NATO’s Challenges on the Southern Flank

Natividad Fernández Sola

6 mins - 12 de Abril de 2024, 07:00

Seventy-five years after NATO's establishment, many changes have taken place in the global geostrategic landscape: from the bipolar order to US hegemony and, at present, in a system in transition represented by the rise of powers such as China, the clear decline of the United States, and the precarious position of Russia and the European Union (EU).

Such changes have required an adaptation of the transatlantic organisation, which has broadened the concept of security on which its origin was based, consisting of the territorial defence of its members by military means, to become involved in crisis management and the fight against terrorism with "out-of-area" operations, that is, in third countries. In other words, in addition to its traditional role as an instrument of collective defence, it also took on that of a promoter of cooperative security with other countries where conflicts were taking place, to the point that in its successive post-Cold War Strategic Concepts it abandoned its initial mission and sought to add to its essential instrument, the military, civilian capabilities that did not fit in with its configuration and could duplicate the highly developed capabilities of the European Union.

Thus, since the first decade of the 21st century, with the disappearance of the Soviet threat, the 2010 Strategic Concept (NSC) has embodied an Atlantic vision of cooperative security. This is maintained with nuances in the current NSC of 2022. This cooperative security model has been adopted to shape its relationship with the countries of the Alliance's Southern Front, that is, those of North Africa and the Sahel, from which today the main threats to the security of allied countries, mainly those of southern Europe, originate.

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From this large region comes the terrorist threat that most directly confronts Europe, with radical groups, mostly affiliated with the two great "multinationals" of terror, namely Al Qaeda, which adopts the name Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and Daesh or Islamic State. Although most of the attacks by the multiple branches of these organisations are committed on the ground, those committed on European soil have a high media profile.

In addition to the threat of jihadist terrorism, and partly as a consequence of it, there are massive waves of people arriving on European shores as migrants or refugees, with the added problem of the unwillingness of many countries to share the economic and social burden they produce fairly. These uncontrolled flows generate a sense of insecurity, a fear of losing one's identity in an ageing Europe where new arrivals will be the majority in the medium term. At the same time, the crime rates of this migrant population, because of their culture or economic situation, exceed those of the local population.

Also related to terrorism, there is an increase in international organised crime, whose networks are used by jihadist groups for their financing; organised crime that includes all types of illicit trafficking (people, drugs, arms, etc.), the consequences of which also reach Europe and the United States.

If we add to the insecurity generated by the aforementioned causes the frequent scarcity of resources or their poor distribution, the famine in some countries, the corruption of their leaders and their contempt for the human person, it can be understood that the Greater Maghreb-Sahel is a time bomb for the security of the European continent.

This is what Spain has been saying for years at NATO headquarters, denouncing the Alliance's very different attitude towards the states of the Eastern Front and those of the Southern Front. In the mid-1990s, this commitment led to the Mediterranean Dialogue initiative; a forum to promote understanding with Mediterranean and North African neighbours that was limited by the exclusion of Libya, the focus of the main instability in the Maghreb, and by the lack of understanding between the southern countries, reflected in the everlasting disagreements between Algeria and Morocco, between Israel and Palestine, and between Rabat and Western Sahara. Nor were European countries similarly uninterested in their relationship with the region. More recently, it has become clear that attending to the Maghreb without attending to the Sahel was a futile exercise due to the enormous interdependence between the two parts of the African continent.

In the preparatory work for the Madrid Summit in 2022, which was to approve NATO's New Strategic Concept, Spain made use of its position as host to ask that the need for action in the face of threats from the Southern Front be taken into consideration. When these threats affect the economic, social and even political security of NATO members, particularly those in Europe, cooperation with these countries proves to be insufficient and limited, especially when compared to the assertive Atlantic policy on the Eastern Front. 

The result was unsatisfactory and the NSC 2022, considering security indivisible, regardless of the threats to it, adopted the 360º vision that aims to express awareness of the security risks posed by the Maghreb-Sahelian scenario. However, the approach to these risks remains one of cooperative security, with formulas such as the encouragement of the G5 Sahel, an initiative for military action by five countries in the region that NATO could finance or train in the fight against terrorism; a far cry from the deterrent presence of NATO forces on the eastern border. In this sense, the NSC is not only modest, but useless, when in recent months the main members of the G5 - Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso - have abandoned it, rendering it inoperative.

In addition to the aforementioned generic threats, Spain also faces a threat to its territorial integrity, to which NATO does not make a clear claim to respond (remember that Ceuta and Melilla are not covered by the Washington Treaty). It would therefore be sensible to increase Spain's defence budget to the 2% of our GDP committed to NATO as soon as possible and use it to reinforce national security.

Although with different interests to Spain's, countries such as Germany have already initiated such an interpretation in their first National Security Strategy of 2023, giving a clue as to the path that other allies may take.
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