The Next Mediterranean Front Line
From migration to energy and food security, the Mediterranean has emerged as an overlooked front in Russia’s war with the West. As its name suggests, the Mediterranean is a sea that sits between lands. For better or worse, it connects Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, transporting fuel, grain, and refugees from one shore to another. As such, it can serve as a source of stability for Europe or as a site of disruption for actors like Russia that seek to threaten that stability.
Russia is not the only power that seeks to challenge the crumbling security order in the Mediterranean: China and Iran are also working to gain a foothold in a region that is becoming increasingly contested, and that remains central to the geopolitics of the eastern hemisphere. The United States has been present in the Mediterranean since the early 19th century. If Washington is to remain a potent force here, it should develop a coherent strategy prioritizing free utilization of the seas rather than debates over its ownership. This will require efforts to strengthen democracy across the region, as well as to reinforce old and new alliances on both shores of the Mediterranean. Only by doing so can Washington counter the increased territorialization of the sea and growing Chinese geo-economic influence over Mediterranean ports.
At the Center of Three Crises
Today, the Mediterranean stands at the crossroads of multiple crises engineered by Russia as part of its effort to weaken Europe’s resolve. Take the energy crisis: Europe needs to quickly find new sources of energy and many of those immediately available sit inside or just beyond the Mediterranean basin. Algerian and Libyan hydrocarbons are obvious solutions, and so is the liquefied natural gas that can be imported from Qatar — via the Mediterranean. In the longer term, actors are already working to fill the void left by the expected absence of Russian gas by accelerating the exploitation of gas reserves recently found off the coast of Egypt, Israel, and Cyprus. These reserves have already fueled tensions between NATO allies Greece and Turkey, even at a time when oil and gas were cheap. With prices now going through the roof, and the problems of ownership and transportation still unresolved, one can only expect these tensions to get worse and to fuel divisions inside the alliance. It is worth remembering that when French President Emmanuel Macron infamously described NATO as “brain-dead,” he was primarily referring to the acrimony between France and Turkey over the eastern Mediterranean, as well as the perceived passivity of other Western allies.
When it comes to the food security crisis, reduced production and export from Ukraine has challenged exporters to get food from Europe to the world’s major grain importers in Africa and the Middle East. In order to do that, there is practically no way to avoid the Mediterranean, whether for cereals from the Black Sea or major Western exporters such as France and Spain. If the northern Mediterranean cannot provide for the grain needs of the southern and eastern shores, it would condemn them to food shortages and aggravated inflation, potentially leading to political instability and another migration crisis. As in 2015, this would offer Russia an opportunity to stir up tensions not only between Europe and the Middle East, but also between NATO allies, with the United States being accused of causing trouble in the region and leaving the Europeans to pay the price for it. This strategy proved effective in places like France and Italy in 2015, and could well weaken the allies’ resolve again.
The Mediterranean was once seen as the next Central Europe, a place where prosperity and democracy would soon take root and expand. Instead, it is now faced with impoverishment and chaos on its shores. Worse, while instability used to be largely a problem of the hinterland, it is now growing at sea as well. In fact, the Mediterranean is becoming a very crowded area, with an influx of new actors who appreciate the strategic importance of a sea that, despite covering less than 1 percent of the Earth’s ocean surface, carries 20 percent of the world’s maritime traffic. Apart from the resident powers such as Greece, Italy, France, and Turkey — which are all re-arming fast — the war in Syria served as a pretext for Iran to consolidate its land corridor to the Mediterranean, and also allowed Russia to regain a foothold by re-investing in the Soviet-era naval base in Tartus. From there, Russia was able to build up its presence in the region, where it now holds joint naval operations with China. Beijing is also looking at ways to find anchor in the Mediterranean by acquiring civilian ports.
The Mediterranean remains a crucial point of passage for commerce between Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa — and Chinese leaders understand this. Beijing has already found a civilian entry point on the northern shore when its state-owned company, COSCO, purchased the port of Piraeus in 2016. More recently, China signed a memorandum of understanding with Algeria to build and develop the port of El-Hamdania, which is set to become the second-biggest deep-water port in Africa, with construction started in 2021. Now Beijing is looking to make similar acquisitions in the north-western Mediterranean, having recently targeted the ports of Genoa and Trieste, among others. China is also acquiring assets in areas such as Taranto in southern Italy, which has little commercial importance but sits strategically at the intersection of the western and eastern Mediterranean and hosts an important NATO naval base.
The fact that China’s Mediterranean projects are primarily civilian should fool nobody. China understands the value of controlling maritime choke points. Ultimately, Beijing may look for ways to develop a dual-use port somewhere in the Euro-Mediterranean region, if not an outright military naval base. China recently opened its first ever overseas military base in Djibouti. This puts it at the entrance of the Red Sea, which, via the Suez Canal, is a main entrance point to the Mediterranean.
America and the Mediterranean
Not so long ago, the Mediterranean was thought of as an American, or at least a Western, “Mare Nostrum.” Today it looks increasingly contested. As a thalassocracy whose leadership hinges on guaranteeing freedom of navigation across the seas, the United States cannot afford to lose the Mediterranean — nor can it allow it to become a territorialized and openly contested sea. And while the continued presence of the Sixth Fleet certainly provides guarantees of continued military superiority, the lesson learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is that not all geopolitical problems can be treated in a purely military fashion. China is using economic opportunities rather than hard power to gain a foothold in key ports, preferring financial strangulation to military might in increasing its influence. Turkey, despite being a NATO member, has also embraced the role of disruptor in challenging the existing order at sea. In its endeavor to build a “blue homeland” to link Turkey to the resource-rich coasts of North Africa, Ankara is at loggerheads with Cyprus, Greece, and France. Although this dispute in the eastern Mediterranean is the most concerning, there are also growing tensions between other U.S. allies further west, with Morocco and Spain at odds not just over migration but also the Spanish territories of Ceuta and Melilla.
Understanding and, if necessary, mediating between the conflicting claims of these allied Mediterranean powers will be a challenge for U.S. diplomats. As tensions continue to pile up, the United States will often be asked to take sides, and indeed might have to. Here, NATO’s role is essential, particularly between Greece and Turkey. But there are other options too: The de facto extension of the Abraham accords to Morocco in late 2020 opens new possibilities for cooperation, and Washington can also count on strong bilateral ties with countries like Egypt or Jordan to promote peace and stability. This comes at the cost of leaving those countries with a relatively free hand when it comes to dealing with their hinterland, but this is a price that the United States should be prepared to pay for its disentanglement from the Middle East. The United States should be prepared to build specific instruments such as ad hoc region-wide forums and a resurrected NATO-Mediterranean dialogue to convince its partners to look at the wider security issues, rather than local or regional conflicts. Washington should also set clear ground rules and build a panoply of options to retaliate against wrongdoers when necessary. This should include conditions and limitations on the sales of certain advanced weapons such as the F-35 as well as other geo-economic tools, including clearer investment guidance for U.S. firms on infrastructure and port projects in sensitive countries.
In a region where events can move quickly, America should show that it can adapt to changing circumstances — and that if alliances are broken by partners, the United States can still act unilaterally. This requires a clear and coherent strategy emphasizing freedom of the seas.
A Mediterranean Strategy
To guarantee security in the Mediterranean, the United States will have to rely on a continued, and even a strengthened, military presence in the region. But its diplomatic efforts should also look forward towards long-term threats. Among foreign actors, none represents a bigger challenge than China. U.S. diplomats need to be able to strengthen their public diplomacy to expose the true cost of China’s “investment” in a country, especially if it seems to come with no strings attached.
Although Washington has expended significant resources to develop an Indo-Pacific strategy, including AUKUS and a more muscular Quad diplomatic grouping, it has yet to construct a similar strategy for the Mediterranean that can complement (and even extend) its Indo-Pacific vision. To start with, U.S. diplomacy should not be afraid to encourage states in the region to increase their sovereignty by helping allies to document the consequences of Chinese economic involvement. In this regard, Italy’s adoption and subsequent enlargement of Golden Power legislation in 2012 and 2021 — which required the compulsory screening of foreign direct investment in key sectors — can serve as a model for the region.
Finally, the defense of democracy should also be an important component of U.S. policy in the Mediterranean. On the southern shore, after a brief moment of hope linked to the Arab Spring, democracy is barely holding on in a few countries. On the northern shore, more established democracies are now weakened by 15 years of economic and social crises. Those have emboldened the rise of populism, whether on the left (Spain’s Podemos, Greece’s Syriza, and Italy’s Five Star Movement) or on the right (Italy’s Lega, Spain’s Vox, and Turkey’s Justice and Development Party). Democracy matters to the United States: Turkey provides a good example of how authoritarianism can make states more erratic, and more willing to cooperate with the West’s adversaries.
Washington need not embark on a new crusade for democracy, but it should make the region safer for democracies to prosper. The first priority should be to stop the democratic backsliding that has accompanied the Mediterranean’s economic decay. This involves focusing on countries where democracy exists but has been weakened in order to reinforce democratic actors, better integrate populist forces, and foster a constructive dialogue between democracies around the region. Democracy may have been invented in Greece and perfected in medieval Italian city-states, but it remains a fragile thing in the Mediterranean, as elsewhere. It’s easy to forget that the democracies in Greece, Spain, and Portugal are only 15 years older than those in Poland or Ukraine.
Of course, making the Mediterranean a safe place for democracy does not preclude working with countries in the region that fall well short of it. The reality of Mediterranean politics, particularly in North Africa, the Near East, and the Middle East, is that shunning dictators on principle has often proven to be more painful in the long term than engaging with them. If local and regional leaders do not find ways to build this new Mediterranean order with the West, they will find other partners to do so. Still, a clear distinction can be made between grudgingly engaging with authoritarian regimes and embracing allies whose democratic nature provides a guarantee of their good faith. There is sufficient diversity in the forums and formats in the Mediterranean to provide for that differentiation. At the intergovernmental level there is the Union for the Mediterranean and the NATO Mediterranean dialogue, along with the annual Rome Med conferences and the Med-Atlantic Forum at the civil society level. These can be revived or encouraged in line with U.S. goals.
Maintaining a Mare Liberum
The Mediterranean was always a complex region, difficult to put it inside a single box. U.S. Mediterranean strategies have too often been militarily focused, with the political and economic elements bureaucratically divided between Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. This dissociation has become unsustainable. As the Mediterranean becomes more turbulent, America should adopt a specific Mediterranean strategy that brings together military, geo-economic, and political power to maintain freedom of navigation and stability. This strategy should complement the one America has developed for the Indo-Pacific. After its military draw-down from the Middle East, Washington need not choose between becoming irrelevant in the region or becoming entangled in allies’ conflicts. Instead, a cohesive strategy can enable the United States to play a defining role in its future.
Thibault Muzergues is the Europe & Euro-Med program director at the International Republican Institute and author of War in Europe? (Routledge, 2022).