How the United States will move in the Mediterranean

How the United States will move in the Mediterranean

The analysis by Ian O. Lesser, vice-president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States (GMF) and executive director of the Brussels office, taken from International Affairs

The Covid-19 crisis and its economic consequences will have important implications for American foreign policy, including in the Mediterranean. Firstly, it will have a huge distraction effect. The United States will not necessarily get rid of Mediterranean problems, but the threshold for expensive interventions and diplomatic efforts will be higher. The governments of the world will not have much excess political capital to spend on international politics. Likewise, many problems cannot be addressed as Washington and others are focused on something else.

Second, the global economic depression will have consequences for American politics. The emerging economies – Turkey and Morocco – and those of southern Europe are particularly exposed. What will be the extension of American support in the event of new requests to the International Monetary Fund and pressures on sovereign debt?

The development of offshore gas resources in the eastern Mediterranean has been central to American politics, both as an element of cooperation and, more recently, as a concern for stability. The collapse in global energy prices will put a stop to expensive offshore energy projects of all kinds for the foreseeable future. Finally, the current crisis has emphasized the tension between the need for coordinated and multilateral approaches – in the area of ​​health, economy and safety – and the widespread instinct to return to national solutions. The American approach of recent years has also helped to stimulate a global retreat from multilateralism, the consequences of which have been distinctly felt in the Mediterranean.

Looking to the future, Washington's policy towards the Mediterranean, north and south will likely be shaped by greater evolving concerns and geopolitical changes. Strategic competition, and risks, with China will be high on the American agenda, regardless of who sits in the White House. There will be specific concerns about Chinese investments in ports and infrastructure, including IT infrastructure in the region, a highly controversial issue in southern Europe, the Western Balkans and perhaps throughout North Africa. In structural terms, engagement in the Mediterranean could be significantly influenced by the long-term shift of American diplomatic and military attention to the Indo-Pacific area.

Recent administrations, and the US establishment in general, have reduced the role of the United States in the European peripheries, where allies are able to act, including the Balkans and the Maghreb. This same impulse motivated the withdrawal of American forces from counter-terrorism missions in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa. It is possible that a democratic administration will look more favorably to continue this commitment as a matter of solidarity with France. But, excluding disruptive events, the trend is clearly towards a progressive shift of attention and resources towards Asia.

Traditionally, the United States has paid considerable attention to stability problems in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean. Washington played a crucial role in the crisis management between Turkey and Greece (for example, in the 1996 Imia / Kardak crisis) and on Cyprus. These issues have not dominated the American agenda in recent years but the focus on tension in the region is growing, especially that of Congress, very critical of Turkey and more conducive to cooperation between Greece, Cyprus, Israel and (perhaps with less enthusiasm) Egypt. Congress recently voted to allow arms transfers to Cyprus. Overall, the United States has a clear interest in avoiding disorder in the eastern Mediterranean and in preserving the still prevalent détente between Athens and Ankara.

Then there are two other critical actors for the strategic environment of the Mediterranean: Iran and Russia. A serious armed conflict between Iran and the United States would bring new demands to the American partners in the Mediterranean, revealing a new source of tension in its already tense relations with Turkey. Even without conflict, the use of sanctions and the "maximum pressure" policy will remain contrary to the approach of Washington's allies. On the contrary, should a new administration revive American participation in the nuclear deal, this would be widely appreciated in the region. Russia will be high on the American foreign policy agenda. A democratic administration would probably be even tougher on this front. This could push the United States to look more closely at Russia's role in Libya, elsewhere in North Africa and, of course, in Syria. There is little prospect that an American administration will choose to engage more directly in Syria, but the Democrats may be more oriented to participate in possible operations led by the European Union, Syria and / or Libya.

In this context, the presidential election on November 3, the course of the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic ramifications pose enormous questions about the future of the American presence in the area. Concerns about American disengagement have proven exaggerated to date. Looking ahead, however, American policy will be divided between the focus on crises and alliances and the immense distraction caused by global health, economy and safety concerns.

This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Start Magazine at the URL on Sun, 12 Jul 2020 05:19:40 +0000.