From Consolidation to Globalization: The Changing Nature of NATO Partnerships

Tobias Hecht

Bundeswehr Center for Public Affairs

Dr. Tobias Hecht was a DAAD/AICGS Fellow from August to October 2012 when he conducted research for his dissertation on “The U.S. Position on NATO Enlargement. Strategy, Pragmatism, and World Order after the East-West Antagonism” (published January 2015). Tobias Hecht studied North American Studies, Political Science, and International Law at the Universities of Bonn and Southern Mississippi. He worked for the German Atlantic Association, the University of Bonn, and Transparency International Germany. Since September 2015, Tobias Hecht has been research fellow at the Bundeswehr Center for Public Affairs. His research interests include foreign and security policy and transatlantic relations.

What is the vision for NATO today? On July 4, 2012 NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen outlined his vision: A NATO that derives its strength and vitality from engaging with partners. An alliance situated at the center of a wide ranging security network, detecting risks and threats early on, and being capable of fighting these challenges cooperatively. To accomplish these goals, NATO has to work toward interoperability with partners, be they countries or institutions.[1]

Although partnerships are currently at the top of the agenda, they have been around for more than two decades and proven of great utility to achieving NATO’s goals. Just as NATO transformed over time, so have its partnerships. After fulfilling a more political role to enhance the prospects of a “Europe whole, free, and at peace,” partnerships began to foster stability outside of Europe and offered NATO options for burden-sharing and sustained strategic reach. Today, NATO vaunts that it has created formal partnerships across the globe to increase security for the North Atlantic area.

This essay analyzes the transformation of NATO partnerships and the issues the concept faces in today’s globalized security environment. It compares the more recent development of global partnerships to the process of working toward an undivided and democratic Europe, in which partnerships and the enlargement of membership played a key part. The paper argues that the new partnerships lack focus and purpose, running the risk of becoming a costly end in itself and turning NATO from a security into a service provider.

Partnerships for Consolidation

NATO partnerships are an invention of the early 1990s. When the Iron Curtain fell, allies’ objectives were twofold: Preserving NATO and supporting European integration. These objectives were seen as interdependent. By transforming the Alliance into a more political organization, NATO would find a role in the European integration process. It would work toward dialogue and cooperation with former adversaries. Preserving NATO projected stability by keeping the United States engaged in Europe and allowing for the political transformation of NATO to take place. Despite the expansion of the North Atlantic Treaty area with German reunification and Article 10 of the Washington Treaty, which allowed NATO to invite other European countries into the Alliance, NATO did not aspire to enlargement. NATO would only project stability by political means and leave the transformation of Europe to other institutions, i.e., the European Community/Union and the Conference/Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. To provide its own means to help consolidate the shared vision, NATO established the North Atlantic Cooperation Council (NACC) in 1991. The NACC offered a platform for political consultation with former Warsaw Pact members. In 1994 NATO added a framework for practical cooperation open to all European and Eurasian countries, the Partnership for Peace (PfP).[2]

PfP enables allies and individual countries to work on military-related issues, such as defense reform and interoperability for peacekeeping missions, and demands from participants a basic commitment to democratic principles. It has proven highly successful since its inception. On the one hand, it allows individual states in this diverse group of nations (e.g., Austria, Georgia, Sweden, Tajikistan) to choose their level of engagement with NATO (self-differentiation). On the other hand, PfP countries have contributed to peacekeeping missions. Thus, the partnership works for the benefit of NATO and its partners. Partners can draw on NATO expertise and the Alliance gains by supporting European integration and being able to share some operational burdens. The PfP’s concept of partner self-differentiation was later interpreted as offering a first step toward membership for interested countries since they could show their commitment and ability to join.

Partnerships for Membership

Enlargement of NATO membership made it on the agenda in 1994. Two reasons caused this shift. First, Central and Eastern European states were seeking security assurances, which, in their view, only NATO could provide. Second, instability in the Balkans compelled NATO to engage more tangibly in the transformation of Europe. It was thus a demand-driven process. In order to answer why and how enlargement would contribute to the shared vision of an integrated Europe, NATO conducted a lengthy study in 1994/95. The Study on NATO Enlargement concluded that the integration of new members would strengthen the Alliance’s ability “to contribute to enhanced stability and security for all countries in the Euro-Atlantic area.”[3] The requirement to adhere to NATO principles would provide incentives for aspirant countries to transform themselves democratically and be security providers rather than consumers; active participation in PfP was mandatory. The prospect of membership would encourage candidates to actively contribute to operations even before they were part of the Alliance. Enlargement has thus been a means to achieve European integration.

NATO created partnership formats to prepare countries for membership. In 1999, for example, the Membership Action Plan (MAP) was launched to provide a structured guideline for prospective members. Aspirants are to fulfill certain military and political standards before they can ask for the benefits of membership. The MAP constitutes a non-exhaustive list of basic political and economic, defense, resource, security, and legal requirements. This made the enlargement-partnership track basically a one-way street. Here, more than with PfP countries not aspiring to membership, NATO pulled the strings. The Alliance would ultimately determine when a candidate was ready and when its membership would be in NATO’s interest. This decision depended not only on the progress made by candidates but also on the strategic and political context of the respective time frame. The nexus of partnership and membership allowed NATO to exercise great leverage over partner countries wanting a seat in the North Atlantic Council.

By 2004, NATO had admitted ten new members through these partnership tools and contributed to an undivided and democratic Europe.[4] The focus now shifted to facing global challenges. This demanded that NATO extend and adjust its partnership policy.

Global Partnerships

The Istanbul Cooperation Initiative was launched at NATO’s 2004 summit, underscoring that formalized partnerships beyond Europe and its immediate periphery were seen as instrumental to project stability in other regions and manage relations with those nations—in this case the Persian Gulf. Efforts within NATO to create further formalized partnerships across the globe were, however, only reluctantly accepted by some allies fearing overreach. Nevertheless, since 2004 NATO has incrementally reached out more formally to the so-called “contact countries.” The Strategic Concept of 2010 mirrors the impressive evolution of the role of global partnerships. It devotes the greatest section to the formulation of partnership policies, highlighting the centrality of partners for nearly every aspect of NATO action. Consequently, the Strategic Concept states that the best way to protect the Euro-Atlantic community is to create a vast network with countries and organizations since these partnerships “make a concrete and valued contribution to the success of NATO’s fundamental tasks.”[5]

NATO has elevated the creation of partnerships to one of its “core tasks,” namely cooperative security. Following up on the Strategic Concept and guided by the principle to bring in as many partners as possible, in 2011 NATO foreign ministers formulated “a more efficient and flexible partnership policy” to help achieve this goal. The document lists eight strategic objectives, underscoring that the ranking does not indicate any priority for a specific objective, e.g., promoting regional security, promoting democratic values, and enhancing awareness on security developments. Decisions on prioritization and intensity of cooperation are to be made on the basis of a set of questions, so that resources can be allocated efficiently. Questions encompass, for instance, whether the partner in question shares NATO’s values, has contributed to operations, is of strategic importance, and to what extent the partner has the financial ability to finance cooperative activities.[6]

The Libya operation is often cited as a successful example for applied cooperative security. Five partners—Jordan, Morocco, Sweden, United Arab Emirates, and Qatar—contributed to that mission both by providing added political legitimacy and capabilities.[7] However, NATO aims at establishing permanent cooperation that not only shows its value in joint military missions. Based on the idea of preventive defense, partnerships are to expand to other security areas as well. NATO Secretary General Rasmussen has thus toured the world during the last months to negotiate a range of formal partnerships. NATO now counts Australia, Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Pakistan, Mongolia, and Iraq as partners. With Afghanistan it concluded an Enduring Partnership in November 2010. NATO cooperates and consults with those partners at different levels on a vast range of topics, such as disaster relief, the operation in Afghanistan, cyber security, training and education, non-proliferation, and crisis management. Moreover, NATO seeks the development of dialogues with other important stakeholders that do not yet have a formal link to the Alliance. China, India, Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Colombia are mentioned as such.[8] This truly diverse and growing group of (potential) partners poses several challenges for a coherent partnership strategy since interests and perceptions vary considerably.

Partnership Challenges

In line with the emphasis on the new partnerships, NATO transformed its different partnership tools into a single “Partnership Cooperation Menu, which comprises some 1,600 activities”[9] and is open to all partners alike. This concept of self-differentiation is similar to PfP. However, the new security context and greater geographical playing field today compel NATO to adjust this concept in two respects:

1. A commitment to NATO principles is not a precondition to partnership and

2. The incentives approach is reversed, making NATO more responsive to partners’ wishes in order to “get in.”

This latter aspect is considerably enhanced since NATO does not, as in the 1990s, have any leverage over the direction and engagement of partners due to an obvious reason: The membership carrot simply does not exist. Moreover, contrary to the “consolidating” partnerships of the 1990s (which still play an important role, i.e., for cooperation with European non-members and guiding aspirant countries), the “new” partnerships are issue-based and thus potentially short lived. Lacking a common, defined sense of purpose, as the vision of an integrated Europe provided for the early partnerships and enlargement, NATO will have to devote a lot of thinking on how to make partnerships sustainable.

Hence, the new cooperative security framework raises several questions NATO has to address before running into a negative cost-benefit situation and, in fact, before falling victim to a creeping change in NATO’s role from a security to a service provider. In relation with the apparent logic of taking in anyone interested to bolster capabilities, interoperability, and legitimacy, six issues thus deserve closer scrutiny:

  1. Partnerships are anything but clear-cut. They require hard, continuous work. Depending on the level of partner engagement this could amount to a very costly and labor-intensive effort on NATO’s part without guaranteeing the same level of benefit. Whether NATO possesses the institutional assets is an open question. Furthermore, some nations might just not share the NATO view that “global security challenges require a global response.”[10]
  2. NATO needs to think hard about what goals these partnerships serve. Prioritization is needed, which NATO itself seems to recognize. It, however, has not determined where the emphasis should be. Prioritization does not necessarily require a strict regional or functional focus, but it should be guided by NATO’s defined needs and expectations.
  3. NATO’s partnerships have to be accompanied by concrete outreach efforts to other major players, for example, China and India. However, these nations might be less inclined to see NATO as a defensive organization. Moreover, some emerging powers tend to perceive NATO as a “U.S. proxy,” so that they rather choose to engage with the U.S. directly. It will be difficult to overcome this perception.
  4. Transatlantic allies may very well disagree as to the extent of engagement NATO should take toward partners and in specific issue areas. The differences in geopolitical and strategic outlook have been visible time and again. This issue also cuts to the heart of the Alliance. When operations blur the difference between contributing non-members and non-contributing members in terms of solidarity, capability, and effort, what effect will this have on the concept of membership in NATO in the long run?
  5. Moreover, if NATO as a hub for coalitions of the willing (focusing more on partnership engagement while fewer members actually participate) becomes the standard modus operandi, how compatible are current NATO efforts to increase pooling and sharing allied defense capabilities (smart defense)? Smart defense requires greater cooperation and closer coordination. Attempts to align smart defense with potentially volatile partnerships could complicate the picture even further.
  6. NATO cooperates with most partners bilaterally. NATO’s network might at some point include partners that get in conflict with each other or a third party. How NATO approaches situations in which tensions arise or in which a close partner is attacked are important questions. Contrary to the PfP framework document, the new individual partnership agreements do not carry a clause for consultation in case a partner perceives a direct threat to its security. What if partners in such situations apply the tools and skills enhanced by partnership with NATO toward undesired ends?

As in every strategy, resources and ends are to be connected by means. Defining cooperative security as a core task for the Alliance makes partnerships almost an end in itself.[11]


NATO remains the vital transatlantic defense organization. However, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Philip Gordon recently pointed to the global character of transatlantic relations: “(I)n America, we no longer think in terms of what we can do for (…) Europe but rather what we can do with (…) Europe.”[12] The quote highlights the contemporary transatlantic bargain of American protection of the North Atlantic area in exchange for European engagement on a global scale. In line with this view, new partnerships have become more than just a “part of NATO’s core business”[13] in recent years and are essential for reaffirming the transatlantic bargain. There is, however, no substitute for robust Alliance capabilities and solidarity.

The unfinished business in Europe, with aspirant countries knocking on NATO’s door, may remind the Alliance of the thorough and long-term thinking that went into enlargement. The NATO Study on Enlargement of 1995 outlined the context, standards, modalities, and Alliance benefits of the admittance of new members while allowing for flexibility and adaptability. Even though the complexity might be higher today, a clarification of the concept of partnership, its focus, and its implications would help prevent friction in implementation. This will be a very challenging task, but worth the effort when the value of NATO, and the undoubtedly central role of partnerships, might be put into question.


[1] See Anders Fogh Rasmussen, “NATO – delivering security in the 21st century,” Speech at Chatham House, London, 4 July 2012.

[2] NATO, “The North Atlantic Cooperation Council.”  At the same time NATO launched the Mediterranean Dialogue with states in North Africa and the Near East. The North Atlantic Cooperation Council was succeeded by the larger Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council in 1997.

[3] NATO, “Study on NATO Enlargement.”

[4] Albania and Croatia joined in 2009. Currently four countries are looking for NATO membership: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Georgia.

[5] NATO, “Active Engagement, Modern Defense,” 19-20 November 2010, p. 26.

[6] NATO, “Active Engagement in Cooperative Security: A More Efficient and Flexible Partnership Policy,” 15 April  2011.

[7] Ivo H. Daalder and James G. Stavridis, “NATO’s Victory in Libya. The Right Way to Run an Intervention,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2012.

[8] NATO, “NATO’s relations with partners across the globe,”

[9] NATO, “Partnership tools.”

[10] Benjamin Schreer, “Beyond Afghanistan. NATO’s Global Partnerships in the Asia-Pacific,” NATO Research Paper 75 (Rome, NATO Defense College, April 2012), p. 6.

[11] NATO, Chicago Summit Declaration, 20 May 2012, para. 22.

[12] Philip H. Gordon, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs, Remarks at the U.S.-Central Europe Strategy Forum, Washington, 20 September 2012 (emphasis added).

[13] Anders Fogh Rasmussen, “NATO – delivering security in the 21st century,” Speech at Chatham House, London, 4 July 2012.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American-German Institute.