Arab version of NATO could stabilize region

Time: 30 July, 2020

The opening ceremony of the NATO-led military exercises Noble Partner 2018 at Vaziani military base outside Tbilisi, Georgia, August 1, 2018. (Reuters)

France’s withdrawal this month from the NATO Mediterranean mission due to the behavior of fellow member Turkey was an echo from Paris’ history with the organization. In 1966, then-President Charles de Gaulle withdrew France from NATO’s integrated military command and downgraded its overall membership following a series of frustrations, from the US position on the Suez Crisis in 1956 to a lack of French representation compared to the US and UK, the two other steering powers. This French position was also translated into the European Common Market, with De Gaulle twice refusing to allow the UK to enter. On this point, he seems to have been proved right by the Brexit vote.

However, when it comes to NATO, even if distancing itself enabled France to build its own nuclear deterrent, it was probably not the best decision. It was only in 2009, under President Nicolas Sarkozy, that France corrected its course and reclaimed full NATO membership in a clear understanding of the changing nature of the threats the Western alliance was facing and the rise of new competing blocs. It is, nevertheless, important to note that, despite being in the NATO background for so many years, France made clear agreements stating its commitment to support the alliance in the case of war in Europe.

We often state that the reason for the creation and building of NATO was as a deterrent to the USSR and to avoid nuclear war. But such alliances go beyond the purpose of military action or facing an enemy as they change through time. Indeed, by sharing the burden of defense and putting a common interest at the forefront, it also serves the purpose of supporting political integration and avoiding national militarism between neighbors. It is beyond doubt that, despite France’s withdrawal from NATO’s integrated military command, the European political project would not have been possible without the concept of a common defense plan that NATO created.

There is something sacred about sharing the security burden that unlocks many developments. However, it must start with sharing common values. The US’ contribution and role in supporting the post-Second World War reconstruction of Europe was a success and created stability for the Old Continent — a stability it had never seen before. Although still an open wound, conflict in the former Yugoslavia showed that NATO and Europe were able to bring peace and stability to the continent’s most difficult regions.

Today, NATO faces new challenges arising from a changing geopolitical landscape and the emergence of new threats. It will certainly adapt like it did in the past and go through the transformation needed with a shifting but continuous US support. It seems that the European members will have to take on a bigger role and assume more of the responsibilities that were overseen by the US in the past. It is quite strange to see some European analysts complain about this, as they are the same voices who previously accused the US of hegemonic plans through NATO. One cannot have it both ways. It is also important for NATO to listen to the Europeans when it comes to resetting or renewing relations with Russia. Stability can only come from a common understanding and trust with Moscow, which is far from impossible to build.

Today, the Arab world faces various challenges and one might ask what we can learn from the European experience and NATO’s role. Is it possible to build a similar organization for the Arab world? How can we start sharing the burden of our defense? More importantly, what do we stand to protect, what are the values we cherish, and what do we aspire to build? This immediately puts everything into perspective. Any such alliance is bigger and broader than standing against a common enemy. Thus, this construction effort for the Arab world should be bigger than just opposing Iran or any other single enemy.

If we examine NATO, we can see that it protected free will in the face of totalitarianism. Therefore, France was able to dissent and exit without consequences — something countries within the Warsaw Pact could not do without seeing the Soviet Union’s tanks invading them. This also means that there is room for political disagreements within the alliance, but it draws a clear line when it comes to the safety and protection of any member state’s sovereignty and the security of its citizens.

The Arab region is far away from what Europe is today and the integration it has built since the end of the Second World War. Our regional institutions have been eroded by numerous crises and, in particular, the lack of capacity to act and make a decisive change on any file. The Arab League, for example, has not been able to react properly to the recent challenges the region faces and is constantly trying to maneuver the Arab world’s interests the best way it can. Unfortunately, it has become a punching bag for some member states and populist agendas.

The Arab region urgently needs to build a Middle East security architecture. The Heritage Foundation’s James Carafano recently discussed this subject in a webcast and pointed out that a political, military and economic architecture that includes the nations of the region needed to be created. The US, which has recently been less prone to taking an active role in the global scene, would then come in as a stabilizing force and support it. This would, over time, create a sustainable and dependable deterrent against all threats to the region.

There is something sacred about sharing the security burden that unlocks many developments.

Khaled Abou Zahr

Carafano clarified that this would not just be another NATO, as the Middle East is not Europe, but that there is the need for something stronger than just the US’ current bilateral alliances to create trust and continuity. This would help address the many problems in the Greater Middle East and create a sustainable front against Iran, sending the right message to the Iranian people that the region will not accept the hegemonic actions of the regime.

In my view, the steering committee for this new architecture should be led by Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt. It would take on the key files of the region and build a unified decision-making committee to protect the region’s security. It might not be a NATO but it should not be a Warsaw Pact either. Our region is complicated and, even among allies, we can disagree, especially when it comes to political solutions. By starting to share our defense infrastructure, we create a catalyst toward building something greater and bringing stability to our citizens. Once again, this alliance should not be built against a common enemy, but to protect shared and common values.

This article was first published in Arab News

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