How to Step Up NATO’s Fight Against Terrorism


In January, U.S. President-elect Donald Trump reawakened the debate over NATO’s contribution to counterterrorism by calling the alliance obsolete because it “wasn’t taking care of terror.” NATO has struggled to identify its role in fighting international terrorism ever since the allies invoked Article 5 in reaction to the 9/11 attacks. Though Trump eventually backtracked on that statement, he went on to use the muchdiscussed NATO mini-summit in May to reiterate the original message to European allies: NATO must step up its fight against terrorism. Though probably not what Trump had in mind, his call presents an opportunity for NATO to play a larger and more effective counterterrorism role by reinvigorating its languishing partnership policy. This should be a priority for NATO’s 2018 Summit, and as a first step, the alliance should establish the position of Assistant Secretary General for Partnerships.

Halfhearted NATO Efforts

The terror attack in Manchester, England, on May 22 occurred just a few days before the mini-summit and gave weight to Trump’s arguments that NATO should do more on terrorism and that members should contribute more. Even though many European allies view the EU as the main forum for addressing the threat of terrorism, it was decided at the mini-summit that NATO would enhance its role, too. The allies agreed on an “action plan” that included conducting more NATO Airborne Warning And Control System flying hours, pledging to make greater use of NATO’s Special Operations Headquarters, establishing a terrorism intelligence cell and appointing a senior NATO official as coordinator of the alliance’s counterterror efforts. As the icing on the cake, NATO is to become a full member of the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS, the U.S.-led coalition conducting airstrikes on the terror organization in Iraq and Syria, to which all NATO allies already belong.

Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and the allies presented the progress NATO had already made on its action plan at the recent defense ministers’ meeting, working hard to display unity and resourcefulness on the issue of terrorism. But the truth is that the measures are not substantial enough for NATO to make a decisive difference in the international fight against terrorism, because they are mostly cosmetic. True, they are a step in the right direction. Enhanced intelligence-gathering and sharing, along with better coordination among allies, is essential for combating terrorism and supports one of the three pillars (awareness) in NATO’s policy guidelines for countering terrorism. But the measures do not tap into the two remaining pillars: development of capabilities and engagement with partners. Stoltenberg was quick to highlight that NATO will not engage in combat despite being a part of the anti-ISIS coalition, but in fact it appears that NATO will not really engage in anything at all: Reports surfaced ahead of the meeting that allies would only agree to join the coalition if it was a purely “symbolic step.” French and German leaders and diplomats have indicated that the commitment is ”just a symbolic gesture to the United States.” Former NATO Deputy Secretary General Alexander Vershbow has expressed doubts about the depth of the initiatives, stating that joining the coalition was more symbolic than anything and meant mostly to give Trump “a win.” As a NATO diplomat concluded rather straightforwardly: “Trump goes home with a message that NATO is joining the coalition and NATO doesn’t have to do anything extra, at least for now.”

Thus, NATO’s action plan serves primarily as a symbol of unity and a crowd-pleaser aimed at the new U.S. president, fending off further U.S. critiques about the obsolescence of the alliance and inadequate European contributions. In reality, the measures do nothing to make NATO or the coalition more effective in combating terrorism.

The Need for Partners

Meanwhile, transnational terrorism and regional instability stemming from the Global South remains a direct threat to the security of the alliance. The primary way for NATO to add value to the fight against terrorism is to make better use of the alliance’s many existing assets to strengthen and enable its partners in the region.

As the West has come to realize in two decades of warfare in the Greater Middle East, to enjoy lasting success, a military engagement must have strong local partners. It is by now a cliché to state that a long-term solution to the extremist problem can only be found in the strength of the societies in the region and their ability to build and sustain peace. Only local forces can secure and govern territory by building long-term trust within the populations they liberate, as former U.S. Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter wrote in defense of the Global Coalition’s strategy against ISIS. Few NATO allies have the appetite to deploy combat forces in the short term or to be the main long-term security provider in the Middle East or North Africa. This is why it is crucial that legitimate local governments and military forces are able to create and uphold security in the region themselves. It also makes clear what role NATO has to play: Step up the fight against terrorism by strengthening NATO partner nations.

NATO’s Partnership Policy

The idea of strengthening partners to improve security in unstable regions along NATO’s borders is not new. In fact, it is the central tenet of NATO’s concept of “projecting stability”: keeping the alliance secure by stabilizing its neighboring countries. Since the end of the Cold War, NATO has built a network of 41 partners across the globe. In recent years, NATO has launched several partnership initiatives that aim to strengthen regional partners through institutional and military capacity building and security sector reform. This is the goal of the current Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan as well as, for instance, the “assistance package” to Jordan. The strengthening of partners is thus already seen in NATO HQ as an important tool to stabilize along NATO’s borders with a reduced operational footprint. By investing in the partners now, NATO aims to make them capable of safeguarding their own security and securing their own territory in the future.

NATO is well-equipped to do this because it already has extensive practical experience in this field and a solid institutional and military infrastructure to support and execute cooperation with partners. NATO specifically adds value to security- and defense-related partnering and has distinctive expertise in general areas such as security-sector reform, defense institution building, standardization and interoperability, as well as in more specific areas such as counter-IED, officers training, military equipment hardening, explosives management and training to anticipate and/or mitigate terrorism tactics. Moreover, the very presence of NATO is often needed for small allies to contribute to training activities and capacity building at all, since they do not have the ability to carry out such large-scale activities individually.

However, despite the centrality of partners in alliance strategy, NATO’s partnership policy is largely defunct in practice. There is a gap between, on the one hand, the rhetorical recognition of the importance of partners and the official commitment to partnership policy, and, on the other, the political and bureaucratic attention and resources NATO actually supplies. This applies to the partnership area as a whole and trickles down to the specific areas of collaboration as well, making NATO’s efforts sound more extensive and substantial than they really are. The alliance needs to do more with its partnerships, and do it more effectively. In the remainder of this article, we shed light on the main challenges to an effective NATO partnership policy. We argue that NATO can overcome these obstacles by creating an Assistant Secretary General for Partnerships to enhance its efforts against international terrorism.

It’s All About the Money

Money cannot solve all problems, but it makes a difference. This is true for NATO’s partnership policy, where the lack of resources is a constant challenge. In many partner nations, there is a growing demand for what NATO offers, specifically for counterterror activities, counter-IED capabilities and military exercises. This was the case when NATO recently expanded its training activities in Iraq at the request of the country’s prime minister. Libya also recently made an extensive request to NATO to train and develop its entire military and to build up a defense ministry from scratch. The overall demand for partner activities — both small- and large-scale — is so high that NATO cannot accommodate it. Partnership policy takes up only around 1% of NATO’s own, very limited military budget, and there is often a lack of manpower to carry out partner activities. NATO must either supply its partnership efforts with more money and people to meet increasing demands, or revise its ambitions. Allies should attempt to allocate more resources from the common-funded budget to partnerships, but if that is impossible, NATO could set up financial pools through national trust fund mechanisms. Many partner activities are already funded directly by individual allies in this way, for instance through the Defence and Related Security Capacity Building Trust Fund.

The lack of resources means not only that NATO cannot deliver as many services as partner nations need, but also that NATO is in a constant cycle of over-promising and under-delivering, which leads to a loss of credibility with its partners. Particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, NATO needs to make itself more attractive and cannot afford a more tarnished reputation. Maintaining productive partnerships is hard and resource-intensive work. NATO needs to accept this, and prioritize the necessary funding.

Old Structures Prevent New Progress

Many NATO partnerships are divided into regional frameworks created primarily in the 1990s, but these structures have served their time. They have been criticized for being outdated and underperforming. Instead of facilitating and promoting collaboration between NATO and partners, as was originally the logic behind the frameworks, they have become more of an institutional obstacle to effective cooperation. Cooperation with partners yields more results when it is done outside these traditional frameworks. This is why a complete revision of how partners are institutionally organized is needed in order to make partnership collaboration more productive The problem is that, for historical and geographical reasons, reforming the frameworks is a politically sensitive, if not explosive issue. Nevertheless, it is necessary. Strong leaders must find the political will to initiate an overhaul of these problematic frameworks.

A Lack of Leadership

This brings us to the final fundamental challenge to a successful partnership policy: lack of leadership. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the United States was the primary driving force of NATO’s partnership policy. It pushed a clear, if sometimes controversial, partnership agenda, for instance when NATO expanded by accepting former partner nations as official members, or when the alliance instituted cooperation with partners as geographically far away from the Atlantic community as Australia and Japan. However, observers have identified a trend toward U.S. retrenchment vis-a-vis NATO during the Obama administration. Several senior NATO officials emphasized to us in interviews that U.S. leadership on the issue of partnership is gone. And no other countries are willing or able to take the lead. This means the partnership policy is not driven by a clearly defined agenda, but rather by diffuse and superficial support from the allies. Policy is often reduced to broad guidelines and slogans found in summit declarations and official speeches. For instance, the buzzword “projecting stability” sounds nice, but can be difficult to translate into action plans because it is unclear what specific policies the term actually covers other than the generic goal of stabilizing NATO’s neighborhood. As the United States no longer rallies allies around a clear partnership strategy, there are in-house disagreements as well as confusion about the direction of NATO’s policy. The ensuing policy development and implementation suffers as a result because it gets largely left to NATO’s International Staff, which has a difficult time developing a meaningful agenda and clear policy goals without strong guidance from leading nations or individuals.

The lack of leadership also makes comprehensive reforms difficult. NATO partnerships are politically sensitive because they involve many conflicting interests among the allies, and accordingly, it can be hard to reach consensus on any meaningful reforms. Strong leadership is necessary to drive the intra-allied political machinery forward. Without it, NATO cannot shape or carry out a strategic and productive partnership policy.

Appoint a NATO Assistant Secretary General for Partnerships

As a first step to meet these challenges, we propose that NATO create the position of Assistant Secretary General for Partnerships (ASG-P). An ASG-P will bring exclusive focus and attention to the partnership area. Also, the position would reflect the central role of “cooperative security” in official NATO strategy and the supposed significance of the alliance’s partnership policy. More specifically, the ASG-P will function as an organizational anchor and will ensure that leading nations bring political, economic, organizational and military attention to the partnership area. The ASG-P would have four fields of responsibility: secure political attention and unity around the partnership issue (and fight for funds); ensure a continuous, effective strategic and structural development of the alliance’s partnership policy; manage internal NATO coordination; and supervise daily partnership policy operations.

NATO’s partnership policy is immensely large and complicated because it involves balancing the needs and interests of 41 partner nations and 29 allies while keeping the partner activities, of which there are more than 1,400, strategically relevant. As the importance of partnerships in NATO strategy and operations has increased, the area has grown too big and complex to be placed under the general political affairs of the alliance. By bringing all of these tasks together under one high-ranking official, who deals only with this field, NATO will create coherence in its partnership policy and accelerate its development to become more productive and strategic. Leadership in the form of an ASG-P will not only bring much-needed exclusive attention to the area, but also effective management. Further, an ASG-P will conduct outreach to partners and potential partners: There is considerable but often overlooked potential and willingness among Arab countries to cooperate with NATO, and NATO could be more active in developing new partner relations, and not wait for them to come to NATO.

Though the appointment of an ASG-P may seem like mere bureaucratic reshuffling, and goes against the organizational slimming that NATO has undergone for years, it would nonetheless be a feasible step: Most of the challenges in NATO’s partnership policy are rooted in the lack of leadership. The appointment of an ASG-P is thus not the last but the first step towards a targeted reform that will increase the output of NATO’s partnership polices. And this, in turn, is at least one way to improve NATO’s counter-terror effort without putting NATO boots on the ground. As NATO officially recognizes that partners have a large role to play in the alliance’s counterterror efforts, it is only logical that NATO concentrates a larger part of its efforts here. Creating an ASG-P could be a simple and effective proposal by an ally or group wishing to show leadership in this area. Naturally, the appointment would not solve the problems in NATO’s partnership policy in or by itself, but it would be a means to shift the bureaucratic balance of power within NATO HQ and provoke the necessary attention to the area.

NATO needs to step up its fight against international terror, as Trump has called for. Any effort to combat international terrorism without the support and active involvement of strong regional partners in the Global South will be futile. To do this, the alliance must improve its partnership policy to move beyond symbolism. At the same time, according to its former Secretary General, there are no actors other than NATO that have the capacity, expertise and experience to perform this task. Stepping up NATO’s fight against terror needs to be about stepping up NATO’s partnership policy.


Kristian Søby Kristensen holds a Ph.D. in political science and is Senior Researcher and Deputy Director at the Centre for Military Studies (CMS), University of Copenhagen. Laura Schousboe holds a Masters in history and is a Research Assistant at CMS. They are the authors of a new report (in Danish) which examines the state of NATO’s partnership policy in light of the changed European security environment.

Image: NATO