Should NATO Pay Attention to the South Atlantic?

Does a NATO-Colombia partnership make sense? Is cooperation with Brazil realistic? Will NATO be needed to fight piracy in the Gulf of Guinea? Has NATO any role to play in the wider South Atlantic area?


Membership for Colombia?

Recently, Colombia’s president suggested that his country could become NATO member. However, although the Colombian government eventually back-pedaled, a new NATO-Colombia partnership is on the table. For what purpose would Colombia want to join NATO? NATO’s European expeditionary capabilities are shrinking without an end in sight. Hence, NATO as a whole would not have been able to give a credible defense guarantee for Colombia. Only the US can do that, but Washington and Bogota would not need NATO to accomplish that.


Officially, NATO says that there is an “open channel for future cooperation” with Colombia. In diplomatic language, such words could mean anything. If the idea does not die in the next months, we will probably see only talks. During NATO-Colombia talks, status-quo and collective defense oriented member states would oppose any measures lifting NATO-Colombia cooperation to a strategic level. Nevertheless, working level efforts and engagement such as training and education would probably not get a veto, as NATO already has working level contacts worldwide.


Unfortunately, a working level cooperation between NATO and Colombia does not have much to offer. Colombian forces could contribute to NATO missions as Argentina did on the Balkans in the 1990s. Due to political exhaustion and austerity the era of large-scale NATO missions is coming to an end. Thus, Colombia will not get an opportunity to decide whether to contribute or not. Any NATO-Colombia partnership would just include the unspectacular – but useful – measures NATO is doing with all other partners: training, education, best practices sharing, et. al. In consequence, do not expect much with political worth from a NATO-Colombia partnership.

Partnership with Brazil?

Brazil wants Western powers to stay out of its sphere of influence in the Southern Hemisphere. Moreover, the US would be reluctant to give a less capable NATO roles in South America. There would be no benefit for Washington. Thus, there are few real prospects of a substantial NATO-Brazil partnership. Cyber-Security may be an issue of common concern. Certainly, any publicly known NATO-Brazil cyber-cooperation would provoke debates nobody needs and reactions by third parties such as China.


Nevertheless, there is one area where Brazil could have an interest in NATO. This is AWACS. In the past, at major events, such as the Greek Olympics 2004 or the European Championship in Poland and Ukraine 2012, NATO’s AWACS planes have helped to coordinate air traffic and to monitor the airspace. Brazil is going to host the World Cup 2014 and the Olympics 2016, but is lacking sufficient AWACS capabilities. NATO could help out, but Brazil would have to ask.


What we will surely see is an increasing outreach from NATO member states to Brazil. Beside Portugal (remember the common history) and the US, Germany has a “strategic partnership” with Brazil, which has not delivered anything strategic, yet. Moreover, before 2030 Brazil is going to replace its aging aircraft carrier. As the country is unable to build one on its own, Britain and France may be candidates where Brazil could go for carrier-shopping. Otherwise, China will be happy to deliver.

Counter-piracy in the Gulf of Guinea

Regarding piracy, the situation in the Gulf of Aden is getting better, while the problem in the Gulf of Guinea is worsening. Right now, the Western African piracy is only taking place in the littorals, not on the high seas. Thus, it is now appears up to those  littoral  states to solve their problems in their territorial waters and exclusive economic zones.


A new NATO operation would only have to be considered once the pirates reach the Atlantic’s high seas. However, international attention for the problem is already there. The international community has gained counter-piracy experience from the western Indian Ocean. Do not expect a NATO-particular mission soon; the problem may already dealt with. Moreover, even if the Western African pirates would turn high seas, it is far from sure that austerity-suffering NATO would take on that job. Some national states (France, Britain, Portugal, USA) could try to act on their own or countries like Brazil would try to underline their global ambitions with action.



With an eye on geopolitics, the South Atlantic is on a calm track due to the lack of great power conflict. Today Brazil is facing a social and economic crisis. However, World Cup and Olympics will do their share to bring Brazil’s politicians, people and economy back on a good track. The only plausible scenario for a great power conflict is – in the long term – a triangle of competition between the US, China and Brazil; the latter as a swing state. China’s attention in the South Atlantic is growing and the US will not stay passive.


Nevertheless, the there is no role and therefore no need to for NATO to reach out to the wider Southern Atlantic area. Secretary General Rasmussen has traveled around the world during his time in office. As far as I know, he has never visited South America. Please leave it like that. There are more important areas, like the Eastern Mediterranean, to which NATO should pay attention.
Felix Seidler is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Security Policy, University of Kiel, Germany, and a German security affairs writer. This article appeared in original form at his website, Seidlers Sicherheitspolitik.

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