NATO, the Sequel

The Arab Spring entered a new phase with the collapse of the Qaddafi regime, but it is still far too soon to pronounce North Africa stabilized. International peacekeeping arrangements may yet be needed in a Libya riven by ethnic and religious cleavages, and policymakers should think about long-term arrangements and consider a new collective security framework for the Maghreb region as a whole. In short, the region needs a new NATO – the North Africa Treaty Organization.

The unrest and instability of the Arab Spring – a term that many Arab political activists reject in favor of revolution or uprising – is far from over. And the best way to calm tempers and move towards democratic governments and more vibrant economic development is for Europe to balance economic cooperation with a regional approach to security.

The Arab League failed to play an adequate role as the popular uprisings gathered momentum, and NATO says that its own role in North Africa is coming to an end. The Alliance has neither the political appetite nor the financial resources to remain involved in Libya. With tensions between the country’s western and eastern parts likely to persist, the way ahead is probably a force of United Nations peacekeepers drawn from Asia or Africa, along with a distinctly Arab international security mechanism. Hence the idea of NATO II.

But it would be preferable to create a new North African security umbrella under the aegis of the European Union, rather than to link it to NATO. European governments know that they must be in the vanguard of a strategy to reconstruct the Arab world’s failing economies, and it would make sense to introduce a strong security component to their development partnerships.

Europe’s security and defense policy has so far been dogged by EU countries’ waning military capabilities and a general lack of cohesion. Helping to bring security and political stability to the Arab world would be a major achievement, and few international organizations, if any, can match the EU’s track record on the voluntary pooling of sovereign powers.

Until very recently, it would have been unthinkable for EU policymakers to contemplate a security framework. The European Commission’s eurocrats are most familiar with the politics of trade and economic cooperation, not security. Now, though, with the 2009 Lisbon treaty’s creation of an EU “foreign ministry” – the European External Action Service – the Union has a mandate for making security policy key to its relations with Arab countries.

There is a lot of ground to be made up. Europe’s relations with its neighbors in the Maghreb have been disappointing. Neither Arab autocrats nor the EU have wanted a collective approach, so “tailored” bilateral trade deals and association agreements have been the norm.

But this approach by Arab governments has been the root of their countries’ poverty and lack of opportunity. Only 2-3% of North African countries’ modest foreign trade occurs within the region, so they have missed out on the surge in international business that over the last two decades has lifted billions of people out of backwardness and misery in Asia, Latin America, and even sub-Saharan Africa. By all accounts, the lack of jobs has been as important as the lack of freedom and human rights in fueling the Arab spring.

The Maghreb countries have attracted little more than a trickle of foreign investment, and the chief source has been Europe. One reason is that the EU farmers’ lobby has ensured that these countries’ access to European markets for competitive exports like agricultural produce remains limited. Small wonder that the Maghreb’s principal export has been young men seeking a better life.

No one knows where the Arab Spring is headed. But, in Egypt and Tunisia as much as in Libya, post-revolutionary politics will be extremely volatile. A first step towards calming the turmoil will be to create a permanent forum for the new leaders to wield collective muscle when talking about terms of trade and other economic issues, and also to be in constant communication with each other. In its early years, NATO was, in addition to a bulwark against Soviet encroachment, a vehicle that enabled former World War II adversaries to create close new links.

From the EU’s timid Barcelona Process of the 1990’s to the damp squib of the current Union for the Mediterranean, Europe has been torn between a concern to stave off trouble and unrest in North Africa and its self-interested measures to protect its culture and economy. With the tumult in the Arab world far from over, European politicians are slowly waking to the idea that they must construct a relationship that is much more generous and far-sighted. It won’t be just a security mechanism, but nor can it be limited to economic issues alone.

Giles Merritt, Editor of Europe’s World and heads the Brussels-based think tanks Friends of Europe and Security & Defense Agenda.

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