The Trump administration’s relationship with NATO is complicated, to say the least. While President Donald Trump keeps the alliance at arm’s length, the administration keeps looking for NATO in all the wrong places—like Asia and the Middle East. It’s sort of like the ex-boyfriend you swear you don’t want, but find yourself inadvertently holding up as the measure for everyone who follows. Two months after the Trump administration’s bold statements about establishing a new “Arab NATO,” the intra-Gulf dispute has completely dashed the near-term potential for Middle Eastern regional alliances. Meanwhile in Asia, the president’s plan to leverage China as the lynchpin of its North Korea policy quickly went south.
To be fair, this is not the first U.S. administration that has learned the hard way that promoting multilateralism in Asia and the Middle East is harder than it looks. Why continually attempt to push the multilateral rock up a hill? Because Asia and the Middle East are two of the regions from which some of the world’s most consequential security challenges—managing rising and failing states, nuclear aggression, and extremist violence—are most likely to emanate. Given the daunting array of issues at hand, the United States needs strong regional partners who can take the lead in promoting regional security.
Multilateralism is possible, and necessary, in both regions. It just won’t look like NATO. Washington needs to throw out its old playbooks and pursue a new approach that relies on patience, ingenuity, and a liberal dose of humility.
Why is Building a Security Architecture So Hard in Asia and the Middle East?
At first glance, a comparison of Asian and Middle Eastern security architectures might seem illogical or misguided because each region is so distinct. But both regions share several fundamental challenges that make building a regional security architecture particularly challenging. It is instructive to explore the ways in which these common variables shape the environment and constrain the options of U.S. policymakers.
First, the United States is grappling with two regions of the world in which countries have vastly different threat perceptions, which tend to overwhelm shared interests. In post-war Western Europe, states were largely willing to put aside past animosities to address the shared threat of Communism. In 21st century Asia and the Middle East, this is not the case. Despite near-universal condemnation of ISIL and al-Qaeda by partners in the Middle East, countries like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates view Iranian influence and the Houthi rebellion in Yemen as far more existential challenges. Asian countries, too, diverge significantly on the top challenges they face, especially when it comes to the implications of issues like a rising China and a dangerous North Korea. Southeast Asian nations may express concern over China’s growing presence in the South China Sea, but most are reluctant to overtly antagonize a country that is one of their largest trading partners. And despite strong statements condemning North Korean aggression, many Asian partners are more focused on problems like violent extremism and separatism at home.
Second, beyond differing threat perceptions, the United States and its allies and partners in Asia and the Middle East have disagreements over the “rules of the road” that should undergird state behavior. In Europe, shared democratic principles and values provided a universal foundation for the NATO alliance. In Asia and the Middle East, countries may rhetorically agree about certain international principles, but there are deep underlying differences of opinion around how these principles should influence day-to-day behavior on issues ranging from foreign interventions, to protecting cyberspace, or resolving inter-state disputes. For example, the mounting humanitarian crisis in Yemen highlights serious concerns about how U.S. partners in the Middle East think about the proportionate use of force and protection of civilian populations during conflict. The coalition has been repeatedly accused of deliberately targeting civilians, leading to further rifts between Shia and Sunni neighbors and complicating Washington’s ability to provide support to the mission. Meanwhile, Yemen is now on the brink of famine and suffering from a cholera outbreak. Likewise, while nearly every Asia-Pacific nation vocally supports the concept of freedom of navigation, there are widespread differences of opinion about how the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea should be interpreted in practice. The United States faces an uphill battle in building regional support for its freedom of navigation exercises when even some of its partners, including India and Malaysia, do not share Washington’s perspective on freedom of operation for military activities within a country’s exclusive economic zone.
Third, ongoing strategic competition between regional power players directly undermines efforts to form multilateral alliance structures, or even consensus-based regional organizations, in Asia and the Middle East. When NATO was formed, the United Kingdom, France, and Germany — Europe’s traditional power players — were decimated. Germany was split in two. But this provided strong incentives against strategic competitions and allowed time for multilateral institutions to gel. In contrast, in Asia and the Middle East, competition among the regions’ biggest powers creates constant friction. Competition between Saudi Arabia and Iran through non-state partners in Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and Lebanon abets conflict and political instability in the region. There are similar challenges in Asia, where deep anxiety over China’s growing global role has propelled open discussions among countries like Japan and India about potential multilateral configurations to counter-balance Chinese influence. China, in turn, has expressed suspicion that U.S.-led alliances and security initiatives are little more than a thinly veiled containment strategy, leading it to push for alternative regional institutions that eschew what it views as a “cold war mentality.”
Fourth, the United States plays an imbalanced role in the commitment to regional security in Asia and the Middle East. Part of the reason NATO could overcome past animosities was that the United States had equal commitment to all parties in the alliance under Article 5. Whereas in the Middle East and Asia, the United States has inherently different levels of commitment to regional players, which impacts regional power dynamics. In the Middle East, the United States is committed to ensuring Israel’s qualitative military edge. As stipulated by law, the United States evaluates and attenuates all arms sales to Arab partners to ensure they do not violate these standards, which can prompt frustration elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet, it will be difficult for Israel to strike a balance between the potential benefits of partners capable of providing some deterrence against Iran with advanced weapons systems, which could fall into the wrong hands and be turned against Israel.
In Asia, U.S. alliances are the bedrock of the U.S. security presence in the region, but also create perpetual frictions with Beijing, which views the relationships as inherently opposed to Chinese interests. In dealing with problems such as North Korea’s nuclear program, the resulting tensions between Northeast Asian nations enhance the difficulty of finding a common solution. China’s reluctance to clamp down more aggressively on the North Korean regime is not only due to concerns about a collapsed North Korean state, but is also in large part influenced by concerns about the prospect of having a unified U.S. ally sitting on its border.
Toward a “Principled, Security Network”
Given the countervailing factors working against the establishment of a formal regional security architecture in the Middle East and Asia, what should the United States do? Some would argue we should simply continue to rely on the bilateral “hub and spoke” models that have served us well for decades. But this answer falls short on several fronts. It fails to recognize the realities of the 21st security environment in both regions, in which a much wider array of players is demanding a voice and say in regional security affairs. It also perpetuates some of the very cleavages that make multilateral security cooperation so difficult in Asia and the Middle East in the first place, by allowing nations to avoid taking the lead in providing for their own security and to preference partnership with the United States over learning to partner with each other. Instead, the United States should focus on developing a new model — a multi-layered “network” that is more conducive to the specific environment in each region. The five criteria below outline how this could be done.
Bolster Common Principles
In the near-term, there is little that will change the reality that states in Asia and the Middle East have divergent views of their interests and the threats they face. But this does not mean states cannot begin to find common ground. These conversations must go beyond surface-level commitments to resolve disputes peacefully and protect the rule of law to include a tough, but necessary, dialogue about how countries are applying these principles in practice. Particularly as states begin to increasingly step out as independent security actors on the global stage, the United States and its partners need to find a meeting of the minds on norms around issues such as the use of force, protection of cyberspace, and civilian oversight of the military. Beyond dialogue, however, the United States could also be much more proactive in providing training and engagement to help shape regional norms. Rather than simply lecturing our Gulf partners on avoiding civilian casualties, the United States should get serious about training and equipment enhancements that improve partners’ targeting and mitigate casualties. Similarly, rather than berating partners in Southeast Asia for weak civilian oversight of their militaries, we should focus increased energy on strengthening civilian institutions and educating partner forces through programs like the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program.
The security landscape in Asia and the Middle East is simply too diverse and too riven by disputes to accommodate a centralized, one-size-fits-all approach to institution-building. What can work is something more diverse and flexible that can accommodate nations’ differing comfort levels and willingness to engage on specific interests. The problem with embracing just a Gulf Arab alliance or one Asian organization is that certain actors will be left out. They will only be able to address a subset of the region’s issues and may only harden existing fault lines in the region. The United States will therefore need to get comfortable with a security architecture that is going to be messy and likely full of redundancies in its regional organizations, institutions, and cooperation mechanisms. These redundancies need not be treated as a weakness, however. They should instead be looked at as a potential strength that will make the overall network stronger and less likely to break down. Especially in regions with long-standing trust deficits, institutional redundancies are not a pitfall, but an opportunity to bolster ties and build trust through repeated interactions. The United States should therefore determine the existing mechanisms it wants to help strengthen, and to build bridges between them to create an inclusive network spanning the broadest spectrum of actors and issues.
The United States should find informal opportunities to promote multilateralism, like trilateral cooperation, functional coalitions, and even informal dialogues and backchannels. Multilateral cooperation need not only occur via broad, institutional channels. In many instances, such as burgeoning trilateral cooperation between Japan, Australia, and India, mini-lateral forums can provide countries with an opportunity to deepen their cooperation on issues like maritime security, or build interoperability in a more meaningful way than might otherwise be possible in a large group setting. Similarly, informal dialogues and backchannels can sometimes provide countries with a chance to quietly work through sensitive disagreements or concerns that might be overly contentious in a more open regional setting. Fixating on the need for rigid institutional channels or formal interactions will force countries into settings that will play to the lowest common denominator and heighten expectations about regional cooperation that will be largely unmet.
Less on Structure and Process, More on Outcomes
The United States and its regional partners should not worry about the precise composition of organizations or mechanisms, their rules, and power hierarchies. Instead, a focus on output and outcomes can help increase momentum for further cooperation. Identifying low-hanging fruit that gives countries opportunities to engage in practical cooperation alongside each other is a useful first step. One way of doing this would be to encourage partners to expand the aperture of their cooperation globally rather than regionally, to avoid some of the sensitivities of regional trouble spots. For example, Asian countries can seek new opportunities to partner in peacekeeping operations abroad, in regions like Africa that won’t impinge on their domestic sovereignty concerns. Another avenue is to pursue low-hanging fruit on non-contentious functional issues — i.e., disaster relief or counter-piracy — where countries can find common cause. For example,CTF-152in the Gulf has been successful in building opportunities for rotational Gulf leadership to develop operational maritime capability, particularly in littoral regions. The task force rotates command among its multinational participants, including regional Gulf partners, every three to six months.
Provide Ballast and Balance
Ultimately, the United States cannot force or unilaterally create multilateral organizations in these regions. But that’s not to say the United States doesn’t have an important role to play. We can help provide the ballast and balance to ensure efforts to cooperate multilaterally succeed, and we can provide the extra push to get things going. The United States needs to maintain sufficient diplomatic engagement and military presence to help assuage regional mistrust (as it has by keeping troops in Europe for so long) and create space for cooperation and assurance and deterrence to adversaries. The United States can also encourage dialogues and venues that bridge regional divides. For example, we should continue to press both Japan and South Korea on the importance of U.S.-Japanese-South Korean trilateral cooperation, regardless of the state of their bilateral relationship. We should also continue to prioritize U.S. engagement via the East Asia Summit, which provides a unique opportunity for the U.S. president to engage all his Asia-Pacific counterparts—including China and Russia — in a dialogue about regional security concerns. In the Middle East, while any overt Arab cooperation with Israel remains politically sensitive, the United States should provide quiet support for private dialogue and possible cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and Israel and the United Arab Emirates, to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities. The United States should also continue to foster private Israel-Jordan counterterrorism cooperation in the Palestinian territories and with respect to southern Syria.
The United States will not be establishing an Arab or Asian NATO any time soon. Instead, it should focus on knitting together a networked security approach to the region that usefully focuses on what is possible and leverages a range of organic capabilities and partnerships. The United States and its Middle East and Asian allies and partners should seize opportunities to address common security challenges in outcome-driven, adaptable, and principled ways.
Lindsey Ford is the Director for Policy-Security Affairs and Richard Holbrooke Fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute. Prior to joining the Asia Society Policy Institute, Lindsey served as a Senior Adviser to the Assistant Secretary in the Pentagon’s Asia and Pacific office from 2009-2015. Follow her on Twitter @lindseywford. Melissa G. Dalton is a senior fellow and the deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Previously, she served for 10 years in several policy and intelligence positions in the U.S. Department of Defense. Follow her on Twitter @natsecdalton.