The Mediterranean Paradox

By Jean Dufourcq

Even so, one must admit that there are considerable differences in our respective strategic visions of what we, as heirs of Latin culture, too often refer to as mare nostrum —our sea. This is true to the extent that the Mediterranean has become a sort of unmanageable and strategically nebulous geographical sub-group. Thus, what exactly do we mean by Mediterranean?

Discussion is incessant, yet the issue remains unresolved. Some portray the sea as a mere concept; others see it as a geographical entity. Still others consider it a culturally diverse region, parceled out in a number of complex regional sub-systems. One thing is certain: the exact meaning of the term Mediterranean generates controversy. This is hardly surprising—it points out the very differing conceptions regarding the Mediterranean's role and location.

Seen from outside, the Mediterranean represents a number of crucial interests for the United States, which is why the U.S. places such heavy emphasis on the issue. Despite a solid knowledge of world geography, the United States continues to offer a peculiar and somewhat stretched definition of the Mediterranean, expanding its boundaries as far east as the Persian Gulf. Of course, the Mediterranean does offer open access to the Arabian peninsula and its oil fields—and these are the battle stakes.

The Mediterranean Sea constitutes a broad corridor, located midway between the east coast of the United States and Iran, serving as an extended pre-positioning platform to those forces that aim to control the neighboring oil fields and protect Israel. Moreover, the Mediterranean is a vital component of America's defense system south of the European continent and at the fringe of the alliance, allowing control of the gateway to the Black Sea as well as navigation through the Strait of Gibraltar and the Suez Canal. All these factors enhance America's ability to contemplate all the moves of its strategic game pieces, e.g., aircraft carriers—the symbol of U.S. global power—sailing near Haiti, the Straits of Formosa or Malacca, or the Persian Gulf. The Mediterranean area represents an open area, its borders extended well beyond the physical bounds of geography. At the crossroads of such important regional stakes, the Mediterranean constitutes an essential pawn in America's global game plan.

Unlike the United States, Europeans more often perceive the Mediterranean as a North-South issue rather than an East-West one. From an internal perspective, Europeans are as concerned by socioeconomic problems that have a direct effect on Europe as they are by more general politico-strategic issues. Consider the following example: For the French, the word Mediterranean brings to mind such issues as North African Islamic fundamentalism and the need to protect French nationals and investments in the area. Thus, when the French refer to the Mediterranean as their "Western basin," these are the issues that come to mind first.

Spain, on the other hand, views the Mediterranean question primarily as a sovereignty issue. Indeed, Spaniards are concerned with Gibraltar, close economic ties between Morocco and their Moroccan dependencies, and economic relations with Algeria and its natural-gas reserves. For Portugal, the Mediterranean underlies, above all, the fear of being unintentionally kept out of the Euro-Mediterranean economic system because of the country's location fronting the Atlantic. For Italians, the Mediterranean is essentially a question of maintaining Italy's central position with a dynamic focus on Libya and Egypt, not to mention the Dalmatian coast. For Greece, the Mediterranean Sea stirs up the critical issue of Cyprus and of Greece's claims for sovereignty over the islands of the Aegean Sea off Anatolia.

For all these partners of the European Union, the term Mediterranean collectively evokes threats such as immigration and extreme foreign competition. Southern European nations express grave concern over the possibility of letting the Central European drift gain favor over the Euro-Mediterranean system in the eyes of the European Union and some of the Atlantic-oriented bodies.

Often, the United States and Europe are not on the same wave length over Mediterranean issues, which accounts for much of the contention. Yet, one must not systematically seek to confront the American approach with the European one. The visions are in fact complementary and reflect a common interest in ensuring peace in the area. Under U.S. leadership, NATO's duty is to create stability in the region, while the European Union must help sustain regional development and integration. Such an allocation of tasks to NATO and the European Union is mutually beneficial to both organizations as well as to the peoples of the Mediterranean region.

It seems inevitable that, with time, Europeans will take full responsibility for the Mediterranean. Thus, what would be more logical than to have a European admiral as NATO's Southern commander in Naples, serving as the southern regional assistant to the U.S. commander at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe? Indeed, Europeans are striving to create an indigenous naval force to complement the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

In light of the foregoing, is it wise—or acceptable—for the United States to continue to use NATO as a means to protect and ensure its strategic interests in the Mediterranean-none of which is contested by its European allies?

Captain Dufourcq serves on the French Joint Staff in Paris.


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