The Mediterranean offers Biden a ripe opportunity to strengthen alliances

The Mediterranean offers Biden a ripe opportunity to strengthen alliances
© getty: President Biden

Surprising as it may seem, many people worldwide believe the best days of American global leadership are still to come. In particular, the Mediterranean region is one where the benefits of decades of Pax Americana — Latin for "American Peace" — are widely recognized and even cherished. It is to Washington that the leaders of this region turn when planning their responses to current and emerging threats, including the rise of alternative powers with hegemonic ambitions. Indeed, the Mediterranean is crying out for more America, not less. It may be that the moment is ripe for America to act to confirm and strengthen its regional leadership, as the actions of China, Russia and regional powers create a set of circumstances which, improperly handled, could see America’s rivals gain an undesirable relative advantage in the region. 

The Mediterranean region is an increasingly important piece on this chessboard and one where the benefits of decades of Pax Americana — the established period of peace enabled via the geopolitical outreach of American leadership during the 20th century notably via programs such as the Marshall Plan — are widely recognized and even cherished.

America’s influence in the Mediterranean is built on NATO. European and Turkish member states cover nearly the entire northern coast. Along with America’s other main Mediterranean ally, Israel, these nations have absorbed into their DNA much of America’s culture, governance and approach to problem-solving. The idiosyncratic markers of national identity remain, but arguably the nations of the region have more in common today than at any stage in the last century.

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While America’s soft power has never been greater, the NATO organization and its command structures have also shaped the region’s politics, and nowhere more so than in Turkey.

Even today, Turkish state policy and its military budgets remain shaped by the 1980 Carter Doctrine that America will project its power to protect its allies in the Mediterranean, the Levant and Western Asia. When America does reach out to the region, it finds itself speaking to willing partners. One such statesman is Turkey’s Defence Minister, former General Hulusi Akar, who has spent his career shaping Turkey’s engagement with NATO and is in a prime position to succeed President Recep Erdogan as Turkey’s next president; capitalizing on Turkey’s positioning as a substantial power in the region.

In these regions, it seems absurd to suggest that American power is in decline. America’s allies — primarily Turkey, Israel, Italy, Spain and France — use American built-and-funded platforms, such as NATO, to cooperate more than ever before.

But amid this enthusiasm in the region, it would be a mistake for the United States to allow any dilution of its influence. China’s purchase of the Greek port of Piraeus creates a Mediterranean endpoint for China’s Belt-and-Road Initiative, a strategic asset for a rising power that requires American containment. Russia, too, is a growing threat. Moscow’s annexation of Crimea restored Russia as the most potent force in the Black Sea, and Syria, which hosts Russia’s Mediterranean fleet in Tartus, is deeply in hock to an expansionist and increasingly confident Kremlin. America must reinvest in NATO’s Western and Southern fronts, even if only to protect its current relative influence in the region compared to these growing powers.

A second major source of change to America’s position in the region comes from Turkey’s grand project, the creation of the Istanbul canal. The canal is due to open in 2028 and will double traffic between the Mediterranean and Black seas. The 1936 Montreux Convention, established during the tenure of Ataturk, which governs merchant and military sea traffic between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, is limited to the natural waterways of the Bosphorus, the Strait of Istanbul, and has successfully maintained the peace since its inception.

Should America and her NATO allies seek for Montreux to be extended to cover the new canal, or should they partner with Turkey to retain limits on Russian military transits whilst funding the infrastructure itself?

Montreux currently enables the status quo of Black Sea States whilst the Istanbul Canal would enable an “update” consistent with the Post Cold War realities of the proximity. Given that the canal is being built by an American ally, it is vital that NATO and Pentagon strategists game their approach to this new source of disequilibrium to strengthen America’s relative advantage and avoid this situation resulting in America’s perceived decline. 

Moscow is also changing the rules of the game concerning Western Europe. Nord Stream 2, Russia’s new gas pipeline across the Baltic seafloor, potentially creates a point of critical weakness in the NATO alliance. With Germany and much of Europe more reliant than ever before on Russian gas, a situation might arise where Europe’s governments have to choose between heating their nations’ homes and the alliance with Washington. Again, it is in the Mediterranean where a potential counterweight lies.

America must grasp the nettle and form a coherent, long-term strategy for the Mediterranean region. Arguably, now is the time for America to place the entire Mediterranean under a single military command: a MEDCOM to replace the dilutive effect of America’s current division of the Mediterranean between three military commands.

An example of a firm statement of intent with regard to long-term U.S. commitment in the region shall be the placement of enhanced nuclear deterrence in the Mediterranean Basin, consistent with the goal of maintaining the “rules-based order” distributed strategically across allied territories.

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An additional ambitious plan could see America lead the creation of a Mediterranean Union to more effectively integrate policy, encourage trade, share resources and strengthen support for the values held in the West from Washington to Ankara. American capital could be deployed to fund the warehouses and rail, road and sea infrastructure needed after the Istanbul canal’s construction. Region-wide coordination on military procurement will solve contentions, such as Turkey’s purchase of Russian S-400s, and provide an attractive market size for American military tech, including Patriot Missile Defence systems and the F-35 program.

Regional cooperation in the Mediterranean is rapidly accelerating. A Mediterranean Union would build on existing structures, pushing at an open door. With so much change in the pipeline, America would be seriously remiss in its duties if it failed to act. The prize for action is a strengthened region, a stronger America and the removal from the geopolitical chessboard of potential prizes for Russia and China thus the catalyst to commence the redux of Pax Americana both in the Mediterranean and across the globe.

Alp Sevimlisoy is the CEO of Asthenius Capital, an emerging-markets focused diversified corporation headquartered in London, and a Millennium Fellow at the Atlantic Council headquartered in Washington, DC. Sevimlisoy is also an internationally published geopolitical strategist on the Mediterranean, focusing on regional unionism and defense policy. He is an advisory board member at Bayes Business School (formerly Cass Business School).

Peter Woodard is a Canadian-British executive with a geopolitical focus on the moving parts within NATO and the potential for an expanded role within the region. He has spent considerable time consulting stakeholders in Mexico on its role in supporting Western initiatives.