NATO’s Role in the New Security Environment and its Relations with UN and EU

Posted in NATO | 26-Oct-06 | Author: Benedicte Borel

In the Balkans, throughout the 1990s, we have been building such new relationships: NATO-UN, NATO-OSCE, and most recently, NATO-EU. These links have already demonstrated their strategic value

NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, The Clingendael Institute, 29 October 2004.

In their own activities and in their efforts at inter-organisational cooperation, NATO, the UN and the EU pursue a common overarching goal: to ensure peace, security and stability. Despite these shared objectives, however, these organisations and the links between them are very different.

Prior to 2000, no formal relationship existed between NATO and the EU1, despite their overlapping membership and complementary operational agendas. Following the break-up of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia in 19912, the EU and NATO were forced by circumstances to develop pragmatic, ground-level cooperation in the Balkans, where the two organisations led international efforts to promote economic development and post-conflict stabilisation, respectively. Over the decade that followed, these working relationships have improved, diversified and even taken on an institutionalised character (primarily through the 2003 “Berlin Plus” Agreements3).

NATO – UN relations have a longer and more formal institutional history, as many operations undertaken by the North Atlantic Council throughout the post-Cold War period have been mandated by resolutions of the United Nations resolution of the Security Council. Moreover, the Washington Treaty itself commits Allies to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force in any manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations4. Nevertheless, the institutionalisation of relations concerns only NATO’s operation. Meanwhile, practical cooperation, as in the case of NATO and the EU, has moved well beyond mandates and international legal principles. In the field, these two organisations cooperate more and more, exchanging expertise in order to either improve the success of their respective missions or to transcend their traditional fields of work.

This purpose of this article is to provide an overview and analysis of current NATO missions, and to highlight its cooperation with the EU and the UN in today’s security environment.

If the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 challenged NATO’s purpose, the attacks of 11 September 2001 changed considerably Allies’ perception of contemporary security challenges, reorienting both the Alliance’s own agenda and its priorities in pursuing working relationships with the EU and the UN.

Against this backdrop, and after providing a brief background on the new security environment and the purpose of current NATO activities, this article will focus on two questions. With regard to current operations, this analysis will highlight the purpose of the relations between NATO and the two other organisations; consequently it will stress the purpose of this cooperation during an operation and the limit of these relations. The third part will focus on the efficiency of these relations and will provide some recommendations on how improving NATO – EU and NATO – UN relations in this new security environment.

NATO in the new security environment

Today, NATO’s missions are no longer focused on a specific geographical area of responsibility. This is a significant development, when measured against the original objective of the Alliance (paragraph 1, article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty). This strategic shift is rooted in the post-9/11 realisation that current security challenges for NATO Allies have moved from a well – known and centralised geographical area (i.e. the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact) to a more de-centralised and less predictable range of threats with no specific localisation: in the current security environment, NATO Allies regularly face threats and attacks on their territory5, organised by groups of their own citizens (e.g., London) or powerful non-state actors (i.e., 9/11). These attacks can be very well prepared, and take different forms, from the air or on the ground.

Taking into account this versatility of the threat, NATO’s doctrine and operations have evolved significantly. After a half century of static territorial defence, Alliance operations have evolved into increasingly sophisticated forms of post-conflict stabilisation outside the NATO area, in order to forestall or to respond to threats to Allied interests. Right now, NATO is taking part in seven operations: three in the Balkans (in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the United Nations-administrated province of Kosovo and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia), in Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur and in the Mediterranean Sea. In all of these operations, NATO’s role is to share its technical knowledge in defence and security related issues and training of personnel (Afghanistan, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Darfur, FYROM, Iraq), assistance to humanitarian operations (Darfur) as well as to establish and maintain security (Afghanistan, Kosovo, Mediterranean Sea)6.

Current NATO missions are thus centred around two principal areas of activity: establishing/maintaining security and building local capabilities that will eventually obviate the need for a NATO or other international military presence (i.e., training). In this context, it is worth examining the Alliance’s current mechanisms for working with the UN and the EU, and identifying actual and potential synergies.

NATO – EU, NATO – UN: which cooperation for which operation?

The fact is that none of NATO’s seven operations is conducted jointly by NATO and the UN or by NATO and the EU. In the Balkans, on the edge of the traditional “NATO area”, the Alliance is, in effect, gradually transferring responsibility to the EU as post-conflict stabilisation gives way to policing and institution-building tasks. While the Alliance remains essential to providing security in Kosovo, NATO has transferred its other missions in the region to the EU: in 2004, the European Operation Althea replaced SFOR7 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in 2003, the NATO Operation Allied Harmony became the EU Operation Concordia. In Iraq and Darfur, there is no immediate prospect for a NATO – EU or NATO – UN’s joint operations, neither in Afghanistan nor in Active Endeavour.

Of course, the EU is on the ground in most of the Alliance’s theatres of operations, but formal coordination/deconfliction between the two organisations is limited. While the Berlin Plus Agreements allow for non - duplication of capabilities and allow NATO to provide some technical assistance to the EU - in Bosnia and Herzegovina and in FYROM - these two cases are very recent and very specific. In this regard, a question can be raised based on the example of the Kosovo. Effectively, if a decision regarding the future of Kosovo is made by the end of the year or a bit later8, the EU may set up a European Security and Defence Policy mission9. Although this decision has not yet been finalised due to internal organisation, the EU has already mandated a Planning Team to prepare the EU response for all aspects of the possible European Security and Defence Policy mission (ESDP). Does this mean that the EU will not need NATO’s assistance in defence-related issues – traditionally NATO’s area of expertise? This question underlies the common debate among NATO’s European Allies, many of whom believe that such an “independent” ESDP could damage the Alliance and decrease any eventual future cooperation between the two organisations.

Concerning NATO – UN, there is no current operation led jointly by the two organisations – their only link is institutional10. One relatively recent exception11, where NATO and the UN have managed to find common ground operationally is the NATO-Russia Council’s pilot project on counter-narcotics training of Afghan and Central Asian personnel12. This project is conducted in close cooperation with the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), which play a key role in its implementation.

Towards closer cooperation between NATO – EU and NATO – UN

This pilot project offers promising prospects for establishing new technical and practical relationships between NATO and the UN. Based on this new initiative, new relations could be explored and this in the target to improve NATO’s role in the new security context. This does not mean that NATO should cooperate with all regional organisations and desert its traditional areas of competency, but by establishing new links with EU and especially with the UN – ties which for the most part do not yet exist – these three organisations would be more efficient in their common efforts to promote security.

Still concerning the fight against terrorism and related issues, such as narcotics trafficking and money laundering, the Alliance should develop relations with the EU, as there is a special European agency specialised on this matter13. This relation could create a triptych NATO – UN – EU where each of them could develop its own area of work, while taking advantage of each others’ expertise.

In parallel, NATO Allies might seek to develop closer relations with the EU and UN on border security. Achieving opaque borders would decrease trafficking in human beings, narcotics and arms, especially in the Balkans (East and West) and in Central Asia. More specifically, the Alliance could develop working-level relationships with specialised agencies such as UNDP, UNOPS and Europol.

Regarding the recently acquired expertise of NATO in peace – building and peace – keeping, the Alliance could also launch joint operations with UN agencies such as peace keeping field offices, which could improve NATO - UN’s relations on the ground.

Improvement in NATO – UN relations might also be accomplished through the development of regular institutional ties that would facilitate inter - organizational cooperation.

NATO’s role has changed considerably from goals the Alliance set for itself at the beginning of the Cold War. At that time, the EU did not exist and it was inconceivable to envision formal relations between NATO and the UN. Today’s security environment, by contrast, is so volatile and fragile that stronger relations between NATO – EU and NATO – UN should be seen as a necessary element in improving stability and security. The Alliance should complement these efforts by also developing stronger relations with other international organisations such as OSCE or International Organisation for Migration.


1 Before cooperating with the EU, NATO has firstly weaved ties with the Western European Union[1], which rather acted as an interface between NATO Allies and European countries in order to set up an European security and defence identity.
2 The second Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia on which Tito reigned till his death knew came at its end when Croatia and Slovenia declared secession and later when Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia declared their independence; Belgrade and Podgorica settle the federal Republic of Yugoslavia which corresponds to the reign of S. Milosevic (1991 – 2000).
3 Agreed in 2003, these principles are based on decisions taken in Berlin in 1996 in the context of NATO - WEU cooperation. They mainly consist in assuring EU to access to NATO planning capabilities.
4 See article 1 of the North Atlantic Treaty and its preamble.
5 USA - September 2001, Madrid - February 2003, London - July 2005
6 In Bosnia and Herzegovina, since 2004 NATO is maintaining a military headquarter with the goal to support the reform of the defence sector through a NATO trust fund providing assistance to redundant civilian and military personnel and consultations and joint activities between NATO and the government. In the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, a NATO headquarter currently hosts a Senior Civilian Representative and a Senior Military Representative who continue to assist the authorities in the development of security sector reform and adaptation to NATO standards. Whereas, in the UN Administrated province of Kosovo, the Alliance is still leading since June 1999 an international armed force (The Kosovo Force – KFOR) in order to establish and maintain the security in the region. Concerning the NTM – I Iraqi mission of the Alliance, the purpose of its engagement in this region is based on training of the personnel and in supporting the development of the country’s security institutions. At the end, the last current operation of NATO is located in the Mediterranean sea where the Alliance escorts ships in order to prevent terrorist attacks.
7 Stabilisation Force
8 At the EU Defence meeting hold in Finland in the beginning of October, M. Ahtisaari, UN Mediator, said that a final submission of a proposal regarding final status in Kosovo could be delayed due to a possible parliamentary election in Serbia in December following the adoption of its new Constitution.
9 Decision of the European Council of the 10 April 2006
10 See supra and remind Belgrade’s bombing attacks controversy.
11 The Alliance and UN cooperated in de-mining and in small arms destruction (e.g. Ukraine). Remind also NATO participation in the UN’s conference of regional organisations.
12 Pilot initiated in the framework of the NATO – Russia Council and launched at the Foreign Ministerial meeting in December 2005.
13 The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction is based in Lisbon, Portugal.

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