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Mediterranean geopolitics: when central gets peripheral

In the contemporary global context, the Mediterranean is no longer at the heart of major strategic stakes, despite significant events in the 20th century (such as the Suez Crisis in 1956). Nonetheless, it remains a tense space. Sketching a geopolitics of the Mediterranean is therefore not without relevance. To undertake this task, we need to reverse the classical approach and instead of considering the Mediterranean as a center, we must examine its peripheral character. The geopolitics of the Mediterranean can therefore appear as one of the typical spaces of an era where, in order to understand the world, one must look at marginal spaces.

September 2017
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Executive Summary

Three distortions interfere with the analysis of Mediterranean geopolitics.

Historical distortion : history is often written from a one-sided perspective. The history of some is not that of others. Hence, the history of Carthage is written by the Romans; that of the “Berbers” is named by the Greeks (“barbaros” meaning non-Greek-speaking) and written by the Arabs then the Ottomans; that of colonization is written by Europeans... However, these worlds, and the writing of them, have changed. The illusion of a continuity of phenomena can lead to a univocal or erroneous reading of contemporary issues. In the Mediterranean, the historical injunction is almost systematic, yet we should not always base our explanations of current issues on very old phenomena.

Geographical distortion : one Mediterranean, or several? A geographical illusion, that of the maritime continuity of several “seas,” constitutes the Mediterranean as a whole. However, there is not one Mediterranean, but differentiated “maritime spaces,” starting with three large basins: the Black Sea, the eastern basin and the western basin, which have very different geographies and histories. These basins are formed by seas, each with their own specific relations (for example, the Aegean Sea, between Greece and Turkey). There is not one Mediterranean, but several, and any oversimplification of this space may lead to misinterpretations.

Semantic distortion : Mediterranean, “middle sea” or “in the middle of land”? In his 1949 thesis (revised in 1966), historian Fernand Braudel presented a theory of unity of spaces and time around this sea. He took up the Roman name (mediterraneus : “in the middle of land”) and made it a central space (middle sea). However, the idea of ​​the Mediterranean as an inner lake, a central landmark, is but one of the many forms and names of this complex space. For the Egyptians, the Mediterranean is called the “big green,” or the “great sea,” and it is more a boundary than a center. The Mediterranean was called the “Western Sea” by the Greeks and the Hebrews, but the “White Sea” by the Arabs and then the Turks (because of the cardinal colors, the white represents the West). Depending on its name, it is an interior space, a binding space, a limit or a separation zone, a boundary, a myth or hardly anything at all. This means that we cannot use the Roman name or the Braudelian thesis as a unique paradigm to interrogate this space, even though its name constantly invites us to do so. Rather, we must think of it as a boundary, a periphery and a horizon.

Its peripheral location is not without geopolitical challenges: quite the contrary. In a peripheral space, the major issues at play in the contemporary world are tied together: management of marginality and asymmetries, re-delimitation and the melting pot phenomenon, i.e. integrations and identities.

A strategic space?

At the crossroads of three continents, the Mediterranean is a space where important strategic issues have long caused tensions: the confrontation between Arabs and Europeans, the rivalry between powers, colonization, control over the straits and the Suez Canal. Today, it is still a space of confrontation between great powers, as illustrated by the Syrian issue: distant powers (the United States, Russia) continue to invest there, as well as newcomers such as China. But do these powers still regard it as a prominent strategic space?

To answer this question, we must reposition the Mediterranean within the current global context. From a trade perspective, it is certainly no longer a center of the world: it lost this rank as early as the fifteenth century, with the discovery of the New World. The Atlantic has taken the place of the Mediterranean in the modern era and today, this role is played by the Pacific area, which brings the Americans and the Chinese face to face.

In geostrategic terms, the characteristics of the Mediterranean today would define it as a peripheral space – and a complex one at that.

First, it can be seen as a mere theater of operations, in a context where, today as during the Cold War era, great powers will never collide head-on, nor on their own territory. However, this space is also a neuralgic point, affected by local tensions whose impact can either reach a global level, especially in the form of terrorism, or remain concentrated around geopolitical “hot spots” such as Israel. Finally, in the South and East in particular, it is a space for ideological projection, where the reality is overwhelmed by local or external fantasies seeking to reshape it: pan-Arabism in the past, competition for development models, the “clash of civilizations,” exportation of democracy in 2003, Arab revolutions, Islamism...

Hence, the multiplicity of issues and representations contributes to the Mediterranean’s status as a space apart: a route of passage between East and West, characterized by major economic, social and political fragmentation which fuels crises, regional destabilization and transnational threats (via an interpenetration of mafia traffics such as drugs, money, illicit arms trading and terrorism).

World-class powers operate in the region through “client” states, which they support politically and militarily. The Franco-British intervention in Libya in 2011, for example, was a powerful destabilizing factor. But the Syrian crisis, because of its confounding nature, illustrates a return to normal: the Russians firmly hold the traditional line (unwavering support to a client), the Americans refuse to engage further in confrontation and the Europeans (the French and British, in the first place) are unable to play any leading role.

The overall American and Russian military presence in the Mediterranean should also not be overestimated. If mobilized, the 6th US fleet accounts for 40 ships and 21,000 men, but its cost and usefulness have been called into question since George W. Bush. Obama’s shift towards Asia and Trump’s isolationism go further in the same direction. In fact, the 6th fleet has only one active ship, the command ship Mt Whitney... The case of the Russians is even more interesting. They can only access the Mediterranean via the Black Sea, which is a small “pond” on the scale of their territory. It offers no strategic interest, because the access to the Mediterranean is controlled by the Turks, who, even if they have recently approached Russia, remain members of NATO. In any case, the Russian Black Sea fleet is relatively outdated. Russia is experiencing a major economic crisis, which weakens it considerably: the desire to regain a prominent position on the strategic level resulted in the search for low-cost “hot spots” to compensate for their weakness through over-representation on the global geopolitical stage against the Europeans, the Chinese and the Americans. The Crimean crisis offers a striking illustration of this: Russia instrumentalizes the alleged strategic role of its fleet in the Black Sea (and the port of Sevastopol) to seize the Crimea. Here, the Crimea has no strategic role because it is too “peripheral,” but it plays a major political role, both inside (all Russians are united behind their conquering president) and outside (to launch a long-term destabilization of Ukraine in order to thwart European influence). We are at the heart of the geopolitics of peripherality in this case. Similarly, the use of the Russian fleet to assist the Syrian government in an area that the Americans consider minor makes it possible for Moscow, at little cost, to display power and place itself at the center of the international diplomatic game. Here, the volatile peripheral space plays the role of a geopolitical pretext.

The Chinese have understood this. For them, the Mediterranean is an “ultra-peripheral” space and yet, in May 2015, they participated in joint military maneuvers with the Russians in the Mediterranean. In a space far away from the country’s most vital stakes, this low-cost idea (only a few Chinese officers) seeks to limit American power (but also Russian influence, despite the communications on the Moscow-Beijing axis) while sending out a message to African countries – the real economic deal, for the Chinese. They use this “soft or moving” space to implement a containment strategy upon both the American power and the European power.

Finally, for some regional powers, this peripheral area is considered a space for expansion, more or less independently from the great world powers: Saudi Arabia or Turkey for example, but also Iran and, in recent years, Morocco, which has taken advantage of its political stability to launch an ambitious parallel African policy and a strategy of industrial (automotive) and commercial (agriculture, textile) partnership with Europe.

A marginal space?

Europe, on the other hand, has a complicated relationship with this space which is shared by its most fragile members (Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal), bringing political problems (refugees) that they are unable to face as one and which are subject to poor neighborhood policies.

To understand the geopolitical function of the Mediterranean for Europeans, we must retain the concept of a peripheral space and explore it in all its aspects. For them, the Mediterranean periphery is mainly a limit, which can be described as a “margin” or take the form of a “march  (a medieval concept describing a buffet zone between two realms),” that is to say, of an interface. Its functions are therefore crucial.

To address the question of political instability, concerning the Islamist tensions that run throughout the Mediterranean and have as much impact in the East (Syria, Arabia, Lebanon, Turkey) as in the West (Morocco), South (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria) and North (terrorist attacks in Europe), it is important to understand that the Mediterranean is a marginal, or even marginalized, space.

This is true within the European Union, with differences in development between Greece and northern Europe, but also differences in economic dynamism between Italy and France and their northern neighbors. This is also true in the European margins of the EU, where the Balkan countries are still politically and economically fragile. Mediterranean Europe is not doing very well. However, the phenomenon is even clearer between the two shores of the Mediterranean: we are faced with societies where a large part of the population cannot access the benefits of globalization. Access to essentials like water, education, labor and health is still not ensured for a large part of the population in countries bordering the Mediterranean, and in some of these, this inadequate development goes hand-in-hand with authoritarian, and even dictatorial, political practices. This vacuum of social assistance is filled by Islamist movements (the Muslim Brotherhood or Hezbollah), who use the population for their own anti-world, anti-American, anti-European propaganda. Attempts to democratize these unequal societies (conducted from the outside, as in Libya, or slightly initiated, as in the “Arab Revolutions”) collide against a social question that is difficult to resolve because it has been drowned in a religious question that itself conveys complex identity and historical issues.

Hence, this European margin, like any other margin, is very unstable: every time a tremor occurs, it shakes the entire system. However, the rise of radical Islam has not fundamentally changed the diplomatic relations between southern and northern shores: it has put a little more emphasis on the needs for development and cooperation, but also reinforced the temptations of strategic retreat.

In this context, the project for a Union for the Mediterranean was one of the few attempts to shift position lines. Founded on 13 July 2008, the UfM was intended to reinforce the achievements of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (Euromed) established in 1995 under the name of the Barcelona Process. The project looked promising: 43 countries, some forty interministerial meetings and international projects (from women’s employment to digital technology), 1.5 billion euros worth of projects planned since 2008... and only a few million euros spent. It was a resounding failure. The political and legal principles were laid down, the institutions exist, but we are far from a political union. Nevertheless, the UfM would be a valuable tool for addressing development and security issues, which go hand in hand.

This poses the question of geopolitical limits: the Union for the Mediterranean could be considered an extension of the European Union – its boundaries, principles, operations and security – on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Is this possible? Certainly not in the form of political integration: Morocco asked to join the European Union in 1984. Its application was refused in 1987, the year of the first Turkish application. A strengthening of ties, however, is possible and can occur in the practices of companies (trade, subcontracting, investments), but remains hard to formulate.

A mediation space

Have we emerged from the post-colonial period? There are great inconsistencies in the European position regarding the Mediterranean, often blurred by an ambivalent historical reading. Thus, the Mediterranean is seen as a symbolic (history), administrative (with the French, Spanish, Italian and Greek Mediterranean archipelagos) or strategic (Gibraltar, Spanish enclaves in Morocco, partnerships and alliances with former colonies) European space. The countries which emerged from decolonization are torn by their own inconsistencies, between the reaffirmation of sovereignty and the maintenance of cooperation ties that are not devoid of a neocolonial dimension. Beyond governments, populations on both sides remain marked by a living history. Colonization has created paradoxical links of love/hate and passion/rejection between different Mediterranean territories. This brings us to the last variation on the concept of the peripheral space: that of interface.

Colonization was based on a system involving multiple asymmetries: military, technological, economic, demographic, and of course legal. Since decolonization, most of these asymmetries have stayed in place, and with them, the symbols or representations of the colonial period remain very much alive. However, some elements have changed concerning economic relations. Even if these remain very asymmetrical, European countries have understood that the economic development and autonomous political maturation of the Mediterranean countries is absolutely necessary for the entire region. The Mediterranean, on both shores, is an immense market to be developed and a production zone that can be fruitfully associated with the powerful industrial center of the northern coast.

The second asymmetry that has been reabsorbed – even reversed – is the demographic asymmetry, with a growing, young population on the southern shore contrasting the Malthusian, aging countries in the North. The now sensitive issue of migration needs to be dealt with, in order to organize a form of economic and demographic integration of the region.

The world space could be transformed by its peripheries rather than by its centers.

Some sectors, such as the fruit and wine-growing sectors of southern France or Spain, have long relied heavily on workers from the southern Mediterranean, but they offer very precarious working and employment conditions. Today, the issue is the growing competence of the population of the South, both for local development and for fueling skilled immigration flows that differ greatly from those of the 1960s. Tomorrow, doctors, nurses and programmers, but also managers and engineers in Northern Europe, could increasingly come from the Mediterranean region.

The ball is now in both courts. This makes the Mediterranean an original space for mediation and intermixing, and a possible development model. This is the principle of an interface or a march (political and military frontier space). This peripheral space can develop innovative alternative societies, new forms of Islam, a new co-development with skilled and inexpensive top executives, and with, of course, as a corollary, a balanced cooperation. Yet this balance remains fragile: it is built on asymmetries that are meant to evolve, and on dynamics of integration which, although globally positive, can nonetheless generate tensions and create losers.

In this respect, the Mediterranean is one of the major challenges of an era in which we need to look towards marginal spaces to better understand the world. The world space could be transformed by its peripheries rather than by its centers, with a questioning of its centers by the peripheral instability as a corollary, and with the withdrawal and maintenance of existing systems as a tempting solution. However, there is an alternative: that of an organized march as an original interface opening towards a redefinition of the European perimeter. If all the countries bordering the Mediterranean were to regroup, this would of course create new peripheries: the Sahara, the Arabian peninsula ... But in classical Arab geography, this was already very well understood. The great Arab geographers considered the Mediterranean the same way they considered the “Sahel” regarding the desert: a shore of land and seas, an interface and limit by definition. And the horizon that makes one dream of the future.

Cédrick Allmang
Professor of Geography, Saint-Louis College, Paris