More than Partners, not quite Allies – The “NATO Association”: a proposal for the Chicago Summit.

Chess board in black and white from view of pawns

By Stefano Santamato
Center for Transatlantic Security Studies

In an article published in the NATO Review in March 2008, the late Ron Asmus wrote, “In the 1990s, NATO’s new partnerships were a key component of the Alliance’s reinvention for the post-Cold War era.”[1] Since then, partnerships involving the former Soviet Union and its Eastern European satellites – Partnership-for-Peace and the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council – as well as parts of North African and Middle East – such as the Mediterranean Dialogue and the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative – have become keystones of NATO’s strategy to project stability across the European continent and beyond. In the past twenty years, partnership frameworks and programs have evolved constantly, reflecting different degrees of integration (nine European Partners are now full NATO members) and of reciprocal strategic interest.

As the Alliance embraces the tenets of its new Strategic Concept, adopted at the Lisbon Summit in 2010, and as these relationships enter their third decade, the perception is that NATO partnerships should not just be renovated, but renewed altogether.

The need to identify a new form of partnership relations in NATO is the result of two converging factors. On one side, there is growing recognition that the original intent of NATO partnerships has exhausted its political, enlargement, and outreach thrust. This, in parallel with the growing involvement of “operational” partners in NATO operations – from KFOR (Kosovo) to ISAF (Afghanistan) to Libya – has de facto created a two-tier NATO partnership cadre. First are partners like Sweden, Australia, Finland, or South Korea, to name but few, that are considered and consider themselves to be net contributors to NATO’s “cooperative security” paradigm; second are partners that are only interested in the political stage and international legitimacy that NATO’s partnership programs bring to their respective governments and bureaucracies.

On the other side, the growing post-ISAF vision of a NATO focused on core activities has led a number of Allies, spearheaded by the United States, to look at NATO as the ultimate operational enabler. This view was voiced by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the December 2011 NATO Foreign Ministerial meeting, when the holding of a “special relationship” meeting at the Chicago Summit, with a yet to be identified core group of partners, was proposed. The idea envisions for a shift from geographically-based NATO partnerships towards more functionally related ones, placing a premium on the partners’ ability to contribute to NATO’s mandate and priorities. This shift is also aimed at removing – or rather contouring – the obstacles to a closer regional cooperation, e.g. Israel and the Mediterranean Dialogue or Russia and the EAPC, while preserving the self-differentiating nature of NATO’s partnership approach.

But there is also another important factor of the partnership equation that needs to be taken into account. The partners’ increased involvement in NATO operations has opened a “decision-making” debate in the Alliance. According to the NATO Political-Military Framework, which regulates partners’ participation in NATO-led operations, partners can only be involved in shaping decisions that, ultimately, will be taken only by Allies. This provision has created some frustration in many contributing partners, which see their troops and assets operating side-by-side with NATO forces, but which are not allowed to take part in NATO’s final deliberations on issues regarding, for instance, KFOR, ISAF or Operation Unified Protector.

To be honest, in practice partners’ influence in so-called ISAF-format or KFOR-format discussions goes well beyond mere decision-shaping. And NATO’s Comprehensive Approach has introduced a culture of increased inclusiveness. It is however true that granting full decision-making rights to operational partners would equate to the establishment of an á la carte NATO, in which partners would be allowed to pick and choose missions or activities while opting out of the Article 5 solidarity commitment.

Yet, this is an issue that needs to be addressed if NATO is to embrace a new concept of functional partnerships. A possible solution is the creation of a “NATO Association” that allows selected partners to move closer to the Alliance without committing to full membership for them. The initiative for such a NATO Association could be launched at the next Summit of NATO Heads of State and Government, to be held in Chicago (IL) on 20-21 May 2012.

The NATO Association should build on the three enabling pillars of the Alliance’s collective defense mandate — namely: a) defense planning, b) command and control, and c) standardization – and develop along specific functional areas or missions lines. Associated partners would not be able to participate to the policy making or in the management of the three pillars, but new decision-making mechanisms would allow their full involvement in activities such as operations planning, capability development, or training and education in the areas or missions of choice.

To begin with, Associated partners should focus on cooperation areas identified by NATO’s Smart Defense initiative, as well as on emerging security challenges such as cyber-defense, counter-terrorism or energy security. The NATO Association would be self-selective and organized along the principles of voluntary participation, active contribution and functional commitment.

In doing so, Allies and Associated partners would benefit from an input-driven and output-oriented relationship. The result would preserve the core of NATO’s Allies-only solidarity commitment while expanding it as a standard-setting, enabling platform. Ultimately, a NATO Association would provide a greater incentive to partners from various regions to cooperate and operate with the Alliance, either collectively or in coalition frameworks.  This would reinforce the vision of U.S. President Obama of NATO as a unique “force multiplier.”[2]

Stefano Santamato is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow for the Center for Transatlantic Security Studies (CTSS) at National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies (NDU-INSS). Mr. Santamato may be contacted at The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone.

[1] Ron Asmus: “Rethinking NATO Partnerships for the 21st Century”, March 19, 2008. In NATO Review on line –

[2] U.S. President Barack Obama press conference for the unveiling of the review of the U.S. Strategic Guidance for the Department of Defense – January 5th, 2012 – Source:


1 Comment

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One response to “More than Partners, not quite Allies – The “NATO Association”: a proposal for the Chicago Summit.

  1. Excellent article.
    I suppose you are aware that the proposal for such an Association is not altogether new. It is essentially the same as the Associate Membership that the Committee on Eastern Europe and Russia in NATO proposed in 1992, as the way to start NATO expansion rapidly but without placing a premature emphasis on full membership. It would have enabled catching all the countries of the post-Communist space when they were politically ripe, and also allowed full membership to come later for some countries without their becoming too anxious about it.
    Later NATO was unable to carry out its declared PFP policy of reducing the line between Partners and Members to just Article 5, for this very reason. With major consequences that we are still paying for, in the considerable degree of realienation of Russia. Your proposal would have remedied that. Water under the bridge? Mostly yes, but not entirely. It could still remedy some of it, as well as helping on the new and future situations about which you write.
    The most important thing your proposal could help with at this stage, although it might not be the first thing to get consummated in practice and might not even be popular with some people to mention it, is Russia’s complaint that it is not given enough role and status in policymaking on Afghanistan. This despite its indispensable cooperation on our efforts there, more important than all the other partners combined; and its vital interest in the outcome, and its experience in the region. There is good reason to give it a realistic perspective on an associate membership as a way to remedy this situation, and similar situations that may arise in the future. It is far better than mere continued statements that the door of membership is not closed to Russia, while most of our countries do not intend under any circumstances to actually open it.
    yours faithfully,
    Ira Straus
    US coordinator, CEERN

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