina Muti
Karolina Muti is a junior researcher in the defense and security programs at IAI.

After the migration crisis hit Europe in 2015, allies bordering the Mediterranean Sea called on NATO to do more on its Southern flank. The alliance’s 2016 summit in Warsaw set the goal of projecting stability in NATO’s neighborhood with an eye on the South. Yet this aim has not been followed up with a proper strategy, and capacity building has been one of the few tangible efforts pursued in this regard.

The other concrete outcome of recent efforts has been the creation in 2018 of the Strategic Direction South Hub in the Allied Joint Force Command in Naples, Italy. The hub is an analytical body composed of civilian and military experts and is embedded in the alliance’s military planning structure. It represents an important opportunity for allies to engage with, listen to, and learn from local nonstate actors beyond the government. Such interaction is of paramount importance in a region where a number of nondemocratic governments have low legitimacy among citizens.3

After twenty-five years of partnership and missions in MENA, NATO has built some confidence and working relations with the military and institutional establishments in partner countries. But the alliance has yet to form the kinds of relationships necessary to measurably improve cooperative security and regional stability.

One big reason is Operation Unified Protector. This 2011 allied air campaign contributed to the collapse of the Libyan state, and little effort from the international community to stabilize the country followed. Local stakeholders see NATO as one of the main causes of the last eight years of anarchy, civil war, smuggling, and destabilization in and around Libya.4 Critics often overlook the fact that the unrest in Libya and other MENA countries began before the Western intervention and several Arab autocracies were inherently fragile. It is easier to point the finger at foreign actors.

NATO’s relationship building in the region has to contend with an additional problem. As a state-based organization, the alliance has developed pragmatic partnerships with MENA states, particularly with their military and security forces. But those same military and security services are often culpable in the deterioration of the country’s political situation.5 To avoid being tainted by association and to strengthen its influence in the region, the alliance needs to engage with civil society actors to play a more nuanced and positive role in favor of long-term regional stability.

The Arab Spring uprisings have proved that civil society is a driver of change and can initiate major political shifts that influence stability. It would be risky for NATO to ignore civil society. Yet publics tend to hold negative views of the alliance, so governments are not eager to showcase their cooperation with NATO and the related benefits. As a result, NATO efforts, even if held in high regard by governments, do not lead to a better public image of the alliance. In the long term, NATO needs to work on its reputation among civil society and the wider public if it is to put in place effective stabilization policies based on a broad and durable consensus on the ground.


As the MENA region experiences the empowerment of nonstate actors and the emergence of states that have adopted hybrid tactics, NATO has to rethink its state-centric approach. The alliance should focus on six priorities.

Analyze and Understand

First, NATO’s hub for the South, international staff, and other bodies should offer regular, tailored analysis of local dynamics and transborder phenomena such as migration, terrorism, radicalization, and desertification. This analysis should be developed with external civilian support where NATO lacks expertise or networks. Such analysis should fuel a reflection in the alliance on options and goals in each country, as well as ways to partner with other actors, such as the EU, that have a better toolbox for a vast range of nonmilitary challenges like migration or climate change.

Given the persistent instability of MENA, populations’ negative perceptions of NATO, and the involvement of great powers and international organizations in the region, a better understanding of local and regional realities is a prerequisite for avoiding unintended negative consequences, as happened in 2011 in Libya. Such a process should guide NATO’s engagement with local actors, including governments and nonstate entities, and help member states coordinate their efforts—or, at least, avoid conflicting national policies in the region.

Cooperate Coherently and Pragmatically

Second, NATO should cooperate with military and security forces in pragmatic terms, from defense capacity building and security force assistance to security sector reform and institution building. Currently, there is a double disconnect to address. The first is between the technical level, where cooperation delivers results, and the politico-strategic level, where cooperation does not help stabilization.6 The second gap is between NATO’s institutional efforts in the region and those pursued by member states on a bilateral basis.

Addressing this double disconnect and making overall Western engagement more coherent in the long term would have two important advantages. First, it would increase local forces’ abilities to cope with security challenges on the ground. Second, it would popularize NATO’s approach to, and standards of, integrity, the rule of law, women’s rights, and civilian control over the military.

As it builds capacity in MENA, the alliance needs to be especially mindful of political and military implications. When training, equipping, and therefore empowering military or security forces in a country, NATO is altering the national and regional balance of power. Some local military and security forces may also be involved in corruption and illegal activities and thus lack credibility in the eyes of civil society.

Allies need to place capacity building within a clear, long-term transformative agenda backed by political, economic, and military commitments to build institutions that play a positive role in society. Sometimes, allies lack the will to enter into such commitments for a variety of reasons. In these cases, nonengagement is a better alternative to a counterproductive effort.

When building defense capacity in a failed state or crisis-afflicted area, NATO should embed its activities in a process of national reconciliation. Allies should strive to have a positive influence on long-term strategic solutions, not seek quick fixes. More often than not, reconciliation will be the only sustainable way to end terrorism. And reconciliation is, first and foremost, a political process that should involve both governments and nonstate actors across the dividing lines of society.

Partner With International Bodies

Third, NATO should team up with international organizations that enjoy greater legitimacy and support in the MENA region. These bodies may derive their legitimacy from being made up of national governments, as is the case for the African Union and the Arab League; from including all concerned states, as in the case for the UN; or from simply not being perceived as responsible for the 2011 war in Libya, as is this case for the EU. Better coordination and cooperation should include sharing information, framing a common understanding of threats and crises, and agreeing on a division of tasks among the most capable organizations on the ground.

Providing military support and technical assistance to efforts led by those actors empowers them to intervene in crises where NATO may lack the legitimacy to act directly. This approach also improves the alliance’s perception among and beyond institutional stakeholders and political circles. Such cooperation presumes that NATO and the EU can prevent mutual competition, which would produce incoherence and undermine credibility, at a time when the two organizations are asking countries in the region to cooperate with each other.

Engage With Nonstate Actors

Fourth, NATO has to reach out in a progressive and nuanced way to nonstate actors that are active in the region, such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society actors, to create partnerships and overcome the limits of a state-to-state approach. This should happen directly though the hub for the South and other NATO bodies, relying on facilitators like NGOs or academics and benefiting from cooperation with the EU.

In turn, local engagement should further refine NATO’s analysis of each country, feeding the alliance’s reflection in various forums up to the political and strategic levels. Such engagement is a long-term process that requires a lasting commitment and ability to listen to local demands and understand diverse nongovernmental positions and perceptions.

Use Social Media Better

Fifth, NATO should enhance its use of social media to communicate directly with civil society and offer targeted, country-specific information about alliance activities. Such digital engagement would represent a cost-effective, direct channel of communication with civil society. In the long term, it could help overcome the divide between practitioners’ and civil society’s perceptions of NATO.

The alliance should dedicate particular attention to engaging with young people, given the large youth populations in MENA countries. Youth make little use of traditional, mainstream media to gain information, reducing the usefulness of the focus in NATO’s public diplomacy on amplifiers such as officials and academics. Meanwhile, fake news campaigns use social media effectively to spread anti-NATO messages in MENA. The hub for the South could provide tailored insights and suggestions on how to engage young people, when, and with what messages.

Avoid Unrealistic Approaches

Finally, NATO should refrain from a one-size-fits-all approach, which is likely to be unrealistic. The experience gained from allied stabilization operations in the Western Balkans is hard to apply to the MENA region, mainly because most Western Balkan states desire NATO and EU membership, which strongly incentivizes reforms and cooperation. That is not the case in Africa or the Middle East.

The experience in Afghanistan also is not a useful precedent for MENA—even if, at its heart, it is an attempt to build institutions in a Muslim-majority country outside the alliance’s perimeter and with no possibility of membership. Unlike in the early 2000s, there is now little political will among the allies to deploy more than 100,000 troops for over a decade in a war-torn country—as the Western decision not to intervene to stabilize Libya, Syria, or Yemen has shown.7 The NATO approach to stabilizing MENA should therefore build on a different conceptual basis that does not rely on large-scale, long-term, land-intensive military campaigns like the one fought in Afghanistan.

The authors thank their IAI colleagues, notably Vincenzo Camporini and Filippo Cutrera, for the useful inputs and feedback received during the writing of this essay. They also thank the participants at the workshop New Perspectives on Shared Security: NATO’s Next Seventy Years/Dealing With Nonstate Actors: Which Policies, Which Tools?, held in Rome in June 2019, for their contributions to the discussion. The content of this essay is the authors’ sole responsibility.


1 “Active Engagement, Modern Defence: Strategic Concept for the Defence and Security of the Members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization,” NATO, November 19, 2010,

2 See, among others, Sonia Lucarelli, Alessandro Marrone, and Francesco N. Moro (eds), “Approaches to Regional Stability and the Outlook for NATO,” Italian Institute for International Affairs, July 11, 2019,

3 Karim Mezran and Arturo Varvelli, “The Arc of Crisis in the MENA Region: Fragmentation, Decentralization, and Islamist Opposition,” Atlantic Council, October 5, 2018,

4 Alan Kuperman, “Lessons From Libya: How Not to Intervene,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, September 2013,

5 “Motion for a European Parliament Resolution on the Post-Arab Spring: Way Forward for the MENA Region,” European Parliament Committee on Foreign Affairs, February 11, 2019,; and Ian Lesser, Charlotte Brandsma, Laura Basagni, and Bruno Lété, “The Future of NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue,” German Marshall Fund of the United States, June 27, 2018,

6 See, among others, Lucarelli et al., “Approaches to Regional Stability and the Outlook for NATO.”

7 “NATO and Afghanistan,” NATO, March 5, 2019,