Commentary

The Mediterranean Powder Keg: US Inaction Leaves NATO Exposed

With the US taking a substantial step back as other countries look to enhance their interests in the Mediterranean, the risk of more deadly confrontations is increasing while NATO is left increasingly exposed.

The Mediterranean is once again a major flashpoint for geopolitical instability. Heavily militarized actors with competing interests operating close to one another make the area a powder keg. Amid the tumult, the US has shifted the bulk of its strategic focus toward Asia, leaving NATO without its chief power and exposed to internal divisions and outside pressure.

Although there are recent signs of re-engagement in the Mediterranean and a more substantial US presence, it is the deficit in US leadership around the region’s key hotspots, rather than in military assets, that leaves NATO in a precarious position.

Just as Washington has embarked on its path of relative disengagement from the Mediterranean, protracted civil and proxy wars along the Mediterranean’s shores in Syria and Libya have paved the way for powers such as Turkey and Russia to more assertively pursue their interests. Meanwhile, conflict, poor governance, and economic hardship have pushed millions to seek refuge and new lives on the Mediterranean’s northern shores.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan (R) and Libyan Prime Minister Fayez al-Sarraj hold a joint press conference at the Presidential Complex in Ankara on June 4, 2020.
Turkish President Erdogan and Libyan Prime Minister Sarraj hold a joint press conference in June 2020. Photo: Adem Altan/AFP

To these challenges, European countries on the more stable side of the sea have responded poorly. In several instances, despite most of them being members of both NATO and the EU, their failure to coordinate a response has only added to the perilousness of the situation.

The current flare-up in tensions between NATO members Turkey and Greece, now with France also throwing its hat in, has been grabbing most of the headlines. But the Mediterranean was heating up long before the Eastern Mediterranean dispute became a serious flashpoint.

The absence of a powerful broker like the US considerably heightens the likelihood of armed confrontation. Washington’s silence as three of its Mediterranean allies are locked in a battle of rhetoric and accusations epitomizes a trajectory of disengagement that became evident nearly a decade ago.

Washington Disengages

The 2011 Libyan crisis showed that Washington’s attempt to take a step back in the Mediterranean was not only measurable in its decreased presence, but also in its unwillingness to continue acting as the paramount diplomatic power in the region.

The crisis was the first major indication of US discomfort with maintaining a dominant role in what America considers Europe’s home turf. At the start of military operations, President Barack Obama had hoped European allies would take the lead in jointly managing the intervention, but his hopes were unfounded.

France and the UK vied for primacy while Italy, then the most important European player in Libya, felt blindsided by both and trusted neither to act independently. Rome demanded NATO leadership if it was to take part in military operations.

A lack of coordination between European powers led to haphazard strategies, poorly defined exit plans, and a general sense of fatigue with the conflict. All the while, Libya slipped further into the mire.

NATO Weakness Amid Increasing Disorder

Nearly a decade into the conflict, Libya is still the theater for a tangle of competing interests as an assortment of external and internal actors clash, causing misery for its citizens. Crucially, the country offers a preview of how NATO impotence in the face of Mediterranean instability may pave the way to intractable conflicts. The war shines a bright light onto just how fragmented regional interests are around the Mediterranean and within NATO itself.

Italy and France both nominally support the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli, but Paris has been accused of secretly backing Benghazi-based warlord Khalifa Haftar.

Turkey, another NATO ally, is now shifting the balance by projecting its own interests on the North African country and offering military support to the GNA, often through Syrian proxies.

Former Libyan General Khalifa Haftar.
Khalifa Haftar, a long-time commander in Libyan armed forces, opposed the authority of UN-recognized government in the oil-rich country. His military campaign is chiefly backed by Russia, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. Photo: AFP

The conflict now sees three of NATO’s most powerful non-US members pitted against one another.

Divisions within NATO are a significant reflection of an increasingly unstable Mediterranean, particularly in light of American disengagement. Libya’s tragedy highlights how the competing interests of the alliance’s members can hamper its response to crises and damage its role as a credible deterrent.

Indeed, a strong NATO, with unified goals and committed allies, could play a role in discouraging aggressive and potentially destabilizing moves by third countries in the Mediterranean, even without relying on Washington for leadership.

However, in its current guise, the fragmented alliance only increases instability and shows that Washington’s leadership is paramount if NATO is to be an effective player in the region.

NATO Disunity, Russia, and China

NATO is also hamstrung by an even deeper rift occurring within the alliance itself, as relations between Turkey and its nominal allies sour. Once again, issues in the Mediterranean have been a major factor.

Previously a staunch ally of the US and an important NATO member, under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan Turkey has reorientated its focus away from the US and other erstwhile partners. The government’s increasing authoritarianism, combined with longstanding issues over Northern Cyprus and Turkey’s stalled ascension to the EU, has complicated its relationship with its Western partners.

Currently, main points of contention surround conflicting claims over recently discovered gas reserves in the Eastern Mediterranean and rival projects for pipelines to pump said gas into Europe.

The Turkish research vessel Oruc Reis operated for subsea geophysical exploration.
The Turkish Oruc Reis was deployed on August 10 to a region believed to be rich in natural gas and contested by both Turkey and Greece. Photo: Ozan Kose/AFP

Unsurprisingly, Russia has also placed a large emphasis on the Mediterranean’s strategic importance. Moscow’s entrance into Syria in 2015 in support of President Bashar al-Assad was at least partially motivated by its desire to protect its warm-water port at Tartus. This has only grown in importance amid tensions in the Black Sea as NATO countries Greece and Turkey retain the ability to block off the choke points of the Bosphorus Strait and the Aegean Sea.

The alliance will need to keep an eye on other areas around the Mediterranean that also carry the prospect of further instability.

In the Balkans, where member nations Albania, Croatia, and Montenegro are located, Russia and, increasingly, China are also vying for influence. France’s November postponement of the ascension of North Macedonia and Albania to the EU – and the angry response from its allies – was another example of clashing European outlooks.

Moving Forward

Since its inception, NATO has considered its eastern front as its most pressing priority. But the Mediterranean is once again the site of geopolitical upheaval. The competing interests of local and international actors, their intersecting strategies, and lack of coordination have left the sea ripe for instability. In this context, NATO faces the difficult task of safeguarding its integrity while navigating the sea’s troubled waters.

The establishment of a southern hub in Naples in 2018 is an acknowledgment of the need to recalibrate. However, the multitude of heavily militarized actors operating on top of one another raises the risk of incidents of miscommunication spiraling into wider confrontations. This prospect should make NATO and its members wary of escalation in the region and its potential consequences on the alliance itself.

NATO can’t hope to contain all instability outside of its borders but it can present a more coordinated response (or at the very least a less confrontational one) to Mediterranean crises amongst its regional members.

As ever, such an outcome hinges on Washington’s willingness to play its part, gently pushing its partners to adopt a united front. Should the upcoming US presidential election bring about a White House more willing to play its traditional role as NATO’s political leader, Washington might just wield enough influence over its allies in the region to prevent the Mediterranean reaching the boiling point.


Headshots of William Grant-Brook and Elio CalcagnoWilliam Grant-Brook (@WillGrantBrook) is a writer and researcher focusing on conflict, international security, and armed groups. He previously worked at International Crisis Group and holds an MSc in Middle East Politics from SOAS.

Elio Calcagno (@eliocalcagno) is a writer focusing on geopolitics and maritime security. He has previously worked for the EU’s External Action Service and the United Nations.


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