The Mediterranean Microcosm

June 8, 2016

Over the past two decades, the volume of global trade travelling by ship has more than doubled, while overall vessel traffic has more than quadrupled.  The size of individual container ships continues to grow, allowing more economically significant shipments between trading partners across the world. The number of participants in this system has increased drastically in recent years, with developing countries now accounting for nearly half of global trade. The effects of globalization are more readily seen on the oceans than they are in perhaps any other place. Despite such progress, however, the maritime domain continues to present daunting challenges. The nightly news still regularly features reports of hundreds of migrant deaths at sea. American military personnel were recently held captive for incursions into Iranian waters. Global fish stocks remain vulnerable. Competing territorial and resource claims make the future of the Arctic uncertain. Just as the world’s oceans are being transformed by the positive effects of globalization, they are also fraught with the insecurity and friction that come with increased access and interaction.

As these trends continue, the Earth’s oceans will increasingly resemble smaller and more crowded bodies of water, where activities, interests, and threats converge.  Today’s Mediterranean Sea provides a picture of what we should expect the oceans of tomorrow to look like. It is an opening to the rest of the world that provides coastal nations with economic opportunity and access to resources and trade.  But it is also bounded by chokepoints in every direction and rimmed by diverse nations with competing interests.  The Mediterranean is a buffer zone between great powers and a natural spillover zone for many conflicts. In the most extreme view, it is a scene of conflict, a source of threats, and a dividing line between the haves and have-nots of the world.  While that picture is certainly one of great challenges, it also provides insight into the likely global maritime security challenges of the future and helps in developing appropriate national strategies to confront it.

Conflict and Terrorism

The priorities of many Mediterranean nations are driven by ongoing and potential conflicts within and immediately outside their borders. Syria and Libya are mired in civil war, while the remaining North African countries and those of Europe face internal and external terrorism threats of varying degrees.  Israel is beset by threats ranging from the existential (Iran) to the merely deadly (Hamas).  Both the Israel-Palestine question and the de facto partition of Cyprus (Turkey occupies and claims a portion of that otherwise independent island) stand out as the type of intractable, generations-old issues that have garnered regional and global attention for decades and are continuing into the new century.  In the Mediterranean, new conflicts are combined with old ones rather than simply replacing them.

All of these situations and threats have significant maritime elements.  In terms of terrorism, the Islamic State (ISIL) has stoked fears of attacks on maritime traffic throughout the Mediterranean.  While the group does not yet control territory on Syria’s coast, its videotaped execution of 21 Egyptian Christians on a Libyan beach in early 2015 with the Mediterranean as a backdrop  certainly raised awareness that the group can access the sea.

Regional powers have also been using their naval forces to forward national objectives. Israel has maintained a controversial naval blockade of the Gaza Strip since 2007as a protective measure against weapons-smuggling and sea-based rocket attacks.  While the country staunchly defends these maritime tactics as a necessary protection against illicit Hamas activities, the blockade is controversial and widely criticized. Last year, Turkey added to tension in the region by sending naval forces to accompany a gas exploration vessel operating without permission inside the exclusive economic zone of Cyprus.  The move, of course, drew the ire of Cyprus and many European countries.

Great power competition, too, looms large over the area. Russian interests, ranging from hegemony in the adjacent Black Sea to support of the Assad regime, have ensured its continued status as a major antagonist to Europe. Russia has kept an average of 10 ships deployed as part of its reconstituted Mediterranean Squadron since 2012, a move that has been explained by Moscow as a response to European strategic missile defense and a guarantor of maritime access to both regional trading partners and to the Suez, Gibraltar, and the oceans beyond.  The country’s aggression and intransigence in its near abroad (in the Baltic, Georgia, and Ukraine, to include cyber-attack activity) figures prominently in the calculations of E.U. and NATO member states. Turkey-Russia relations remain frosty after the former’s 2015 downing of a Russian jet near the Syrian border.

Perhaps nowhere are international tensions brought more into focus than at narrow maritime straits, and the Mediterranean remains uniquely bounded in by such chokepoints. The Suez Canal is precariously situated next to the Sinai Peninsula, where significant terrorist activity remains a problem.  An ISIL-affiliated group claims the Sinai as a “province” of its Iraq-and-Syria-based “state” and, along with others, conducts frequent attacks on a variety of targets in the area, including a 2015 rocket attack on an Egyptian Coast Guard vessel.  Showing just how close such activity can come to the Suez, in 2013 a merchant ship transiting the canal received incoming rocket-propelled grenade fire. While such threats are far less likely to affect either the eastern or western entrances to the Mediterranean, lingering political issues highlight the contentiousness of maritime straits. For instance, in the aftermath of the downing of a Russian military jet by Turkish forces near the Syrian border in November of 2015, tensions built to the point of leading some to speculate whether Turkey could or would close the Turkish Straits (Dardanelles-Bosporus) to Russian ships. To the west, Spain and the United Kingdom continue to argue over territorial rights in the vicinity of Gibraltar.

The range and diversity of these tensions and the responses to them are instructive, as they include the full gamut of threats and actors likely to be confronted elsewhere in the future. Should terrorist groups foray into maritime attacks in the Mediterranean, it will provide insight into likely tactics and capabilities for attempts farther afield.  The maneuvers and decisions of the antagonists in the Israel-Palestine and Cyprus-Turkey situations could be replicated in places like the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait. In the same way, Russian naval activity in and around the Mediterranean provides a preview of how other world powers may look to preserve their interests against and strike a balance of power with  the United States and its allies in the coming years.

As ships grow in size and seaborne trade increases in order to cater to and export from newly-opened and newly-contributing economies, strategic chokepoints such as the Suez, Gibraltar, and the Bosporus will become even more critical.  Responsible actors will need to strengthen multinational agreements and norms that recognize the absolute right to straights passage.  Moreover, they will likely need to establish and exercise internationally accepted (and expected) responses to attempts to deny that right. From Panama to Malacca to Hormuz, the ability to preempt or respond to actions to shut down maritime chokepoints through presence, partnerships, and good governance will be paramount.

Mass Migration

One million refugees crossed the Mediterranean toward Europe in 2015, most fleeing violence and unrest throughout the Middle East and Africa. Indeed, the situation rose to the level of an outright humanitarian crisis, with nearly 4,000 individuals dying on the perilous crossing last year.  As this mass migration has continued into 2016, European governments are facing mounting pressure to address the situation, both from those who are concerned about the economic and security implications of the immigrant wave and from those shocked by the regular reports of innocent lives lost at sea.

To date, the response of many European nations to this situation has been widely criticized. Indeed the repeated, massive losses of life on the Mediterranean over the last several years have become a contentious and embarrassing issue for the countries of the continent.  As 2015 drew to a close, the European Union took its most significant collective action to date by moving forward on the approval of a European Border and Coast Guard to replace the much-maligned FRONTEX border agency currently in place.  The new agency will have expanded authorities and capabilities, specifically designed and incorporated to avoid its predecessor’s shortcomings, but its tasks remain daunting.

The Mediterranean crisis provides testament to the likelihood that desperate migrants will continue to risk their lives at sea, and that developed nations will continue to face great difficulties managing their responses.  Indeed, migration may become an increasingly appealing prospect for those fleeing persecution, violence, or lack of opportunity in their home countries. Ever-greater access to media from abroad now provides would-be migrants with information about both the life that may await them and the tactics that can be used to avoid detection in transit.

Multilateral plans for mass migration contingencies and rapid humanitarian responses are already in place for many nations across the world.  Continually updating and exercising such plans, with an emphasis on interoperability with international partners, will remain important.  Common expectations, shared goals, and appropriate authorities and capabilities will help international coalitions worldwide avoid failures like FRONTEX.


The natural resources that modern societies depend on are actively transported and exploited across and under the Mediterranean. Long a source of sustenance for all of the countries it touches, the Mediterranean has become severely overfished and the badly depleted living marine resource stocks are providing less and less economic benefit. In response, the General Fisheries Commission for the Mediterranean Sea (GFCM) reached a milestone agreement in 2015. While the agreement signals multilateral commitment to the protection and restoration of a sustainable fishing industry, it also creates the type of international commitments and enforcement responsibilities that may lead to disagreement and even conflict between nations.

Below the seabed, the Mediterranean likewise holds resources that must be both pursued and protected. Libya’s Bouri offshore oil field is among the largest in the Mediterranean, meaning that a massive economic and energy asset sits vulnerable just offshore of a failed state. Insurgents have routinely targeted land-based petroleum facilities. Israel, Cyprus, and Egypt’s offshore gas fields border closely enough that joint development is under consideration  a currently placid balance for a potentially contentious issue.

Similarly, cross-Mediterranean pipelines—one each connecting Morocco and Algeria to Spain, and one each connecting Tunisia, Algeria, and Libya to Italy—provide a convenient but vulnerable contribution to European energy supplies.  Disruption of pipeline activity by militant or terrorist activity on the supply (North African) side could have major implications for European energy security. And of course, the environmental impact of a major petroleum spill from either a drilling rig or pipeline in the Mediterranean would be magnified by that sea’s relatively small size and narrow outlets to larger bodies of water.

In all three of these resource areas —fisheries, offshore drilling, and transoceanic pipelines —the present state of the Mediterranean again provides insights and indicators for the future of the rest of the maritime world.  Continued pressure on all global fisheries will likely result in either increased international competition and conflict or a proliferation of agreements similar to that reached by the GFCM in 2015.  The management and protection of offshore petroleum drilling assets in the Mediterranean including potential conflict resolution mechanisms and multinational responses to any spills  will offer important examples for similar exploitation along contested maritime borders in the future, from the Indo-Pacific to the Arctic.  Cross-ocean movement of resources through pipelines will continue to be both important and potentially vulnerable.  While such connections facilitate commerce and often strengthen international ties, overreliance on long stretches of transnational pipelines exposes any country to a certain level of risk. By definition, such pipelines are difficult to protect and subject to the whims and security capabilities of overseas partners. The management and protection of the pipelines connecting North Africa to Europe both highly important and highly vulnerable  can set an example for smart security and management (or the opposite).

Looking and Feeling like the Mediterranean

In the years to come, the vast expanses of the Pacific and Atlantic, the contested and frozen reaches of the Arctic, and the huge and critically important Indian Ocean will all look and feel like much smaller bodies of water. They will look and feel like the Mediterranean Sea of today.  There, the actions of and reactions to the Russian navy give insight into how nations deploy their seagoing forces in close quarters, just as the actions of ISIL supply an idea of how terrorist groups view maritime targets and avenues of attack.  Tense situations surrounding three of the world’s most important maritime chokepoints show how nations can confront threats to economically vital waterways.  The multinational response to a massive wave of migration provides lessons for confronting humanitarian crises at sea.  Resource extraction and transportation in international waters demonstrate the options for economic activity in contentious and sometimes precarious settings.   By closely monitoring, understanding, and analyzing the situation of the Mediterranean today, maritime strategists can plan and prepare for a future in which globalization has transformed all of the world’s oceans.


Kevin Duffy is a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Coast Guard and the Commanding Officer of Maritime Safety and Security Team Miami. He previously led the Coast Guard’s Middle East Training Team and served in the office of the Secretary of Homeland Security. Kevin holds master’s degrees from Norwich University, the U.S. Naval War College, and Harvard University.

Image: Ggia, CC