It is ultimately the responsibility of NATO’s member states to make the difficult political choices and investments in their security necessary to ensure the health of the Alliance. But to address the challenges of a globalized security landscape, the Alliance also needs to do more with partners outside the Euro-Atlantic area who share its interests and values and make valued contributions to international security. This partnership agenda should include the formation of a Pacific Peace Partnership to bind America’s Atlantic allies with its Pacific allies and a concerted effort to support transitions and forge stronger ties with key partners in the Middle East.

However, even as the Alliance looks to build new partnerships in the Pacific and Middle East, it must also address the important task of enhancing practical security cooperation with Russia. Russia has a home in the Euro-Atlantic security space, and the members of the Alliance should maintain the long-term aspiration that Russia should someday undertake the reforms needed to assume its place in the Atlantic community of shared values. In the near term, however, NATO and Russia face many security challenges together which require a more practical security partnership on issues such as missile defense, Afghanistan, preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, and counter narcotics. This vision will require a newly inaugurated President Putin to forge a more constructive relationship with NATO, rather than view the Alliance through the paranoid, Cold War perspective of the past.

Just as it is difficult to imagine scenarios in which the United States will engage in combat without allies, NATO is unlikely to undertake future operations without the participation and support of key partners from outside the Alliance. The involvement of NATO partners in operations and missions has become the ‘new normal’ for the Alliance operating in an ever more connected world. One of the most important partnerships for the Alliance is with the European Union, which shares twenty-one members in common with the Alliance and offers complementary capabilities to NATO. The importance of this partnership makes all the more urgent the need to address the lingering conflict between Turkey and Cyprus that hampers closer cooperation between the two institutions.

Partners from beyond Europe have played a crucial role in supporting NATO’s two most recent and important military operations in Afghanistan and Libya. No fewer than twenty-two countries from outside the NATO Alliance—from Tonga to New Zealand—participate in the ISAF mission in Afghanistan. Some partners, such as Australia, Georgia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates, bring real combat or niche capabilities to the mission. NATO has recognized the valued contributions of partners to ISAF and has invited contributors to NATO summits to integrate partners into the Alliance’s decision-shaping process.

The Libyan operation demonstrated the important role NATO’s peacetime partnerships can play in integrating non-member states during a time of hostilities. Partners such as the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, and Sweden provided not only important political support to the Libya mission, but also contributed meaningful capabilities. Yet these partners chose to participate in the operation only if it was led by NATO because they were familiar with how to operate and communicate with the Alliance through prior training and military exercises.

NATO must build on this success. With the Libya mission completed and ISAF scheduled to conclude after 2014, NATO’s challenge is to devise a means of maintaining relationships with these valued partners. Washington is therefore correct to insist that partnerships occupy a primary place at the 2012 summit.

But for NATO to operate more effectively in a world in which security challenges can be of a global scale, the Alliance must think more creatively and ambitiously about how it engages its partners to make these relationships more meaningful and permanent. If NATO hopes to keep its most valued partners like Australia, the United Arab Emirates, Sweden, and Finland heavily engaged in its affairs, it will have to develop a way of providing those allies with a means of participating in decisions and shaping policy short of full membership.

NATO should adopt a much more ambitious plan by agreeing to closer links with Washington’s allies in the Pacific and the Middle East. A Pacific Peace Partnership would bind NATO to important US allies with shared values and common interests, including Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Japan, and Singapore.

Such a relationship would further the important goal of multilateralizing the US alliance system while permitting NATO to strengthen interoperability with like-minded, capable allies and increase collaboration on shared challenges of borderless scope, like cybersecurity. Furthermore, closer European linkages with key US Pacific partners will help ensure that European allies retain the capacity to shape security in a region toward which the global balance of power is rapidly tilting. After all, few allies would have imagined in 2000 that they would soon spend the next decade fighting the Taliban in South Asia. It would be better for NATO proactively to build stronger links with like-minded and capable Pacific partners rather than be caught flat-footed in a future contingency.

Similarly, NATO allies must not miss the historic window of opportunity to defuse their greatest security threat by launching a partnership initiative to help political and economic transformations in the Middle East and North Africa succeed, while forging closer partnerships with Arab nations which choose to participate in NATO operations.

The circumstances differ dramatically among Arab nations, and the Alliance must therefore develop and offer an approach tailored to each. NATO allies need to be working with governments in the region now to help them develop and articulate requests for assistance. In each Arab nation in transition, the role of the military has been critical in determining the trajectory and level of violence during the uprisings, and will likely be decisive in determining the success or failure of these transitions. While NATO nations will often take the lead bilaterally or work through other international institutions, NATO must play a role in opening up the toolkit that proved so effective in assisting the transition of nations in Central and Eastern Europe. Even as NATO focuses on assisting Arab nations in transition, it should also build upon its partnerships with those nations most interested working with the Alliance, as demonstrated by their track records of support in Libya and Afghanistan. UAE, Qatar, Jordan, and Morocco should enjoy an avenue to closer cooperation with the Alliance, beyond the current formality of the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative and the Mediterranean Dialogue.

R. Nicholas Burns, former U.S. ambassador to NATO, is professor of the practice of diplomacy and international politics at the Harvard Kennedy School and a board director of the Atlantic Council. Damon Wilson is executive vice president of the Atlantic Council. Jeff Lightfoot is deputy director of the Council’s International Security Program. This piece is adapted from the Atlantic Council publication “Anchoring the Alliance.” 

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