Partnerships: projecting stability through cooperation

The Allies seek to contribute to the efforts of the international community in projecting stability and strengthening security outside NATO territory. One of the means to do so is through cooperation and partnerships. The Alliance has developed a network of partnerships with non-member countries from the Euro-Atlantic area, the Mediterranean and the Gulf region, and other partners across the globe. NATO pursues dialogue and practical cooperation with these countries on a wide range of political and security-related issues. NATO’s partnerships are beneficial to all involved and contribute to improved security for the broader international community.

An Austrian soldier on KFOR’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Team trains in identifying and neutralising explosive devices and weapons.

An Austrian soldier on KFOR’s Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) Team trains in identifying and neutralising explosive devices and weapons.

  • Partners are part of many of NATO’s core activities, from shaping policy to building defence capacity, developing interoperability and managing crises.
  • NATO’s programmes also help partner countries to develop their own defence and security institutions and forces. 
  • In partnering with NATO, partners can:
    • share insights on areas of common interest or concern through political consultations and intelligence-sharing;
    • gain access to advice and support as they reform and strengthen defence institutions and capacities;
    • participate in a rich menu of education, training and consultation events (approximately 1,400 events a year are open to partners through a Partnership Cooperation Menu);
    • prepare together for future operations and missions by participating in exercises and training;
    • contribute to current NATO-led operations and missions;
    • share lessons learned from past operations and develop policy for the future;
    • work together with Allies on research and capability development.
  • Through partnership, NATO and partners also pursue a broad vision of security:
    • integrating gender perspectives into security and defence;
    • fighting against corruption in the defence sector;
    • enhancing efforts to control or destroy arms, ammunition and unexploded ordnance;
    • advancing joint scientific projects.
  • Partnership has evolved over the years, to encompass more countries, more flexible instruments, and new forms of cooperation and consultation.

A flexible network of partnerships with non-member countries

Dialogue and cooperation with partners can make a concrete contribution to enhance international security, to defend the values on which the Alliance is based, to NATO’s operations, and to prepare interested countries for membership.

In both regional frameworks and on a bilateral level, NATO develops relations based on common values, reciprocity, mutual benefit and mutual respect.

In the Euro-Atlantic area, the 31 Allies engage in relations with 19 partner countries through the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council and the Partnership for Peace – a major programme of bilateral cooperation with individual Euro-Atlantic partners. Among these partners, NATO has developed specific structures for its relationships with Russia1, Ukraine and Georgia.

NATO is developing relations with the seven countries on the southern Mediterranean rim through the Mediterranean Dialogue, as well as with four countries from the Gulf region through the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative.

NATO also cooperates with a range of countries that are not part of these regional partnership frameworks. Referred to as “partners across the globe”, they include Afghanistan1, Australia, Colombia, Iraq, Japan, the Republic of Korea, Mongolia, New Zealand and Pakistan.

NATO has also developed flexible means of cooperation with partners, across different regions. NATO can work with so-called “31+n” groups of partners, where partners are chosen based on a common interest or theme. At the 2014 Wales Summit, NATO introduced the possibility of “enhanced opportunities” for certain partners to build a deeper, more tailor-made bilateral relationship with NATO. At the same time, Allied leaders launched the “Interoperability Platform”, a permanent format for cooperation with partners on the interoperability needed for future crisis management and operations.

  1. The partnerships with Afghanistan and Russia are currently suspended following North Atlantic Council decisions related to the security environment.

Key objectives of NATO’s partnerships

Under NATO’s partnership policies, the strategic objectives of NATO’s partner relations are to:

  • Enhance Euro-Atlantic and international security, peace and stability;
  • Promote regional security and cooperation;
  • Facilitate mutually beneficial cooperation on issues of common interest, including international efforts to meet emerging security challenges;
  • Prepare interested eligible countries for NATO membership;
  • Promote democratic values and institutional reforms, especially in the defence and security sector;
  • Enhance support for NATO-led operations and missions;
  • Enhance awareness of security developments including through early warning, with a view to preventing crises;
  • Build confidence and achieve better mutual understanding, including about NATO’s role and activities, in particular through enhanced public diplomacy.

That said, each partner determines – with NATO – the pace, scope, intensity and focus of their partnership with NATO, as well as individual objectives. This is often captured in a document setting goals for the relationship, which is to be regularly reviewed. However, many of NATO’s partnership activities involve more than one partner at a time.

Partnership in practice: how NATO works with partners

In practice, NATO’s partnership objectives are taken forward through a broad variety of means. Broadly speaking, NATO opens up parts of its processes, procedures and structures to the participation of partners, allowing partners to make concrete contributions through these. In some cases, special programmes have been created to assist and engage partners on their specific needs. Key areas for cooperation are set out below:

Consultation is key to the work of NATO as an alliance and is central to partnerships. Political consultations can help understand security developments, including regional issues, and shape common approaches to preventing crises or tackling a security challenge.  NATO’s many committees and bodies often meet in formations with partners to shape cooperation in specific areas.  NATO Allies meet with partners (individually or in groups) on a broad variety of subjects and at a variety of levels every day.

Interoperability is the ability to operate together using harmonized standards, doctrines, procedures and equipment. It is essential to the work of an alliance of multiple countries with national defence forces, and is equally important for working together with partners that wish to contribute in supporting the Alliance in achieving its tactical, operational and strategic objectives. Much of day-to-day cooperation in NATO – including with partners – is focused on achieving this interoperability. In 2014, recognising the importance of maintaining interoperability with partners for future crisis management, NATO launched the Partnership Interoperability Initiative, which inter alia launched mechanisms for enhanced cooperation with countries that wished to maintain deeper interoperability with NATO.

Partners contribute to NATO-led operations and missions, whether through supporting peace by training security forces in the Western Balkans or monitoring maritime activity in the Mediterranean Sea or off the Horn of Africa. As contributors to those missions, partners are invited to shape policy and decisions that affect those missions, alongside Allies. A number of tools have been created to assist partners in developing their ability to participate in NATO-led operations, and be interoperable with Allies’ forces.

For many years, NATO has worked with partners on defence reform, institution and capacity-building. As part of its work to project stability, NATO Allies have agreed that long-term and lasting stability is linked to improved governance of defence and security sector and institutions. Viable, effective and resilient defence institutions are essential to the long-term success of efforts to strengthen partner capacity. In 2004, NATO Allies and partners adopted the Partnership Action Plan on Defence Institution Building, setting basic benchmarks for defence institutions. In a NATO context, such work can go from strategic objective setting and joint reviews, to expert assistance and advice, as well as targeted education and training. Defence advice and reform is provided through bilateral partnership cooperation programmes, as well as through expert advisory programmes targeting specific aspects of Defence Institution Building, like the Defence Education Enhancement Programme or Building Integrity. In 2014, at the Wales Summit, NATO adopted the Defence and Related Security Capacity Building Initiative (see more below). The Initiative builds on NATO’s extensive track record and expertise in supporting, advising, assisting, training and mentoring countries requiring capacity-building support of the Alliance, and allows for the development of targeted, tailor-made packages of defence capacity-building support for countries, upon request and with Allied consent. 

NATO also engages with partners in a broad variety of other areas where it has developed expertise and programmes. These include:

  • Counter-terrorism;
  • Counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery;
  • Emerging security challenges, such as those related to cyber defence, energy security and maritime security, including counter-piracy;
  • Civil emergency planning.

Towards more flexibility: evolutions in NATO’s partnerships

NATO’s partnerships began in 1990, when, at the London Summit, NATO pledged to “extend… the hand of friendship” to its former adversaries in the Cold War. This soon led to the creation of cooperation structures, such as the North Atlantic Cooperation Council in 1991. In January 1994, the Partnership for Peace was launched, NATO’s first formal partnership programme, focused on NATO’s neighbours in Europe and the former Soviet Union. The same year, Allies launched the Mediterranean Dialogue for its Mediterranean neighbours. In 2004, Allies launched the Istanbul Cooperation Initiative for Gulf countries, and over the years, through cooperation in NATO missions and operations, NATO developed and built relations with partners further across the globe.

Reflecting the significant evolutions in NATO’s partnerships policy, in line with the Strategic Concept adopted in 2010, a focused effort to reform NATO’s partnerships policy was launched at the 2010 Lisbon Summit to make dialogue and cooperation more inclusive, flexible, meaningful and strategically oriented. This resulted in a partnership policy, which was endorsed by NATO foreign ministers at their meeting in Berlin in April 2011.

The policy aimed to reinforce existing partnerships by strengthening consultation mechanisms and by facilitating more substance-driven cooperation. In addition, the policy outlined a “toolbox” of mechanisms and activities for cooperation with partners.

In line with the 2010 Strategic Concept, NATO offered its partners “more political engagement with the Alliance, and a substantial role in shaping strategy and decisions on NATO-led operations to which they contribute”.  The Political-Military Framework, which governs the way NATO involves partners in political consultation and the decision-making process for operations and missions to which they contribute, was updated, giving contributing partners decision-shaping authority but not the same decision-making authority as member countries.

The Berlin policy decisions opened up the possibility for new forms of political dialogue with partners, including through more flexible “31+n” formats (thematic or event-driven), and are used, on a case-by-case basis, to enhance consultation on security issues of common concern and cooperation in priority policy areas, such as counter-piracy and cyber defence. The 2011 policy also opened up the possibility of developing deeper relations with partners across the globe as well as key global actors and other new interlocutors across the globe which share the Allies’ interest in peaceful international relations but have no individual programme of cooperation with NATO. A number of partners across the globe have since joined NATO’s partnerships community; most recently, Colombia became a partner in 2017.

At the Wales Summit in September 2014, NATO leaders endorsed two important initiatives to reinforce the Alliance’s commitment to the core task of cooperative security: the Partnership Interoperability Initiative, and the Defence and Related Security Capacity Building Initiative. The first initiative was designed to reinforce NATO’s ability to provide security with partners in future, through interoperability; while the second was more focused on helping countries, upon request, to provide for their own security, by strengthening their defence and related security institutions and capacity.

The Partnership Interoperability Initiative provides measures designed to ensure that the deep connections built between NATO and partner forces over years of operations will be maintained and deepened so that partners can contribute to future NATO-led operations and, where applicable, to the NATO Response Force. The Partnership Interoperability Initiative has introduced a number of innovations, including the possibility of granting specific partners enhanced opportunities for deeper cooperation. Five partners (Australia, Georgia, Jordan, Invitee Sweden and Ukraine) currently have access to this enhanced cooperation, which includes easing the process for these countries to participate in exercises and enabling regular consultation on security matters.

Another innovation concerns the establishment of the Interoperability Platform, a standing forum for meetings with selected partners that have contributed to NATO operations or have taken concrete steps to deepen their interoperability with NATO. In this format, Allies and partners discuss projects and issues that affect interoperability, such as education, training, exercises, evaluation, capability development, command and control systems, and logistics.

The Defence and Related Security Capacity Building Initiative  builds on NATO’s extensive track record and expertise in supporting, advising, assisting, training and mentoring countries requiring capacity-building support of the Alliance.  It aims to reinforce NATO’s commitment to partner countries and help the Alliance to project stability without deploying large combat forces, as part of the Alliance’s overall contribution to international security, stability and conflict prevention. The programme is extended to countries upon their request, and with Allied consent. Allies have offered DCB packages to Georgia, Iraq, Jordan, the Republic of Moldova and Tunisia, following their requests.

At the Warsaw Summit in 2016, Allies underlined that they seek to contribute more to the efforts of the international community in projecting stability and strengthening security outside NATO territory.

At the Brussels Summit in 2018, Allies committed to further strengthening NATO’s role in this regard, helping partners, upon request, to build stronger defence institutions, improve good governance, enhance resilience, provide for their own security, and more effectively contribute to the fight against terrorism. The investments in partners’ security contribute to Alliance security overall and partnerships continue to be essential to the way NATO works in addressing security challenges.

At the Madrid Summit in June 2022, NATO adopted its new Strategic Concept, which continues to identify “cooperative security” as one of NATO’s three pillars. This pillar recognises that Euro-Atlantic security is best achieved through a wide network of partner relationships with countries and organisations around the world. As outlined in the 2022 Strategic Concept, “Political dialogue and practical cooperation with partners, based on mutual respect and benefit, contribute to stability beyond our borders, enhance our security at home and support NATO’s core tasks. Partnerships are crucial to protect the global commons, enhance our resilience and uphold the rules-based international order.”