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New Atlanticist June 25, 2024

Four steps that NATO’s southern flank strategy needs to succeed

By Jason Davidson

At next month’s Washington summit, NATO’s response to the third year of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine will undoubtedly garner allies’ attention and headline news coverage. Much of the Alliance’s focus is understandably to the east and the threat from Moscow. But the Washington summit will also see NATO look in another direction: south. In Washington, the Alliance will adopt its first ever southern flank strategy. As to the east, Russia’s disruptive actions are a concern along NATO’s southern flank, too.

In May, NATO published a thirty-three-page report by a group of experts on the Alliance’s “southern neighborhood,” which includes North Africa, the Sahel, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean Sea. The experts’ report highlights how instability from these regions has a direct impact on allies and suggests several important considerations as the Alliance finalizes its southern flank strategy in Washington. The report is a great start and should be read carefully, but NATO needs to take four additional measures if it genuinely wants to improve the situation on the Alliance’s southern flank.

Why look south?

Why should NATO spend time and energy on a southern flank strategy when it faces such a clear and present threat to the east? NATO’s 2022 strategic concept, adopted at the Madrid summit, outlines two fundamental threats the Alliance faces. The strategic concept declares that Russia is the “most significant and direct threat” to allies’ security and that terrorism is the “most direct asymmetric threat” to the security of citizens, international peace, and prosperity. As US Ambassador to NATO Julianne Smith recently noted, Russia and terrorist groups benefit from and contribute to instability in NATO’s southern neighborhoods and provide the central reason why the Alliance needs a southern flank strategy.

Russia’s Africa Corps (the successor to the Wagner Group in Africa) has taken advantage of instability in these neighborhoods, providing fighters, trainers, and materiel in Libya, Mali, Sudan, and Burkina Faso. Russia has a naval base in Tartus, Syria, and uses it to sail its vessels in the Mediterranean, posing a threat to naval security and maritime commerce. Instability in the Middle East, North Africa, and the Sahel has also provided an environment where radical Islamic terrorist groups expanded in recent decades. Instability in Iraq and Syria allowed the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) to establish a large territorial footprint across those countries. Recent research suggests that the Sahel region has become the global epicenter of Islamic radical terrorism. Left unchecked, instability in NATO’s southern neighborhood translates into opportunities for Russian intervention and metastasized terrorist groups. This instability also drives other important problems for NATO’s southern flank allies: irregular migration, drug smuggling, piracy, and organized crime, which, in turn, threaten energy security (especially as European countries have moved away from Russian oil and gas) and maritime commerce.

Getting concrete with the recommendations

At NATO’s 2023 Vilnius summit, the allies agreed to engage in a “comprehensive and deep reflection on existing and emerging threats and challenges” emanating from the southern neighborhoods. In October 2023, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg appointed a group of eleven experts to provide “concrete recommendations to shape NATO’s future approach.”

Released on May 7, the report includes recommendations that can be grouped in four basic categories.

First, it makes several overarching organizational suggestions. These include the appointment of a special envoy for the southern neighborhoods, periodic review of NATO’s relationship with the southern neighborhoods, and a better integration of NATO’s Strategic Direction-South Hub in Naples within the NATO structure to strengthen the link between the hub and the Alliance’s political leadership.

Second, the report suggests strengthening dialogue with and about the southern neighborhoods, as well as enhancing cooperation with relevant regional and international organizations. Specifically, it recommends a special summit of all NATO’s southern partners (members of the Mediterranean Dialogue and Istanbul Cooperation Initiative), the creation of a high-level regional security and stability dialogue, and improved consultation with the European Union and representation from the African Union.

Third, the report suggests several important strategic communications measures, recognizing that NATO’s image in the region—in part due to Russian misinformation campaigns—needs improvement. The report proposes a permanent “Facts for Peace” initiative to fight disinformation in the southern neighborhoods and the establishment of a center with the same mission.  

Fourth, the report discusses areas where NATO should expand its capacity to act. For example, NATO could set up a standing mission dedicated to training and capacity building for partners. NATO might also enhance cooperation with partners on resilience, which would include information and advice on resilience planning, including on disaster response. The report also suggests that NATO build on recent successes in counterpiracy and “identify further areas for maritime security cooperation” with partners.

This group of experts’ recommendations are detailed and thoughtful. Leaders of NATO’s member states would do well to implement most if not all of them. But four additional steps should be added to form an effective southern flank strategy.

Four steps forward

In releasing his fiscal 2024 budget, US President Joe Biden shared a quote that he attributed to his father. “Don’t tell me what you value,” he said. “Show me your budget—and I’ll tell you what you value.”

If NATO truly cares about addressing the challenges in its southern neighborhoods, then it should be willing to incur the costs to do so. If NATO adopts a southern flank strategy at the Washington summit that entails real increases in spending on the Alliance’s activities in the region, it will signal to Russia and to the leaders of terrorist groups that it cares enough about the southern neighborhoods to invest resources there. In agreeing to increased spending, NATO would also signal to southern flank member governments and their publics that the Alliance is willing to incur the costs for something other than defense of its eastern flank.

Moreover, the Alliance’s additional spending should focus on four specific areas:  

First, NATO members should commit significantly more resources to Operation Sea Guardian and its three tasks, which are to contribute to maritime capacity building with regional partners, maintain maritime situational awareness, and support maritime counterterrorism. All three tasks are means to directly address the threats from Russia and terrorism in the southern neighborhoods.

Second, NATO should commit to an amply resourced training and capacity-building mission for the southern neighborhoods, and it should look for local partners interested in receiving such assistance.

Third, NATO should commit the resources to stand up a multinational division for the southern flank, which would be available for deployment to a crisis in the region if necessary and appropriate.

Fourth, at the Washington summit, allies should commit to increase funding for the Defense Against Terrorism Programme of Work, which aims to protect against and prevent nonconventional attacks, such as attacks on critical infrastructure and terrorist attacks using emerging and disruptive technologies.

If allies agree to these four recommendations as well as to the group of experts’ recommendations, they will demonstrate to all parties that the southern neighborhoods are of great interest and they will be engaging in meaningful steps to improve stability there.

Jason Davidson is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative in the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. He is also professor of political science and international affairs and director of the Security and Conflict Studies Program at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia.

NATO’s seventy-fifth anniversary is a milestone in a remarkable story of reinvention, adaptation, and unity. However, as the Alliance seeks to secure its future for the next seventy-five years, it faces the revanchism of old rivals, escalating strategic competition, and uncertainties over the future of the rules-based international order.

With partners and allies turning attention from celebrations to challenges, the Atlantic Council’s Transatlantic Security Initiative invited contributors to engage with the most pressing concerns ahead of the historic Washington summit and chart a path for the Alliance’s future. This series will feature seven essays focused on concrete issues that NATO must address at the Washington summit and five essays that examine longer-term challenges the Alliance must confront to ensure transatlantic security.

Further reading

Image: ADRIATIC SEA (Feb. 24, 2023) The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS George H.W. Bush (CVN 77) sails in formation with the Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Delbert D. Black (DDG 119), Italian Navy Orizzonte-class destroyer ITS Caio Duilio (D 554), Italian Navy aircraft carrier ITS Cavour (C 550) and Spanish Navy amphibious assault ship SPS Juan Carlos (L-61), Feb. 24, 2023. (US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Christine Montgomery)