The Partnership for Peace: A Quiet NATO Success Story
As NATO celebrates its achievements over the past 70 years, the establishment of the Partnership for Peace deserves to be recognized as one of the most creative diplomatic initiatives the alliance has undertaken. As the U.S. ambassador to Sweden during the Obama administration, I saw firsthand the special role the Partnership for Peace played in bringing NATO closer to Sweden and Finland.
After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact, NATO’s former adversaries began to petition the alliance for membership. At the time, allies were ambivalent about enlarging NATO, and their cautiousness about building a new relationship with Russia raised concerns about the future of the alliance.
NATO allies were coalescing around the same view, namely that membership in NATO could help foster Western democratic values, such as civilian control of the military. They thought it important to show Russia that NATO enlargement would not pose a threat. As NATO began to discuss what enlargement would look like, the Partnership for Peace was developed — not as an alternative to membership, but to help nations make the reforms necessary to be considered credible candidates for membership once enlargement got underway. The partnership was designed to get nations ready for membership as well as to establish links between NATO and those nations that did not want to join the alliance.
Through the Partnership for Peace, partners work on military and politico-military reforms. The countries worked to develop Western-style defense ministries in which civilians set up militaries along Western lines, rather than in the old Soviet style. Reforms focused on interoperability and defense planning, as well as modern budgeting. Partners could take a seat at most NATO meetings to observe allies’ deliberations. Most importantly, for countries like Sweden and Finland, who did not seek NATO membership but wished to have a close relationship with NATO, the Partnership for Peace provided the perfect vehicle to link “neutral” nations with the alliance.
New partners did not like the partnership at first; they saw it as a way for the alliance to stall granting membership to the new democracies. But NATO still had a long way to go before it was ready for new members, as did the new partners. Over time, more activities were added to the partnership, including bilateral U.S. exercises with partners, described as being “in the spirit of the partnership.” Even Russia joined: it wouldn’t be until Putin took power that Russia would develop the narrative that NATO enlargement was a threat.
Eventually, NATO decided to enlarge and, 20 years ago, membership was offered to three partners deemed most ready: Poland, Hungary, and the Czech Republic. In the years that followed, other partners became members, with North Macedonia being the most recent partner to sign on as an ally.
Since its inception, the Partnership for Peace has grown to include partners from across the globe, including Australia, Japan, and South Korea. While these countries do not expect to ask for membership any time soon (nor would the alliance likely offer membership to a nation outside the North Atlantic area), they sought a closer working relationship with NATO, which the partnership provides. In 2014 at the Wales Summit, NATO approved the Enhanced Opportunity Partners program, which gave five countries that significantly contribute to NATO operations — Australia, Finland, Georgia, Jordan, and Sweden — a special status within the alliance. This status gives partners privileged access to NATO-only ministerial meetings and exercises.
As the U.S. ambassador to Sweden, I witnessed how useful this program is to NATO and Sweden. Sweden is a highly effective and engaged NATO partner, and it participates in most NATO exercises, including the large Trident Juncture exercise held in and around Norway last year. It has structured its military forces and procurement decisions to ensure NATO interoperability, and has made significant contributions to alliance military operations, such as in Libya and Afghanistan. In turn, NATO’s trust in Sweden has deepened, as evidenced by its decision to establish, during my time in Stockholm, prepositioned NATO supplies in Sweden. NATO membership is likely not on the agenda for Sweden or Finland any time soon, but Sweden’s contribution as a partner rivals that of many allies. In recent years, Swedish public opinion has been gradually shifting in favor of joining NATO. If and when Sweden is politically and culturally ready to abandon its position of military non-alignment and join NATO, it will be ready militarily.
When NATO foreign ministers met in Washington to celebrate NATO last week, the Swedish foreign minister was no doubt raising her glass along with other ministers from the Enhanced Opportunity Partners program. NATO should look back with pride at the establishment of the Partnership for Peace, which became not just a launching pad for new allies, but a major initiative in the creation of a post-Cold War Europe that is “whole, free, and at peace.”
The Partnership for Peace will continue to play a vital role in securing peace in Europe by strengthening collaboration between the alliance and partners such as Sweden and Finland. That is good for these countries as well as for NATO. It is also good for the United States to have reliable and capable partners who share the burden of defense and security in Europe. Today, just as after the end of the Cold War, the Partnership for Peace remains an important way for NATO and the United States to build and maintain relationships with nations that, while not NATO members, are an important part of the transatlantic effort to promote peace and security in Europe. In the current complicated security environment, when the future of NATO is being questioned and the U.S. commitment to the alliance seems to be waning, the United States needs friends – especially friends that serve as a useful bulwark against Russia. It has those friends in the NATO alliance, as well as in members of the Partnership for Peace. Contrary to the emerging narrative of NATO as a Cold War relic made up of Western European countries not willing to pull their weight, U.S. policymakers would do well to remember that it is a global and complex entity that is as relevant now as ever.
Azita Raji served as the U.S. ambassador to Sweden from 2016 to 2017.
Image: Operation Resolute Support